Dr. Peter Lock
European Association for Research on Transformation e.V.

Challenge Workshop in London, 5-6 May 2006, King’s College Law, Politics and the Challenge of Exceptionalism 9/11

The corrosive effect of the alleged Iranian bomb on international law or exceptionalism as a recognized imperative
challenge - liberty & security

Peter Lock, Hamburg (Draft)

Overcoming perceived notions

Weapons of mass destruction are an awkward classification of a range of rather different weapons, which hardly have any common features. They are stigmatized as particularly dangerous and inhumane weapons. Their physical effects are indeed malevolent and often defy our imagination. The monstrosity of the so far only military use of nuclear bombs at the end of WW II continues to instil extreme fear around the globe. The believed horror scenarios seemingly confirm the pervasive mind-set that weapons of mass destruction lead unfailingly to a catastrophe of yet unknown dimensions, if a ruthless actor, either state or non-state, comes to command them. The ascribed attributes of such a devious nuclear newcomer include the "known" disposition to foster the worst case WMD scenario, namely to provide international terrorist networks with WMD rendering the United States and Europe defenceless vis-à-vis nuclear or other WMD-terrorism. This largely uncontested horror scenario explains the seemingly hysterical reaction to the Iranian endeavours to master the enrichment of uranium. Iran insists that this program is part of its civilian nuclear industry. Under the monitoring of the IAEC such an activity does not infringe international law. Unfortunately though mastering the enrichment process also happens to be a precondition to manufacturing nuclear weapons. In the absence of trust the United States seek to assemble a broad coalition of willing states to agree on sanctions aiming at closing down enrichment of Uranium in Iran.

Meanwhile the Bush-administration restated its national security strategy in several documents in early 2006, among others the authoritative Quadrennial Defense Report Review. It reiterated therein its faith in its declared doctrine of preserving an unilateral option of "pre-emptively" attacking regimes that it considers to be hostile to its national interests. It furthermore repeatedly identified Iran as the single greatest threat to US interests. The White House publicly rebuffed suggestions by the EU and the German foreign minister that the United States should enter into bilateral negotiations with Iran, in spite of not having direct diplomatic relations ever since American diplomats were taken hostage in 1979, and honestly address the contentious issues. Instead the American diplomacy is geared to force the Security Council to stipulate sanctions against Iran as a measure to escalate the simmering long-time conflict with the Islamist regime, which the current American government wants to topple.

The aggressive rhetoric of the new Iranian president actively contributes to the stage management of a major international crisis under the tutorship of the Bush administration. The mounting aggressiveness of the discourse is about to develop a dangerous dynamic, which drives towards a phase of free fall through a funnel exiting but into pre-emptive military action. Leading to an outcome, which might not have been intended by either side.

The following text argues that the current discourse, into which the EU has let herself be drawn, is flawed and dangerous. Its basic premises are questionable; though some of them are so deep-rooted and taken for granted that bold questions must be raised. The frantic discourse pushed by the Bush-administration leads among others to a marginalisation of international law by construing an exceptionalist scenario, which ideologically portrays unilateral military aggression as seemingly legitimate pre-emptive self-defence and international law as outdated and not any longer acceptable in the face of perceived asymmetrical threats involving WMD. The text attempts to shatter some of the perceived wisdoms concerning the role of nuclear weapons and argues that major socio-economic changes have also profoundly altered the parameters of what warfare aiming at territorial control can achieve. This is bound to change the scope of "imperial" control, which might concentrate in the future on sub-state territorial entity representing economically valuable assets and neglect the reconstruction of so-called failed states. The implications for the effectiveness of international law in its current form to sanction illegitimate violence will be profound.

The alleged Iranian "bomb" a political weapon?

At the core of the stage-managed Iranian crisis are attempts to construe an international consensus, which absolutely denies Iran access to WMD, nuclear weapons in particular. There is at least some ambivalence whether such a strategy will enhance global security or whether to the contrary this confrontation will severely weaken the non-proliferation regime and encourage more countries to enhance its status by getting hold of a nuclear military capability in the footsteps of North Korea. Among the lessons observable so far are, it pays to pursue nuclear capability (Pakistan India) and it also pays to eventually desist (Libya).

Half a century ago experts predicted up to 30 nations in command of nuclear weapons by the end of the 20th century. This scenario did not materialise. The prevailing opinion holds that this is owed to the NPT and other regimes to keep sensitive technology under control. But it is empirically impossible to prove that such a causal relationship exists, not least because relevant technology seems to be on offer at extensive grey markets. They are not limited to the now apparently extinct criminal network of Mr. Khan, which seemingly operated in stealth mode for many years out of Pakistan. It recklessly supplied nuclear know-how and technology, wherever customers could be found. This affair probably qualifies as the biggest failure of American and European intelligence.

To explain the apparent delay of the predicted nuclear proliferation, one might alternatively posit: it was widely understood that nuclear weapons have little or no utility on the battlefield. In the absence of a favourable cost-benefit balance fewer nations than expected took the decision to heavily invest in acquiring a nuclear capability of their own. Only within the context of the virtual scenario of nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union these weapons became the absolute currency of power, which eventually led to the reckless over-accumulation of nuclear weapons reaching a capacity to annihilate the entire civilisation several times. Ironically the obsession with non-proliferation converted nuclear aspirations into a valuable asset at the table of international negotiations. Becoming nuclear-capable offers, if any, non-military rewards. The failed strategies in the "war" against drugs come to mind, because there is an obvious correlation between the cultivation of drugs and large flows of foreign (military) aid. Deviant actors in the international system are tempted to not unrealistically assume that in the balance their strategy will eventually bring rewards.

A closer look at the history of WMD qualifies them as essentially political weapons, which explains the diversity of destructive means assembled in this category. Indeed seeking a cohesive common denominator of WMD one ends up with just one significant commonality: WMD are weapons the military can’t assimilate into a consistent military doctrine matching the standards of the military profession. Chemical weapons, biological agents and radiation are the most nightmarish destructive means strategists and operational planners are confronted with. Designing military training, which takes the effects of such weapons into account, is an awkward exercise, the military prefer to avoid, if possible. The latter helps to explain, why even during particularly confrontational phases of the Cold War different WMD were amenable to the negotiation of control regimes, while attempts to arrive at conventional arms control agreements failed until the last phase of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union under Gorbatchev struggled to safeguard the communist order. Gorbatchev’s intent was to free economic resources committed to the bipolar arms race by means of mutually agreed disarmament to fix the exhausted Soviet economy.

The use of atomic weapons by the United States towards the end of WWII against Japan was followed by a frenzy of irresponsible testing, which after the test ban treaty slowed down to a trickle of tests, mostly by late-coming nuclear states. But in spite of a number of dangerous confrontational situations and the emergence of new nuclear players to date nuclear weapons were not used on the battlefield again. The prevailing ideology ascribes the absence of nuclear weapons from the worldwide battlefields after 1945 to the doctrine of mutual deterrence, based on what was constructed as a dynamic equilibrium, only attainable through constant nuclear modernisation and rearmament. This view implicitly justified the reckless nuclear arms race, which became a self-perpetuating virtual game, in which the military-industrial interests in an alliance with the sheltered strategic research community were largely uncontrolled by proper parliamentary oversight in designing the threat scenarios according to their corporate interests. State terrorism achieved the status of the accepted security doctrine. "Nuclear security" became a paradigm and an important currency in negotiating a nation’s international status; France and Britain continue to bear the economic and political burden of this status ideology worshipped by the political elites in isolation from the democratic debate ever since. The ideology of "invulnerability", which the possession of nuclear weapons supposedly conveys, has led non-nuclear nations, perceiving themselves as vulnerable, to consider entering the nuclear club, for example China felt threatened by the Soviet Union and the USA; India felt threatened by China, Israel felt threatened by the Arab neighbours and Pakistan by India; North Korea feels systemically threatened ‘tous azimuts’, the same applied to the apartheid regime in South Africa,. Some states like Argentina, Brazil and Libya eventually desisted from their strategy to enter the nuclear ranks or to acquire WMD. In the latter cases the perception of threat was lowered due to active and engaging diplomacy. In the case of Iran, however, there is currently no indication of policies to materialise, which would encourage Iran to desist from its course to keep a nuclear option open by focusing on enrichment of uranium.

The collective anxiety associated with the existence of nuclear weapons is so far fortunately not borne out by new events after the two American nuclear bombs against imperial Japan. The reasons are not clear and defy an empirical assessment. On the one hand it is possibly mere luck that not even an accidental nuclear blast materialised caused by one of the ten thousands of nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the nuclear states[1]. On the other hand deterrence seems to work and keep aggressors at bay. Though with the same degree of empirical evidence it can be argued that nuclear weapons were not used again, because they have little to none utility in warfare, which aims at territorial control or other political gain. The physical capacity (kinetic energy, heat and radiation) of nuclear weapons alone does not make them more dangerous than conventional weapons. Only the disposition to wage war and to actually use nuclear weapons in combat makes them dangerous. However, if weapons are being used, they are likely to be used to achieve a declared end. A reasonable hypothesis explaining the continued non-use of nuclear weapons would be the assumption that nuclear weapons simply have not fitted any realistic war planning. Such planning always sets out with the aim to achieve a declared end of economic or political gain associated with territorial control.

If one accepts the latter hypothesis and rejects the assumed rationality of the race to continuously guarantee assure the mutually assured deterrence, other interests must explain the perseverance of the nuclear obsession based on the ideology of an equilibrium of deterrence or in the case of minor players on an ideology of assured defensive destruction "tous azimuts".

The military somewhat reluctantly embraced the nuclear arms race as a means to safeguard their corporate interest in securing a large share of the budget, not withstanding their doctrinal resistance to actually enter combat with any likelihood of nuclear weapons or other WMD being used. The competition among the different military formations over relative shares of the military budget helped to overcome the early reservation and soon converted into fierce competition in the United States between Navy and Air Force over the handling of strategic nuclear weapons. The Manhattan project and its eventual counterpart in the Soviet Union evolved over time into a network of powerful vested interests, whose stakes were unassailable in the fog of the virtual East-West arms race.

The threat perception mutually induced during the nuclear arms race was politically useful by legitimising firm political control by the incumbent elites and the maintenance of high military expenditures at each side. The inherent danger emanating from the entire military-nuclear complex continues to legitimise extraordinary security measures and virtually uncontrolled secrecy, which clearly expand the prerogative of the state apparatus over the liberty of citizens and curtail the parliamentary authority. This nuclear exceptionalism continues to be firmly embedded in the political systems of nuclear states. It creates a permanent subtle state of emergency infringing upon the liberty of the citizens in certain areas, most visibly it curtails their freedom of movement. But most importantly it serves as a precursor of a climate of seemingly imperative secrecy for reasons of national security, which permeates many government branches and parliamentary bodies. The latest manifestation of this nuclear exceptionalism, which the major nuclear powers routinely practice, even defying their obligations stipulated in the NPT, is the open discourse within the Bush-administration about the need to develop a new bunker-busting nuclear bomb for application in the Global War on Terror as well as the debate about the imminent development of a Reliable Replacement Warhead. In addition the US-government let it be known that it does not exclude the option of using nuclear weapons in the context of a pre-emptive strike against Iran among others. Nuclear exceptionalism appears to imply that one is entitled to employ nuclear weapons in order to keep others from eventually accessing them. The Bush-America believes that it can unilaterally declare a moral standard while exempting itself[2]. Even the French president declared in a recent speech that France does not exclude the nuclear option in pursuit of its national interest.

Iran - declared pariah without due process of law

The Iranian bomb is projected as a major, if not the worst threat to American security. This campaign based on the blindly accepted logic of nuclear exceptionalism amalgamates many powerful interests in the United States. It lowers the political profile of the American disaster in Iraq by providing a seeming ex-post justification of the invasion in Iraq and the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Not least, because these wars brought about the penetration of the entire region with American military bases and prepositioned equipment. Large American military bases effectively encircle Iran. However, it is certainly not accidental that this military penetration amounts to a pro-active military securitization of the entire region, on whose oil supplies America will depend in the foreseeable future. There is a certain irony in the fact that an Iranian regime intent to build an indigenous nuclear industrial infrastructure will depend on massively exporting oil[3]. Finally America’s commitment to support Israel reinforces the aggressive posture towards the current Iranian regime. Recently American Jewish lobby groups placed a full-page advertisement in the leading Anglo-Saxon newspapers urging pre-emptive action against Iran[4], in order to protect Israel from annihilation by an Iranian attack with WMD.

Most experts agree that Iran has no realistic option to make aggressively use of a nuclear device, should it manage to build an indigenous capacity. Even if Iran were to manage to bring a nuclear charge onto an intended target in Israel, in such an attack would an equal number of co-religionists, namely Palestinians, die, hardly an option for a regime, which claims Islam as the main source of its legitimacy. Thus, the alarmist international reaction in the face of the Iranian insistence on nuclear autonomy is founded on other worst-case scenarios. Given the absolute uclear hegemony of the United States Iran would hardly be able to blackmail neighbouring states on the basis of its future nuclear status.

Among others it appears to be taken for granted that an Iranian nuclear capacity would almost automatically pass into the hands of international terrorists. A recent front-page headline in a German newspaper read "40 000 Iranian suicide terrorists wait on stand by to melt away for action abroad"[5]. The production of fear is an integral part of nuclear exceptionalism as a political strategy. Building on the 9/11 shock terrorists handling WMD are portrayed as the ultimate threat to our civilisation. It is taken for granted that this is what they are up to.

But is this a realistic portray of people who see in acts of terrorism their only weapon in a desperately asymmetric confrontation? Is it really helpful to categorically deny them the status as actors who can be engaged politically? Is the announced goal to win the GWOT achievable? Can terrorists be annihilated or is the disposition to employ terrorist means to achieve an end but a transitory phase of a political battle? Framing a political conflict in the paradigm of nuclear exceptionalism, as the United States does in the case of its conflict with Iran, suffocates all chances to overcome such assumed transitory phases of a hostile actor, in this case the current regime in Iran. The American strategy to purportedly stop the Iranian nuclear menace to our civilisation is based on an erroneous basic premise. But even within the context of the American view it is useful, not least in order to set priorities, to assume some inherent logic guiding the actions of the presumed terrorist actors.

People with terrorist intentions are likely to calculate the balance between risk to be detected before the act and effect of their intended act as any other strategic planner does. From an organisational perspective acquiring and bringing onto the target of WMD in total clandestineness requires an extensive experienced and highly educated apparatus, which even if available is most likely to be capable of producing more harm in far less detectable ways by exploiting the vulnerability of the infrastructure and of the industrial assets of modern societies and the mega-cities around the globe. Thus, terrorists commanding a network of qualified and motivated actors, which is capable bringing WMD onto target in western counties have much easier options than WMD to enact terror by intelligently interfering with the ever more complex and vulnerable infrastructure of modern societies.

WMD terrorism: real or a social construction?

It could well be argued that the obsession with WMD terrorism is a construction by the nuclear states, in order to legitimise their own arsenals as a necessary resort against terrorists in command of WMD. It looks very much like a remake of the security ideology of mutually assured deterrence. But even if one accepts the premise of the current policy vis-à-vis Iran among others, which is to halt nuclear proliferation under all circumstances, as it would increase the chances, that WMD fall into the hands of terrorists intent and capable of using them. One wonders why this priority and not the need to safeguard the existing and widely dispersed stock of tactical nuclear weapons first? The unacceptable military posture of Russia and NATO with thousands of tactical warheads in operational condition on short notice poses the greatest risk of losing control of WMD, which may end up in the hands of a terrorist organisation. Many experts consider thousands of Russian tactical warheads widely dispersed in a defensive posture to be at risk to be targeted by terrorists. But the symbiotic relationship between the insulated military nuclear establishments of nuclear states hinders a proper assessment of the dangers associated with the maintenance of nuclear postures, in spite of the absence of any military-political logic to keep tactical nuclear weapons operational and dispersed in European soil.

This perseverance of nuclear doctrines in isolation from the transformed political scenario, which is no longer confrontational, demonstrates the seclusion of the nuclear complex. It is tacitly supported by the incumbent elites as a convenient toolbox, which allows claiming exceptional circumstances at any point to overcome the constraints of international law in the pursuit of their perceived interests.

Under these circumstances political strategies aiming at preserving the effectiveness of the current international law would profit from a realistic assessment of nuclear weapons and other WMD. Such an assessment is likely to come to the conclusion that going along with the staging of nuclear weapons as the ultimate danger is counterproductive. The latter tends to legitimize the self-entitlement to enact counterproliferation strategies outside the existing international law. The apartheid regime in South Africa is proof that the world will have to live with 20 or more nuclear states in any case, if the international political scenario provides reasons for more nations to invest in achieving the status of a nuclear state. Thus, one must prepare for distinct scenarios. One would be to consider a new strategy of adapting international law to the reality of the on-going proliferation. Instead of or in addition to the "phoney" non-proliferation regime one would have to pursue a more realistic non-first use regime to become part of international law. The current posture of nuclear states claiming exceptionalism to pre-emptively sanction and unilaterally attack states alleged to pursue nuclear status severely weakens international law.

Selected factors causing the on-going tectonic social change in the global context

International law has served well the interests of the United States as the dominant, some say imperial power over 50 years after 1945. This seems not any longer to be the case. One explanation would be that the rapid erosion of international law as the basic parameter of American foreign policy reflects profound global changes. Thus increasingly the exception, the unilateral pursuit of perceived national interests without regard of international law, becomes the rule. Kosovo and Iraq are only the hallmarks of a basic shift.

States were traditionally tasked to provide security as a precondition of functioning global markets. The global military posture of the United States served to assure that states would provide the security and freedom of markets required to keep the expansion of capitalist markets on track. As states increasingly fail to produce the security demanded by global investors, an irreversible trend has emerged of private providers of security rather selectively replacing the state.

A major factor explaining this trend is the enormous supply shock of labour at the global level. During just slightly more than one decade probably as many as one billion workers were added to the supply side of the global labour market. The on-going tectonic changes of investment locations constantly produce social fragmentation and instability around the globe, while states are confronted with "a race to bottom" as far as their capacity to collect taxes is concerned. As a result their capacity to provide public goods and above all security diminishes. The resulting landscape is a patchwork social geography of safe zones increasingly protected by the private security industry or by the appropriation of state services, which transmute into informally privatised units on the payroll of potent companies, often transnational companies in the primary sector.

The traditional function of the imperial (American) military posture to reign in malfunctioning states (from the perspective of global markets) is not any longer affordable, because rebuilding states into cohesive territorial units as in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo and mostly likely Iraq as well at global scale is economically not feasible. The social control of the dark "shadow" patches, which represent the majority of the world population, is in today’s globally integrated world beyond the capacity and interest of the sole `superpower. Whenever the private security industry cannot cope with its task to subdue disturbances, the American military will in the future be tasked to support and protect the scattered patchwork of "global locations" in seas of marginalised zones, where grey and black markets prevail. Territorial warfare in such a scenario is not any longer appropriate. It is indeed already in the process of being replaced by pre-emptive covert interventions designed to pursue perceived national interest with the lowest conceivable profile. By definition such interventions do not take note of international law. It is the construction of nuclear exceptionalism, which certainly paves the way and psychologically prepares American voters to dismiss international law, when it comes to protect what they are induced to believe by the "Neocons" to be American interests.

This trend is reinforced by another structural barrier to traditional territorial warfare, namely the rapid transformation of the human habitat, which becomes evermore interdependent and vulnerable to minor disturbances. The time frame of the elasticity of survival for the vast majority of people is spectacularly shrinking in the course of the prevailing world market integration and modernisation. This is particularly visible in the case of the mega-cities around the globe, but also in rural areas, where exportable products replace the mix of traditional crops. In this changed human habitat, which tends to become a global standard, traditional (territorial) military campaigns are bound to produce imminent humanitarian crises of yet unknown dimensions. The rapidly growing dependency on just-in-time commodity circulation and income generation is the hallmark of mega-cities, but they are just the precursors of a general global trend in the context of accelerating modernisation. Any major disruption of flows immediately translates into fatal chain reactions and ends in major humanitarian crises[6].

Traditional armed forces have not any longer a rational role to play in such vulnerable environments. One cannot send them with the aim to protect the "market"; the result would be counterproductive. Though such scenarios of inherent vulnerability offer a great potential for strategically acting terrorists.

Chaos or a deliberate strategy? A Bush-Cheney doctrine?

Analysing the policy of the first Bush-administration Alain Joxe characterised the result as "l’empire du chaos" (title of his book[7]). He convincingly described the lack of coherence in the aggressive military posture and the apparent incapacity to steer the global economy. He also noted the systemic disrespect of international law displayed by the Bush-administration. Variants of Joxe’s critical analysis abound. Collectively these approaches from the left provide a rich body of evidence in support of the interpretation that the contradictions are such that Bush’s apparent strategy will eventually fail and be replaced by a more integrative political coalition.

But the apparent chaos and seeming deterioration of the international order, as the result of an increasing number of failing states among others, lends itself also to a different interpretation, which views Bush’s policy as a coherent, though not necessarily viable strategy. States do not take the centre stage of this strategic vision nor do human rights. Though international law basically provides a framework to regulate relations between states, while the evolution of humanitarian laws and other emerging norms protecting individuals are of relatively recent origin. The often-methodical neglect of these international laws by the United States might in reality be an edging towards an adaptation of American power projection to the task of guaranteeing the market access to a patchwork of global locations, which together form the skeleton of global capitalism, rather than territorial states. The notion of chaos used to describe this apparent evolution is based on the assumption that the global capitalist market necessarily relies on functioning states. Alternatively one should not totally exclude the feasibility to globally defend a tacit social apartheid by marginalising the role of socially integrated states, except in the case of the state of the imperator, who commands the means of violence of last resort.

If we assume for a moment the incompatibility the current capitalist order and a viable system of socially integrated states, then an option to maintain the capitalist order emerges, which one might label the Bush-Cheney doctrine. This doctrine deliberately neglects nation building as an obligation under the imperial "Pax Americana" and envisions instead futuristic stealthy armed forces and pre-emptive interventions by covert operations preferably using non-kinetic weapons. As opposed to nation building this doctrine is considered affordable and capable to fend off the terrorist menace and violent disturbances, which continuously tend to endanger parts of the skeleton of global capitalism by disturbing the unfettered market access to the protected global locations. In the context of this doctrine the political constitution of the global locations surrounded by oceans of informality and social apartheid does not matter any longer. Conceptualising the Bush-Cheney doctrine in this way it becomes a rational, if ruthless strategy to defend the current capitalist order under American hegemony. There are good reasons to believe that this doctrine will not succeed to achieve its end. But its mere identification may help to recognise the strategy behind the screen, which seemingly portrays plain chaos. The creation of a permanent state of exceptionalism in combination with the currently deteriorating world order might amalgamate into an imperial order based on unilateral covert violence as opposed to territorial warfare. This process will take the form of large patchworks of non-state territories forming the skeleton of the capitalist world order. And one should not categorically exclude the chances of some stubborn stability of this order for some time to come.


[1]The term is deliberately used here in connection with nuclear capability, because the term power, generally used, affirms the dominant nuclear ideology without clear evidence.

[2]See: Peter Beinart, The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War-Liberal, in: New York Times, magazine, April 30, 2006.

[3]Given that the United States can ill afford another war with a great potential to escalate, because their armed forces are currently already overstretched, only a botched handling of the diplomatic process will lead to a military confrontation.

[4]See for example: Financial Times, April 5, 2006 p.7 (European edition).

[5]Hamburger Abendblatt, April 18, 2006, front page.

[6]The Iraq war was exceptional. Before the American-lead attack basic food rations were distributed to the Iraqi population through a centralised administration, which handled the oil-for-food program under the supervision of the Security Council. In the wake of the war the program distributed its stock of food to the population, which thus had probably stocked reserves for one month at least. Thus this territorial war, probably the last of its kind, did not result in large unmanageable streams of refugees. In modern market-based mega-cities, where the majority of the population lives on a just-in-time provision of basic food, a conventional war would instantly trigger a gigantic humanitarian crisis,

[7]Alain Joxe, L’empire du chaos, Paris 2003.