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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 49, August 2000

False Pride, Pointless Exercises

"Kent: 'Is this the promised end?'

Edgar: 'Or image of that horror?'"

Shakespeare, King Lear

The appalling fate of the crew of the Kursk has horrified the world and shaken Russia perhaps as much as any single event since the end of the Soviet era. At the time of writing, the flooded submarine with its two nuclear reactors remains on the seabed, the bodies of 118 men inside. Why did they die, and what questions does their death raise, for Russia and all of us?

The question is not posed in the technical sense of the cause of the disaster: was there a collision or an explosion, did the crew die instantly or continue making contact with the outside world, were the reactors shut down, why did the Russians try to use rescue vehicles they knew could not go deep enough, could the British rescue submarine have saved the crew if immediately summoned, etc. These matters appear fundamental, but are not. What demands an explanation is why, not how, this horror unfolded. What justification is there for Russia, or any state, to engage in such massive, 'realistic' naval exercises? How many similar war games go ahead every year in difficult and dangerous conditions, and at what environmental and financial cost? Who decides, and on the basis of what criteria, that such exercises should proceed? Should not all such exercises now be cancelled, and a global war games moratorium be declared?

Such questions, of course, only prompt larger ones. Some important Cold War practices have almost been brought to an end, most notably nuclear testing. But thousands of nuclear weapons remain deployed on a state of high alert, despite voluminous evidence of the dangers and innumerable appeals from respected experts to urgently end the madness. It doesn't seem to matter how often or eloquently such calls are made to the mighty ships of state - no contact seems possible with those onboard.

Contemporary military business-as-usual indeed bears a striking resemblance to the grotesque normalities of the Cold War. The Kursk was a state-of-the-art vessel, a jewel in the rusty Russian crown. Is Russia now less secure because the submarine has been destroyed? Did Russia become more secure the day it entered service? Was the precious money it cost to build and run well spent? Is America's defence spending of around $300 billion a year - a scandalous underinvestment, according to the Republicans - really necessary to the wellbeing of its people, or just those employed in what remains essentially a war economy?

The vested political and economic interests of the Cold War have not been seriously challenged in the long, wasted, peace-dividend-free years since the revolutions of 1989. Neither have the vested psychological interests, the false assumptions and needs that underlie so much national pride and misplaced military purpose. America and Russia are, above all, 'great powers', and proving their 'greatness', to others and themselves, is a constant and solemn obligation. How to fulfil it without the capacity to kill vast numbers of people in defence and assertion of your greatness? Ask India - in May 1998, it proved to the world it had what it took to join the elite. Ask Britain and France - they know what it takes to stay in the elite, even when historical greatness is past. Ask and ask, but don't expect a reply.

As long as the psychological, political and economic strangleholds of militarism remain in place, the post-Cold War international system will not evolve into a genuinely new world order. In fact, militaristic dynamics are currently pushing the world back into another Cold War. The sword of NATO expansion, the shield of magical missile defences, the selective military appropriation of the humanitarian agenda, leading to war in Kosovo while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis die from the effects of sanctions; all these acts of Western, and principally US, 'greatness' are producing a fearful and negative counterreaction in Russia, a distorted environment where the brutal repression in Chechnya is perceived as restoring pride and hope, and where even a tragedy like the loss of the Kursk is likely to be used to further the nationalistic and militaristic agenda - an agenda, in the modern world, of horror and destruction on a truly 'great' scale.

President Putin has said he feels guilt and responsibility for the fate of the Kursk. However sincere, and even warranted, this admission may be, the deeper blame lies with the culture and structures of war and power still holding the world in their grasp. To personalise the issue is itself irresponsible, a way of continuing to block out the voices calling for radical change.


© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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