The fond foolishness—or was it?—of the Israeli graphic designer’s recent Youtube video declaring his love for the Iranian people and his pledge not to bomb Iran brought back the almost forgotten Christmas moment in the trenches of World War I, when soldiers on both the French and German sides put down their weapons and sang “Silent Night” together. Peace threatened to break out all up and down the lines until those pitiless realists on both sides, the generals, forced their minions to restart the interminable slaughter.
The Israeli’s video also brought back the memory of a powerful event thousands of us attended in 1984. To celebrate the achievements of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, my organization, Beyond War, had set up a live televised satellite “spacebridge” between Moscow and San Francisco. Large audiences in both places listened to the pleas of the two leaders of the IPPNW, Leonid Brezhnev’s personal physician Evgeny Chazov, and the distinguished Boston cardiologist Bernard Lown, for reconciliation between the Soviet and American nations. Chazov played a recording of a healthily pulsating heart to underscore the reality that human hearts beat identically everywhere. The Moscow Boy’s Choir and the San Francisco Boy’s Choir sang—together.
But the most extraordinary moment was unscripted. It came at the very end of the ceremony when the production credits were already rolling on giant screens in the two venues. Tentatively at first, people in the audience in Moscow began waving to people in the audience in San Francisco. Soon all of us at both ends of the “spacebridge” were standing and enthusiastically waving to each other.
Many on both sides began to weep at that moment, as if an emotional dam had burst. Was this merely a kind of delusion, a facile collectivist sentimentality? Not in the context of the 1980s, when, 20 years after the near-apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe and the U.S.S.R. had shortened to a few minutes the reaction-time military decision makers were permitted before they had to make a decision to retaliate. Looking back from this new century, it seems a kind of miracle that we made it through 50 years of cold war unscathed.
The understanding that thousands of peace activists, diplomats and leaders of non-aligned nations had worked to seed into the global culture, that we will survive together or die together on this planet, had borne fruit in a moment of human contact that leapfrogged over the pessimistic realism of the foreign policy establishment. One of these pessimists wrote a scathing analysis of the spacebridge in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that Beyond War had been duped by the Soviet government in a propaganda coup. But it was only a few years later that the optimistic realism of the spacebridge prevailed, the first nuclear disarmament treaty was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
International relations today continue to run along a narrow track of competitive gloom: the “realistic” assumption, since it cannot be known for certain, of the adversary’s malign motivation. A prominent University of Chicago intellectual, Professor John Mearsheimer, a believer in “offensive realism,” warns us that just as the U.S. enjoys hegemonic control of the Western Hemisphere, the Chinese surely wish to achieve a similar hegemony in their sphere, and will need to be checked by U.S. power.
Leaving aside our questionable right to limit in another hemisphere the degree of domination we reserve for our own, what the distinguished professor’s probing analysis leaves out makes his “realism” offensive in the other sense. If the great powers continue to compete on the worst-case analysis of the unknowability of each other’s intentions, they will have completely ignored the largest, and perfectly knowable, threats to their mutual security: the possibility of sudden catastrophe by a nuclear war that no nation can possibly win, or gradual catastrophe by environmental degradation.
Neither of these challenges require more submarines and aircraft carriers checking power with power, but rather a spirit of cooperation based in common survival goals—the very spirit we saw when Soviets and Americans spontaneously waved to each other and wiped out the distance between them—the same spirit demonstrated by a lone Israeli citizen, now joined apparently by thousands of others, shouting “enough!” to the folly of mutual nuclear paranoia between Iran and Israel.