Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 42, December 1999
Held Hostage By 'Experts'Welcome to the year 2000. Fortunately the millennium bug bit far less than had been predicted, though whether that was due to all the expensive preventive work or because the dangers had been over exaggerated may never be known. Countries that spent less do not seem to have fared significantly worse than those who gave the IT experts billions, but most of us probably felt a bit vulnerable as the numbers rolled over.
Deep down, we had believed the experts who said that something terrible would go wrong unless we paid them to keep us safe. Whether we feared nuclear plants failing to cool themselves or the loss of our own precious laptops, we had been warned of Trouble if we were not prepared. And not being computer experts, we were not sure how prepared we needed to be, making us ever more dependent on those who had informed us of the dangers.
It was the computer experts who gave us the millennium bug, and it was they who offered to save us from it. A bit like nuclear weapons and deterrence. During the Cold War, whenever we questioned the vast sums of money going into nuclear weapons, we were told that they kept the peace. After the horrors of two world wars, who would want to risk that again? It was heresy to suggest that other political factors might have worked just as effectively without the British Bomb. Or even without the American and Soviet bombs.
Back to Y2K. To my dismay, I was told that the hardware on my laptop would not survive. The software could be adjusted, but the manufacturers claimed they could not make the three-year-old laptop - my portable office and memory-bank -compliant. At first I panicked and wanted to rush out and buy the latest model and transfer all my data immediately. But I stopped, partly because of a lack of ready time and cash, but mostly because I was indignant that a computer bought in 1996 was not designed to cope with 2000. I decided to test it out. I took sensible precautions, such as saving my files on a Y2K-compliant computer, and I warned colleagues that I might have email problems. Then I went down to the Thames to enjoy the fireworks.
Next day, when I switched on for the new century, there was no problem. A minor adjustment was needed to tell the computer it was not January 4
1980, but since I managed that on my own, it couldn't have been very difficult. Likewise, even the ten-year-old video escaped without problems. So much, then, for the experts and their threat assessments. But they laughed all the way to the bank.
There is a salutary lesson here. Why do so many in the nuclear states and new proliferators believe the military experts' mantras when it comes to nuclear weapons? Who told the United States Senate that the test ban treaty could not be adequately verified, and so would compromise US security? Who is pushing ballistic missile defence as the best answer to biological, chemical or nuclear terrorist threats? Why are they listened to more than those who argue for cooperative approaches to defence and security, backed up with international agreements? Who would stand to gain from starting a new nuclear arms race? Just follow the money.
How many of the wars during and since the end of the Cold War have been prevented by nuclear weapons? The declaration of nuclear capabilities by India and Pakistan mattered little when soon after their nuclear tests they engaged in as bloody a border battle as any in the previous 40 years. Of course, now we can heave a sigh of relief when a battle stops short of nuclear exchange. It doesn't stop the fight, but nuclear deterrence might stop a nuclear war. Maybe. After he retired, another expert, the former US commander of the strategic nuclear forces in Europe, General Lee Butler, admitted that "Deterrence is a dialogue between the blind and the deaf born of an irreconcilable contradiction". Peace campaigners had been saying that for years, but what did they know?
Eliminating and prohibiting nuclear weapons altogether would be the surest way of preventing nuclear war. But the nuclear governments still prefer the illusory totemic powers they ascribe to the gods of plutonium and uranium. So the resources and research keep being handed over to those with a vested interest in building and keeping the shrines. And the real sources and causes of conflict continue to be ignored or under-funded. What will the 21st century do about the deeper threats to security, from environmental degradation and homeland destruction, and from testosterone and warped nationalism, oftimes fuelled by poverty and unemployment?
© 2000 The Acronym Institute.