Sissela Bok, a professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, goes out of her way in these pages to make hers a practical strategy, acknowledging key arguments likely to be raised by cynics, pragmatists and hawks and steering clear of fuzzy-headed liberalism, from old calls for unilateral disarmament to New Age heralds of world unity under Gaia. “Nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented,” Bok writes. “The reasons for mutual fear and distrust are real enough and powerful enough to keep nations from reducing the threat decisively, let alone wiping it out entirely.”
Pacifists are likely to criticize this initial argument for being circular--the surfeit of weapons makes it too dangerous to eliminate weapons--but Bok is by no means justifying proliferation. She argues, rather, that before we can begin to eliminate arms, we must find ways of diminishing dangerous forms of distrust between nations. We can begin, she suggests, by distinguishing more carefully between “rational distrust"--a healthy attitude leading to mutually beneficial agreements, such as those for on-site inspection--and “irrational distrust,” a pathological form of behavior that only “intensifies distrust on the part of one’s adversary.” “It will be necessary,” Bok writes, “to reexamine . . . the world-spanning smog of disinformation, the surreptitious and overt moves to cheat on international treaties, human rights violations, the support of regional wars, and the encouragement of terrorism.”
Bok’s strategy is often less than practical, castigating ignoble behavior rather than examining the social, political and economic tensions that encourage it. She reaffirms lofty principles, such as the Golden Rule, while criticizing “primitive societies” for “wounding and killing outsiders” out of “indifference” and “pride.” But she doesn’t suggest how we can reduce the sense of cultural instability many nations feel when they are exposed to the relativism of an increasingly interdependent world. Nor does she explore practical ways to reduce the threat perceived by Third World nations, who see themselves in an economic free-fall behind the First World.
“A Strategy for Peace” is successful, however, as a warning about the dangerous “inertia” of despair and complacency. While pragmatic, it is far from an apologia for current nuclear strategy. By pointing out the wildly irresponsible thinking of John F. Kennedy’s advisers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, Bok makes it clear that government leaders alone cannot be trusted to ensure nuclear peace. If any one of six of these advisers had been President during the crisis, Robert Kennedy told an interviewer, “I think the world would have blown up.”