From the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
"God will not forgive us if we fail."
In England there is a principle called the sanctity of contract, which means that if two parties make a binding agreement for, say, the sale and purchase of a house and one seeks to renege, then the court will enforce the provisions of the contract. The losing party cannot thumb their nose at the decision of the court because they know it to be the servant of the all-powerful state. While many people think they can apply this principle to contracts between capitalist states (usually called treaties), the analogy is false for the simple reason that here each party is a power in its own right and there is no superior power or court which will hold the scales — and the even more important sword — of 'justice' between them.
Capitalist states nevertheless do make treaties when it suits them (which usually means that one side is strong and the other weak). History is littered with treaties, and when it is convenient they may even be adhered to, sometimes for long periods. But history is also littered with broken treaties. There was one to respect the 'neutrality' of Belgium in 1914. And again, that of Norway in 1940. In each case Germany broke the pact; the western allies were most indignant and accused Germany of regarding treaties as scraps of paper. How right they were; scraps of paper is just what treaties are.
The indignation is of course faked and fraudulent. In both cases the western powers had been seriously contemplating doing the violating themselves. Germany just got in first. And, as we mentioned in a recent issue of this journal, the ballyhoo surrounding the signing of a treaty at Camp David between Israel and Egypt could not hide the fact that while both sides clearly thought the piece of paper was worth having, there were simultaneous arrangements whereby both sides made sure they had enormous armaments on the new Sinai dividing line. These capitalist states were not going to defend themselves with a scrap of paper.
Such facts are a necessary corrective, should anyone be foolish enough to imagine that the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) recently signed between Carter and Brezhnev is going to bring peace to the capitalist jungle. The treaty Russia and America have just solemnly entered into is SALT II; there was once a SALT I, and already the papers are telling us that the next stage is SALT III. If two neighbours agree to love each other, or at any rate not to strike each other, that's fine. But if they need a complete series of agreements to say they won't hurt each other, their sincerity is clearly a sham. It all sounds too much like the dictum of that puritan militarist Cromwell: trust in god, but keep your powder dry.
The question may well be asked: why do these superpowers go through this meaningless rigmarole? The answer is that, as with Camp David, a piece of paper can have some value. It can give a breathing space. Sometimes it can be respected — if it suits the parties — for a very long time. The 1704 Treaty of Utrecht gave a piece of Spain called Gibraltar to England, whose ruling class still own it (much as they would like to get shot of it!). The reality behind SALT II is that it has dawned upon both super-powers that the cost of continual 'improvements' of nuclear weapons is becoming astronomical — and more and more ludicrous. Each side clearly has in its arsenals enough H-bombs and nuclear submarines and missiles and impregnable silos to ensure that if it came to the crunch, both sides could be wiped out — and the rest of the human race too — in a short, sharp, mutually destructive holocaust.
In 1956, at the time of Suez, when Khruschev was sabre rattling against England, CNDers and leftists generally were quick to point out that Russia would have no difficulty in blowing England off the map, and 'our' little H-bombs could not stop her. But it is a leftist defect not to see what does not suit their arguments. The fact is that one little British Polaris submarine carried sixteen warheads, each one of which packed a punch a hundred times as violent as the pea-shooter which devastated Hiroshima and killed about 100,000 'little yellow bastards', as they were then affectionately called. A Polaris submarine is almost undetectable in the depths of the oceans and would have no problem in hitting — and wiping out — Moscow or Leningrad.
So the balance of terror, though overwhelmingly on the side of Russia, still left Khruschev with same tricky problems; for example, would he and the rest of the red fascist gang in the Kremlin be there to smell the roses after the ball was over? Capitalist politicians (which term includes Brezhnev, of course) may not be very clever, but it does occur to them from time to time that continuous multiplication of the 'overkill' factor is enormously expensive. It is therefore in the interests of both sides to see if they can reach same accommodation on the matter. Leftists tend to think that states belong to armament makers and militarists and that consequently the more money that is spent on arms, the more the capitalist class likes it. This is nonsense, The enormous costs are paid out of the collective pocket of the capitalist state. If one section — the arms manufacturers — make huge profits, the others have to pay huge taxes. So it is in the interests of the state as a whole to try and curb all expenditure — on H-bombs as well as on the NHS. But it's a tricky job because neither side is so stupid as to trust the other. Even the capitalist class can't win 'em all, so they do the best they can.
If you want to see the best commentary on the whole ludicrous negotiations, read Punch (16 May) with its article headed "SALT talks break down in utter confusion or maybe success". But it is nearly as hilarious to read serious papers. The Guardian (21 June) had an article by Hella Pick (their Russia expert , whose writings would always look better in Punch) headed: "Pravda warns against changes to letter or spirit of SALT". The following piece of the article is worth quoting:
Pravda also sought to convince Americans of the Soviet Union's good faith by promising not only to observe the treaty itself', together with its accompanying 'common statements of understanding' but also all other commitments signed by Brezhnev in Vienna . . . Pravda evidently tried to insist that Brezhnev's word, even if not put altogether into writing, was good and would be carried out."
So it seems we can now not only trust our lives to politicians' scraps of paper, but even to the breath that comes out of their lying lips. No doubt if Brezhnev reneges (or Carter, of course) we can send him a summons to appear in the Small Claims Court.
That other journal for leftist would-be intellectuals, The Observer, had one of its most ponderous leading articles on the subject (24 June), headed: "We must back SALT". It gave a number of reasons. The first will be enough:
While SALT II is a disappointment because it allows both sides to build new weapons systems, it is a necessary step towards arms reductions in future.
The entire article reads like a satire worthy of Swift or Voltaire. The appalling thing is that these highly paid pundits take their own guff seriously, and no doubt Observer readers nod sagely as they read these words of wisdom. This is very sad; as ordinary people allow themselves to be fooled by this, so long will this horrific social system remain.
As an addendum, I must not forget to give the ascription to the little quote in the sub-heading to this article. It is taken from The Observer (24 June) 'Sayings of the Week'. I fancy it is really the saying of the century. It was uttered by one of the two Great Men at the SALT talks. Carter. No — it was the other fellow. And no newspaper - not even the Morning Star - saw fit to comment on it. The mind, in this case, does not boggle.
L. E. Weidberg