Few people remember them today, but there were significant global leadership initiatives in the 1980s against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The dawn of the nuclear era had coincided with the beginning of the Cold War. People in the United States and their leaders viewed the world through the lens of East-West cold war superpower tensions, reinforced by the rigid dualistic convictions of officials like John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959. A quarter century further into the cold war era, nearly 200 less powerful nations came to realize that a superpower nuclear exchange was potentially just as life threatening to them as to the superpowers themselves.
The leaders of six non-aligned countries on five continents, India, Sweden, Argentina, Greece, and Mexico, formed the Five-Continent Peace Initiative to advocate for a decrease in tensions among the nuclear super-powers. Julius Nyerere, representing Africa, asserted that “peace is too important to be left to the White House and the Kremlin.” Indira Gandhi, before she was tragically assassinated, introduced the initiative in 1984 by saying in words that should haunt us today: “I am deeply distressed and also astonished at the apathy which one sees, almost a resignation or acceptance of such a horrifying event [as nuclear war].” At the same time, respected public intellectuals like Carl Sagan obtained access to diplomats at the United Nations, and, warning them for the first time about the phenomenon of nuclear winter, asked “who speaks for Earth?”
Thirty years further on--today--only Dr. Strangelove types would continue to argue against Ronald Reagan’s sensible assertion that “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.” Yet no one in power today seems able to muster the moral imagination to reverse the continued drift of our lifeboat we call Earth toward the inevitable nuclear Niagara somewhere down the time-stream. Resources desperately needed to prevent imminent conflicts over water and other natural resources, let alone needed to mitigate the gigantic challenge of climate change, continue to be poured into an international security system that rests upon extremely dubious premises—first and most egregious of all the assumption that no nuclear nation will ever make that fatal mistake or misinterpretation that ends in apocalypse for all.
Attaining top positions of national leadership often requires years of Machiavellian manipulation that inevitably includes compromise with agents of huge corporate and financial power. The security bureaucracies that have sprung up in the U.S., Russia and China are vast, complex, self-perpetuating and both inter- and intra-paranoid. The mystery that clings to the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and even Martin Luther King Jr. suggests that leaders who over-indulge in the rhetoric of peacemaking and international cooperation may put their own lives in mortal danger.
A quick look at those in power at the present moment is not reassuring for citizens who are wondering what the possibilities are for creative servant-leadership based upon the interest of the planet as a whole. President Putin initially made conciliatory gestures toward the West, but the West betrayed its word and expanded NATO aggressively eastward toward Russia’s borders. Putin now operates from the heart of an enormous web of kleptocratic corruption, and identifies with a backward-looking czarist conception of the Russian empire.
President Obama reached out to the Muslim world, advocated in Prague for the abolition of nuclear weapons, wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, in spite of a racist, obstructionist Congress, managed to pass the Affordable Care Act. Recently he has advocated for authentic measures against climate change. At the same time he has condoned the enormous growth of an off-the-books national security bureaucracy, rationalized his failure to bring torturers to justice, indulged in routine extra-judicial killing by drone, and continues to renew the U.S. nuclear arsenal at obscene expense (yet another $355 billion according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office).
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International leaders interested in creating safe spaces for people to come together at the heart level to work on common challenges seem to be few and far between. Benjamin Netanyahu and his counterpart Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are perfect demonstrations of exactly the obverse: they dehumanize and scapegoat each other with hyper-masculine zeal and thus perpetuate an endless round of utterly futile destruction.
Julius Nyerere refused to benefit personally from high office and consistently put the best interests of his country ahead of his own well-being. Nelson Mandela is another servant-leader who earned worldwide respect. Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the U.N., is yet another example of disinterested international leadership. Sadly, like King and the Kennedys and Indira Gandhi, he paid with his life for his service to us all. Is it the veiled threat of individual martyrdom that makes disinterested efforts to prevent collective destruction so rare?
Another Five-Continent Peace Initiative is long overdue. The agenda: nuclear disarmament, restriction of conventional arms sales, and reallocation of resources to address climate instability. The survivors of inadvertent nuclear war—itself a source of climate disaster—would be pitiless in their condemnation of the present rot—the rationalizations, evasions, and delays that led to disaster. Only if citizens everywhere demand true servant-leaders instead of bellicose fulminators will more life-affirming outcomes become possible.
*The title is a reference to the last episode of Carl Sagan's famous Cosmos series.