The question ‘can philosophers make a difference in the world?’ is overbearing in its demand for a simple or common empirical explanation. In truth, the question should be rephrased as whether ‘thoughts’ can make a difference and as anyone could tell you, they surely do to an unquantifiable extent, particularly when actions are determined by these thoughts. One such zeitgeist in social philosophy was personified through Bertrand Russell in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, who led marches with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to Trafalgar Square and personally sent telegrams to President John F. Kennedy and senior Soviet Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev, warning them of the potential domino effect a full scale confrontation between Cuba and the USA would have worldwide. The ‘anti-nuclear war’ stance was finally accepted as the best condition by the parties concerned after a two week standoff, achieving victory for Lord Russell’s political premise and ending the first serious nuclear incident since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A generation on and fifty years of globalization later, we are faced with a new global predicament. The advancement of technology has rendered the rarefied cable communication via telegram redundant, making the Russell’s of the world significantly quieter in an electronic media frenzy of Twitter, instant messaging and information uploading. But these transformations have also undoubtedly helped increase the rate of production and trade, including in the energy, arms and weapons department. Long term, nations will have to work together for the slightly daunting prospect of combating climate change (regardless of its source), but in the short term we must work on the nuclear question which has almost come full circle, with the increasing threats of war between the US and Iran and Israel and Iran. The idea that the dark armies of theocracy are constructing such a monstrous threat whilst we are asleep almost permeates our deep soul, if we can profess to have such a thing, and it’s hard to not feel lost in a wave of helplessness or passivity.
What can be done? It seems we need more signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – something which removes us (The West) from the objective standpoint some like to take who accuse the entire world of being a sort of moral level playing field – and perhaps a louder throat-clearing from the United Nations. But then we come down to that old conundrum: can we fight aggression with aggression? Putting this aside for one moment, it seems there are some things which can be achieved to help prevent or slow down the possibility of a large scale disaster. Australia, who have one of the world’s largest natural sources of uranium (according to John Pilger a couple of weeks ago), a crucial ingredient in the development of nuclear weapons, has just done a trade deal with India (perhaps to help boost their economy which suffered a great setback in the midst of a power crisis last year) to sell them Uranium, clearly ignoring the fact that they are non-signatories of the NPT. Neither is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a country already harbouring large Taliban groups; the mind boggles at what Australia is playing at, or with as this case may be.
If Pakistan becomes aggressively involved with India, it seems likely that Iran and Lebanon could follow suit and trigger a nuclear arms race which would make Cuba seem like a measly thumb war, compared to the full scale arm wrestle of international nuclear conflict. The potential collision between the messianic and apocalyptic religiosity of these Islamic states and the nuclear fissions is probably the most alarming aspect and something which separates our times from the last. The Red Army had a communist agenda which was defeated in part, in Asia and the Middle-East by the forces later to become Islamic republics; I remember reading somewhere that Osama Bin Laden claimed that the hard part of their struggle was ‘defeating the red army’ and that conquering the USA would be something akin to a walk in the park. The conflict between Western Democracy and Islamist dictatorship is an ideological one fuelled by religious convictions which are universally known to be deadly strong. This is not just about the political defeat of capitalism but the implication of the caliphate and they are almost complete with nuclear threat on their side.
Literary tradition has long had it that there is some connection with writing and the nuclear issue. The first to write perhaps influentially on the subject was, predictably George Orwell who penned You and the atom bomb in 1945, and who spoke of ‘how likely we all are to be blown to pieces by it within the next five years’. Perhaps the Russell’s and Orwell’s and other humanists need to speak up in the modern age to address the issue which will affect us all in the coming years. With Barack Obama as president for the next four years (to address my last piece!), the issue should hopefully be played out gently on the world stage, but the actions and reactions of the White House seem never far from escalating. We’re all keeping cool for the time being, and this is the best we can hope for to live day by day.