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THIRTY years after the end of the cold war, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight – closer than ever before.
As the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Kate Hudson notes, the decision to move the minute hand twenty seconds closer to midnight was actually taken before US President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Yet the killing – followed up by Trump’s disgusting threat to annihilate sites “important to Iranian culture” – meant that 2020 did begin with the spectre of catastrophic war on the horizon.
The Bulletin doesn’t name names, but notes that “national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties.” There is one “national leader” who stands out in this field and it is Trump – Trump who singlehandedly wrecked the Iran agreement by unilaterally withdrawing from it, though other signatories (including Britain) agreed that Iran had kept to its terms. Trump who scotched the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, the signing of which toward the end of the cold war prompted the removal of thousands of nuclear warheads from European soil.
The fall of the Soviet Union itself a few years afterwards seems like ancient history to much of today’s left. But the roots of today’s crisis stretch back to what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history” and the supposed global triumph of liberal capitalism.
Despite the promises, there was no “peace dividend” from the end of the cold war. Its immediate fallout involved outbreaks of bloody nationalist conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus. By the end of the decade Nato was bombing Belgrade “back to the stone age.”
In breach of agreements with Moscow, the US-led military alliance was expanded up to Russia’s borders. Then 2001’s invasion of Afghanistan – starting a war still raging to this day – was the first of a series of reckless military adventures that have reduced much of the Middle East to a permanent warzone.
These wars, like the US's global “extraordinary rendition” programme of kidnap and torture and the more recent normalisation of extrajudicial killing by drone, are driven by the exceptionalism of the cold war’s victors, the complacent belief of the United States and its allies that rules they apply to others need not apply to them.
International law is regarded as an antiquated embarrassment. Overwhelming UN rejection of the US blockade on Cuba or Israel’s occupation of Palestine are dismissed as evidence of the body’s bias.
The United Nations is far from a perfect or even a democratic body (in fact, with three Nato members among the five permanent members of the security council, it is geared rather to promote US international dominance than undermine it). But as we mark 75 years since the defeat of nazi Germany – the history of which is itself now being rewritten – it is important to remember the reason the UN was set up.
That was to prevent what the Nuremberg Trials called “the supreme international crime,” starting a war of aggression, and to provide a forum for countries to resolve disagreement through dialogue without resorting to force.
What the Bulletin terms “the international political infrastructure for managing” worldwide threats was a product of the truly internationalist and democratic war to defeat fascism. It has been dismantled because it no longer suits the United States to acknowledge any constraints on its actions, which have become increasingly lawless.
But actions have consequences. Perhaps not for Trump personally, or for Boris Johnson or the scores of MPs who can be relied on to cheerlead whatever conflict is in the offing. But the peoples of Britain, Europe and the world are put at risk when treaties are torn up without a thought and our governments arrogate the right to kill where they please.
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