It’s been a long time since the Cold War ended. When the Wall went down, it felt as if the threat of thermonuclear warfare faded into the background overnight (it didn’t) and everyone’s missiles were no longer locked onto the coordinates of “enemy” cities (they probably still are). The specter of nuclear warheads crisscrossing the globe on intercontinental ballistic missiles were relegated to the realm of video games. Putting an end to nuclear proliferation lost its urgency because disarmament (limited as it was) made the world safe again.
Only it didn’t did it?
The so-called Nuclear Club only seems to grow and never shrink, Libya being the sole exception. North Korea tests their bombs and missiles as if they’re shooting bottle rockets. Iran’s leadership remains intent on harnessing nuclear energy (for peaceful purposes, of course). India and Pakistan always seem one Kashmiri exchange away from escalation. And of course, the original nuclear superpowers — the United States and Russia — still have enough warheads to obliterate themselves and their fellow club members. To a degree, we’ve got science to thank for that because as historian Michael Sherry once put it, the scientists who worked on the bomb created the bomb in a haze of “technological fanaticism.”
Enter the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). For over a decade they have been tirelessly agitating, protesting, and most of all inspiring citizens around the world to push their governments to abolish nuclear weapons. Unlike those of us who’ve grown complacent or, worse yet, apathetic to the dangers that never truly went away, the organization has worked to raise awareness and pressure politicians around the world. Last year, the organization was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for their “work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”
SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted by 122 nations in 2017. What is the significance of the treaty? How is it a step in the right direction?
DANIEL HÖGSTA: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) delegitimizes nuclear weapons.
Since 1945, a fundamental problem at all nuclear disarmament conferences has been that certain states believe they are morally and legally entitled to possess nuclear weapons. The five nuclear-armed states parties to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) routinely argue that the international community has given them a permanent right to possess nuclear weapons. The purpose of the TPNW is to counteract these narratives. The message behind the TPNW is that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons make such arms fundamentally illegitimate. There are no “good” or “responsible” nuclear-weapon states; in any realistic scenario, the use of nuclear weapons would constitute a war crime. Even a “limited” nuclear war could cause global climate disruptions leading to worldwide famine and displacement. But in contrast to the other classes of weapons of mass destruction (chemical and biological), which have been banned by international treaties and are widely considered as grotesque and repugnant weapons, nuclear arms are frequently represented as instruments of power and prestige (“my button’s bigger than yours”, NATO presenting itself as a “nuclear alliance”, etc). The purpose of the TPNW, then, is to create the same moral stigma around nuclear weapons as currently exists around chemical and biological weapons. If this succeeds, future disarmament negotiations will stand a much greater chance of success.
SI: Countries in possession of nuclear weapons, their allies, and nations aspiring to develop nuclear capabilities did not join. How can they be persuaded to adopt denuclearization?
DH: The biggest challenge for proponents of disarmament is arguably not so much to “persuade” nuclear-armed states to denuclearize as it is to create a moral environment in which nuclear disarmament becomes natural.
Leaders of nuclear-armed states such as Britain and the United States frequently claim that it is appropriate and reasonable for their countries to retain nuclear weapons. Nobody argues that it is appropriate and reasonable to produce and possess weaponized Ebola or bubonic plague. Such biological weapons are totally stigmatized and part of that stigma, we believe, has been created through the negotiation and promotion of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The TPNW aims at changing our understandings of nuclear weapons such that it becomes equally reasonable to eliminate nuclear weapons as it currently is to eliminate weaponized plague.
SI: Many citizens in nuclear capable countries are against the Bomb, yet the politicians representing them don’t seem to reflect the sentiment. Where is the disconnect?
DH: Several factors are probably at play. First, although many citizens are against the bomb, others have bought into the narratives that nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain peace or to deter political “blackmail”. For example, the UK Labour Party’s pro-disarmament stance in the 1980s seems to have been one of the main reasons why Labour did not enjoy electoral success in that period. This is precisely why we need to change how people think about these weapons – and things do appear to be changing both in the UK and elsewhere. Second, powerful economic interests are in play. Arms manufacturers and nuclear labs make huge money off military contracts. Legislators who represent communities with economic interests or jobs invested in the business of nuclear weapons are reluctant to rock the boat. Third, nuclear weapons are shrouded in secrecy. The public is given little insight or control. This is the case not only in the nine nuclear-armed states, but also in the five NATO states that host US nuclear bombs (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). There are several examples of incoming governments in these countries promising that they will work to have the weapons withdrawn from their territories only to never comment on it again. The lack of transparency around the deployment arrangements makes it difficult to follow-up.
SI: During the Cold War, the threat of thermonuclear annihilation was always somewhere in the not so distant background. Do you feel the generations who grew up after the Berlin Wall came down fully appreciate what is at stake?
DH: Many of today’s younger generation are very much engaged in international and social issues. However, nuclear disarmament is not very high on the list. One reason is probably inertia. According to Jonathan Schell, “When one tries to face the nuclear predicament, one feels sick, whereas when one pushes it out of mind, as apparently one must do most of the time in order to carry on with life, one feels well again.” But part of the reason has been a deliberate campaign by nuclear-armed governments since the 1960s to frame nuclear weapons as abstract political instruments and the nuclear danger as receding and “under control”. The thawing of the Cold War made this easier. There are signs that more young people are becoming engaged in nuclear disarmament though. The overt threats of indiscriminate mass slaughter issued by Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong-un in recent months and years are difficult to square with a claim that the nuclear issue was solved in the 1980s. ICAN includes hundreds of young activists from across the globe.
SI: Finally, what can concerned citizens around the world do to work toward a nuclear-free future?
DH: Join ICAN! http://www.nuclearban.org/#rec39825123
Contact your MP and ask them to sign the “ICAN Parliamentary Pledge”. The Parliamentary Pledge commits legislators to work for their country to sign and ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. http://www.icanw.org/projects/pledge/
IMAGE SOURCES: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
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