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Kevin ClarkeApril 22, 2015

There is an oddly anachronistic feel to talk about the abolition of nuclear weapons. Like watching Civil Defense films of the 1960s, contemporary calls to ban the bomb provoke a disorienting déjà vu, recalling a different, more paranoid and dangerous time. After all, with the Cold War over—sort of—hasn’t humanity dodged the threat of nuclear annihilation? Long past the era of classroom “duck and cover” exercises and H-bomb scares, haven’t we all learned how to stop worrying and live with, if not love, the bomb?

“Young people don’t understand what nuclear weapons can do,” says Patricia Lewis of London’s Chatham House, an independent policy and research institute. “They don’t think of them as weapons, but as political entities.” And, according to Ms. Lewis, contemporary efforts to ban the bomb have been hamstrung by unsuccessful exercises in the past. “Young people haven’t been interested in this problem because old people talk about it in sort of a gloom of failure,” she says. That disinterest appears to be ending.

The familiar cry of “No Nukes” has now been taken up by the hashtag generation, who are putting social media savvy to work on the issue—#NoNukes and #GoodbyeNukes have led a rhetorical offensive across the Twitterverse. This generation’s peace warriors are arising from among global civil society groups, defying government officials and the nuclear proliferation nomenklatura who seem unsure how to respond to the abolitionists’ firm belief that civil society can—and should—have a meaningful role to play in nuclear disarmament.

But today’s bomb abolitionists not only have to remind a mostly indifferent public that nuclear weapons remain a global environmental, humanitarian and even existential threat; they have to persuade new recruits that challenging the nuclear orthodoxy of deterrence is a real geopolitical possibility.

Civil Society Steps Up

Opening a meeting of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in December, Beatrice Fihn, the group’s executive director, reminds the ICAN chorus that each of the world’s 16,300 or so nuclear weapons remains “ready to kill millions of lives within minutes.” She says, “These weapons are unworthy of anyone, of any state” that follows “fundamental principles of humanity.”

Ms. Fihn acknowledges that nuclear powers “will say a ban is impossible; they are wrong. Don’t let anyone tell you that making nuclear weapons [illegal] is not possible.” In fact, she says, it is the obligation of the members of the world’s civil society organizations to help their governments come to terms with the threat of nuclear weapons. “Civil society can be the guiding force,” she says.

At 32, Ms. Fihn is a youthful face of an international movement that has been gathering momentum overseas and may soon make an impression in the homeworld of nuclear weapons, the United States. The new nuclear abolitionists point to recent successes in global bans on land mines and cluster munitions, drives led by civil society groups against stiff government resistance, as models for this latest campaign against nuclear weapons. Why shouldn’t nuclear weapons face the same fate?

“We can’t do anything about the victims of the past or the damage [to the environment] from nuclear testing,” Ms. Fihn said in Vienna. “But we now have a chance to prevent another humanitarian disaster from happening. It is our responsibility to do so no matter what nuclear state might object.”

By email, Ms. Fihn discusses ICAN’s strategy. “Getting people to care about nuclear weapons is obviously a big challenge today,” she says. “Many people don’t really think about these weapons anymore; they barely know they exist.” Worse, the issue has come to be seen as “old-fashioned” to younger activists, who have moved on to other pressing problems of the times—climate change, human rights and sustainable development. “It is also very difficult to engage people in an issue they think is hopeless,” she adds. “Many people agree that nuclear weapons are bad, but don’t feel that there is something that can be done about it.”

Ms. Fihn reports that ICAN is “re-energizing the nuclear abolition movement and reaching out to new audiences” by avoiding “security-focused arguments, with deterrence theory and cold war rhetoric” and focusing on the humanitarian case for nuclear abolition. The evidence of ICAN’s success is clear in Vienna. The campaign’s third international conference is crowded with activists in their 20s and 30s. “By basing our arguments on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, we have managed to reach out to new constituencies and a younger generation,” she says. “Talking about what nuclear weapons do if used has a very powerful awareness-raising aspect, and it also creates a feeling of urgency to do something about it.”

As weapons that evoke a demand for abolition on humanitarian grounds, nuclear weapons “tick every box,” according to Ms. Lewis. They are clearly weapons of mass destruction, designed to instill terror and cause grievous suffering to survivors; they pose an imminent ecological threat if used; but even if they are never used, their creation and maintenance create profound hazards.

A parallel conference that same month in Vienna considered the humanitarian impacts that could be anticipated from the detonation of one or more nuclear weapons. International Red Cross officials warned that humanitarian agencies would be unable to respond on the scale required by a catastrophe caused by an accidental or intentional detonation of a nuclear warhead, let alone by the multiple detonations that might result from a “moderate” exchange of nuclear strikes. Climatologists grimly warned that even a limited exchange of nuclear strikes, such as might occur between the nuclear-armed antagonists of South Asia, India and Pakistan, could have a devastating impact on global climate and agriculture as the atmosphere choked on the radioactive dust and debris thrown up by nuclear detonations.

Some members of the ICAN coalition want to proceed directly toward a global ban that would create an international normative process to which states with nuclear weapons would eventually have to respond, much as powers like the United States had to be dragged into the process to reduce land mines and cluster bombs. Some wish to follow a gradualist approach toward a negotiated abolition.

Ms. Lewis observes that most members of this civil society effort are unwilling to involve the nuclear-armed states in the process. “If you include them, they will do everything they can to slow the process down or to stop it,” she says.

The presumed historical success of “mutually assured destruction” style deterrence in preventing an actual exchange between nuclear powers is perhaps the biggest rhetorical obstacle to the abolition proposal. But “there is nobody seriously arguing that disarmament doesn’t lead to greater security and peace,” says Desmond Browne, a former United Kingdom secretary of state for defense and now a campaigner against nuclear proliferation for the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “There’s nobody who believes that the world is not more secure without chemical and biological weapons, or land mines or without the deployment or use of cluster munitions,” Browne said. “Now that they’re gone, no one is arguing for them coming back.”

Ms. Lewis has profound doubts about the continued efficacy of deterrence as a geopolitical strategy. She points out that nuclear weapons are clearly “too awful to be used, therefore [they] won’t be”; they have in fact became merely “symbols of power.” Even small-scale antagonists of the West understand this reality and proceed with their terror campaigns in complete indifference to the West’s vastly superior nuclear firepower.

If the principle of deterrence cannot be challenged, then “we are stuck forever,” says Ms. Lewis. Stuck and running out of time and perhaps luck, she thinks. “The question I have,” she says, “is will nuclear disarmament come before or after the next use of nuclear weapons?”

Nuclear Breakthrough?

A number of key elements are converging that offer the abolition movement a chance to break into the American consciousness in the coming weeks: the successful conclusion of lengthy multilateral negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from joining the nuclear club, a review of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty at the United Nations in New York (held every five years, this one is scheduled to begin April 27 and continue through May 22) and in Washington an emerging political push for new spending to overhaul and modernize the current nuclear stockpile. Pentagon watchers say the current request for $36 billion per year for 10 years is more likely to lead to $1 trillion or more in new spending on the U.S. nuclear capability over the next decade. A U.S. modernization effort is certain to be matched by the Russian Federation, a mutually assured disbursement of national treasure that the Vatican and other critics of continued nuclear weapons development deplore as irrational and immoral.

What may further make this a historic moment for nuclear abolitionists has been a recent reappraisal by the Holy See. The Vatican released a study document in Vienna that raises questions about the continuing acceptance of deterrence as a morally legitimate geopolitical strategy. “The apparent benefits that nuclear deterrence once provided have been compromised, and proliferation results in grave new dangers,” the document notes. “The time has come to embrace the abolition of nuclear weapons as an essential foundation of collective security.”

The Holy See document questions at length the historical validity of the claims of deterrence, arguing that deterrence “is believed to have prevented nuclear war between the superpowers, but it has also deprived the world of genuine peace and kept it under sustained risk of nuclear catastrophe.” It adds that “the very possession of nuclear weapons, even for purposes of deterrence, is morally problematic.”

The statement describes the evolution of the church’s position on nuclear weapons:

While a consensus continues to grow that any possible use of such weapons is radically inconsistent with the demands of human dignity, in the past the Church has nonetheless expressed a provisional acceptance of their possession for reasons of deterrence, under the condition that this be “a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.” This condition has not been fulfilled—far from it. In the absence of further progress toward complete disarmament, and without concrete steps toward a more secure and a more genuine peace, the nuclear weapon establishment has lost much of its legitimacy.

The Holy See’s statement concludes: “The misleading assumption that nuclear deterrence prevents war should no longer inspire reluctance to accepting international abolition of nuclear arsenals. If it ever was true, today it has become a dodge from meeting responsibilities to this generation and the next.”

A Vatican official in Vienna, who asked to remain unidentified, downplayed the significance of the Roman Curia’s turn against deterrence, arguing that the Holy See was merely returning to principles first articulated in St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth,” which condemned nuclear weapons in 1963.

But Des Browne of the Nuclear Threat Initiative sees more significance in the Vatican’s statement. “This gives us an opportunity, particularly in the United States, a country whose politicians are more informed by their faith than any other, to have a dialogue across partisan lines [about abolition].... This is very important, and we are keen to have this dialogue.”

Gerard Powers holds the title Professor of the Practice of Catholic Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. (He will be joining an event co-sponsored by America, “From Nuclear Deterrence to Disarmament: Evolving Catholic Perspectives,” on May 7 in New York.) He sees the Vienna document as part of a continuum of Catholic ethical thought on nuclear weapons.

Abolition has always been a long-term goal of the church, he says. “I don’t think that’s anything new.” The church, he explains, tolerated deterrence as long as it meant peace during a time of transition toward the end of nuclear weapons. What is new in the Vienna statement and in others emerging from Rome and the U.S. bishops’ conference is a more pronounced emphasis on complete nuclear disarmament.

A litany of retired former hawks from the U.S. government, including the so-called Gang of Four (George Schultz, former secretary of state; William Perry, former secretary of defense; Sam Nunn, retired U.S. senator from Georgia; and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state), have followed the U.S. bishops’ arguments for disarmament and signed on to the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Accordingly, Mr. Powers says, church officials have now “concluded to take this goal seriously, not just as an ideal” but as “a moral imperative.”

No Safe Margin for Error

While world headlines remain focused on the effort to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, far less attention has been focused on the nuclear powers on the negotiation team in Switzerland. They have not done too much themselves lately on disarmament. Now that Cold War-style tensions have re-emerged between the United States and the Russian Federation because of the Crimea/Ukraine crisis, there appears little chance that either power will continue disarmament discussions that have already been allowed to molder for years. That outcome is all the more regrettable because of the real progress that has been made on disarmament. The United States and Russia have reduced stockpiles by as much as 85 percent from Cold War highs of approximately 70,000 warheads.

But even in their reduced numbers, these weapons remain a threat whether or not they are ever put to their intended use. Building nuclear weapons generates numerous and long-term hazards to workers and the communities around weapons development and storage sites. The raw material of weapons, as well as the weapons themselves, remain the potential targets of terrorists, and the possibility of an accidental detonation remains far less improbable than most people assume.

That is what the journalist Eric Schlosser reports in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013) after six years researching the safety record of the keepers of the diminished but still significant nuclear arsenal of the United States. The most shocking thing he has discovered, he says, is that “the difference between safety and catastrophe in the United States has come down to a single switch or a single wire.... We’ve had numerous accidents with our own nuclear weapons that could have destroyed American cities.”

But what really keeps him up at night is wondering how bad the record of other nuclear powers might be, considering how poorly the relatively sophisticated nuclear guardians in the United States have fared. “We invented this [technology]; we have more experience with it than any other country, so I would hate to see what a similar book about the Russian arsenal would say, or the Pakistani arsenal.” Mr. Schlosser says, “This is very high risk technology and the margin of error is slim, and if there’s a serious mistake you could have a major catastrophe.”

He acknowledges that nuclear weapons abolition “sounds like a pretty radical idea, and yet it was supported by President Truman, President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, Carter, Reagan and now Obama,” and also by “quite a few of the Reagan foreign policy and defense officials.”

“How you get to zero is a subject that’s open to all kinds of discussion and debate,” Mr. Schlosser says, but he thinks we need to be trying to get there. “One less weapon is one less [potential] accident, one less potential act of mass murder.”

Mr. Schlosser says for decades the Catholic Church has been at the forefront on nuclear disarmament, and he thinks it should take the lead now on abolition. Gerard Powers agrees the church has an important role to play in the dialogue ahead.

“You are not going to achieve something as dramatic as a global ban on nuclear weapons without a clear moral imperative that’s solidly grounded in good moral analysis,” he says, “and I think that’s what the church brings to this discussion.”

And what the movement could really use is a celebrity spokesperson, according to Mr. Schlosser; Pope Francis strikes him as just the man for the job.

“He would be better than Taylor Swift,” he says with a smile.


St. John XXIII: An Abolitionist Ahead of His Time

On the other hand, We are deeply distressed to see the enormous stocks of armaments that have been, and continue to be, manufactured in the economically more developed countries. This policy is involving a vast outlay of intellectual and material resources, with the result that the people of these countries are saddled with a great burden, while other countries lack the help they need for their economic and social development.

There is a common belief that under modern conditions peace cannot be assured except on the basis of an equal balance of armaments and that this factor is the probable cause of this stockpiling of armaments. Thus, if one country increases its military strength, others are immediately roused by a competitive spirit to augment their own supply of armaments. And if one country is equipped with atomic weapons, others consider themselves justified in producing such weapons themselves, equal in destructive force.

Consequently people are living in the grip of constant fear. They are afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of such weapons. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance. Moreover, even though the monstrous power of modern weapons does indeed act as a deterrent, there is reason to fear that the very testing of nuclear devices for war purposes can, if continued, lead to serious danger for various forms of life on earth.

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. In the words of Pope Pius XII: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not on any account be permitted to engulf the human race for a third time.” (59)

Everyone, however, must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or—and this is the main thing—ultimately to abolish them entirely. Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from men’s minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust. And We are confident that this can be achieved, for it is a thing which not only is dictated by common sense, but is in itself most desirable and most fruitful of good.

Pacem in Terris,” 1963

From the U.S. Bishops 

Deterrence is not an adequate strategy as a long-term basis for peace; it is a transitional strategy justifiable only in conjunction with resolute determination to pursue arms control and disarmament. We are convinced that “the fundamental principle on which our present peace depends must be replaced by another, which declares the true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms but in mutual trust alone.”

“The Challenge of Peace,” 1983

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Martin Eble
8 years 11 months ago
Of course the difficulty is that there is no way to enforce a banning of nuclear weapons. Given the spread of the technology, around four dozen countries could become nuclear powers in a matter of as little as two years. The first one to do it after the major powers disarm would own the world.
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 11 months ago
"And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?" Mark 8:36
Martin Eble
8 years 11 months ago
Unfortunately we must render to Caesar that which is Caesar's. Were disarmament a realistic possibility there would not be a need for military forces. The North Koreas, Irans, and other malfeasors in the world render it impossible. Catholics not only are not morally obliged to be pacifists and eschew self-defense, at times they may be morally required to defend self, family, and country.

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