To greet a few handshakes and smiles as harbingers of a detente may be to indulge in wishful thinking,but wishful thinking — also called “hope” — may be an ingredient of effective action. Effective action depends on avoiding two kinds of danger: succumbing to despair when things go bad and indulging in complacence when things seem to get better.
The Reagan administration in the U.S. has made things look very bad indeed. Sabre rattling has exceeded in intensity all the noises heard since the start of the Cold War. While deterrence remained the chief argument-stopper in all discussions of the arms race, the proponents of winnable nuclear war unmasked their batteries and went over to the offensive.
Deeds may speak louder than words; but as inputs to social reality words are deeds. Every one is to a certain extent a prisoner of one’s own rhetoric, politicians especially. Of course, politicians are also adept in making about-faces but it takes effort. What is being said becomes part of social reality, in particular of the political climate, one of the determinants of the amount of trust or distrust and of the degree of cognizance of reality or of paranoia in the relations between the superpowers.
Those that argue that trust must be established between the superpowers before any serious steps toward disarmament are undertaken are half right. Those that argue that the paranoid attitudes of the superpowers’ leaders are induced by fears generated by the arms race are also half right. The truth is not “somewhere in between”. The truth encompasses both positions, as is so often the case when cause and effect are interchangeable.
The intensification of the cold war had already started during Carter’s administration. The momentum carried over into Reagan’s and made it that much easier to shift the drive toward war into high gear (the “High Frontier”). The substrate was already there, namely the rhetoric of hatred and threat and the self-righteousness of crusade. Of course rhetoric alone was not enough to keep up the impetus. That was provided by visions of new opportunities to spike the arms race with “high tech”. And this is what has attracted ever more competent scientists and technicians and imaginative war planners to the mammoth preparations for the final holocaust. Coupled with the rhetoric of war planning,the provision of vast resources for war planning produced the politically lethal climate of these Reagan years for the whole world.
To the credit of the peace movement, it did not succumb to despair. There was a crescendo not only of protest, but also of substantive debate. The Star Wars issue, especially, provided a welcome opportunity to carry the debate to the camp of the war community when scientists and even strategists joined the “peace mongers” in building resistance to the drive to war.
Of course it was too much to expect that Star Wars would be dramatically scrapped. Politicians are prisoners of their rhetoric. But it is just barely possible that the stout resistance mobilized against the drive to perdition played a part in defusing the rhetoric.
Thus, the better-than-expected outcome of the Summit heralds hope. It will be somewhat more difficult for the US or the USSR to proceed openly with plans for a first-strike knock-out blow after a publicly stated agreement that a nuclear war is unwinnable. In effect, both leaders started to speak in the language of the peace movement. In the context of international politics, words are acts.
People now must avoid the danger of complacency (to which they succumbed after the last Summit). Both failures and successes, whether real or not, should be occasions for intensifying effort.