Beatrice Fihn is leading a movement to abolish nuclear weapons. The organization she heads, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), is determined to transform how we view our nuclear arsenals. These weapons are not symbols of national strength or power, and they do not keep us safe. They are machines that threaten to slaughter billions of civilians. I was not at all surprised to see Beatrice accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last year. She is an extraordinary person, and I think her Nobel Prize is just the first of the extraordinary achievements ahead of her.
Every president since Harry S. Truman—except perhaps our current commander in chief—has publicly committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons with varying degrees of sincerity. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy put it eloquently during his speech to the United Nations: “Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. These weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us…. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.” Beatrice Finh is working hard to ensure that those flames never ignite.
From his introduction of Beatrice Fihn at the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture
Eric Schlosser: By the time you were a small child, there was no Soviet Union. How did you come to know about nuclear weapons, and when did you learn about the threat they still pose?
Beatrice Fihn: Everyone knows this image of a mushroom cloud in history books. But growing up after the Cold War, I didn’t think about it much. I was always interested in international issues, in human rights, in justice, in equality, but I never really thought about nuclear weapons. My only memory of it is in the mid-’90s when my parents stopped buying French wine and cheese because of the nuclear testing. That was a big deal for them—they love their wine and cheese. But otherwise, it wasn’t really present in any conversation. Then I got involved with an organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, mainly because of the gender issue, which I was really interested in. They asked me if wanted to do an internship in nuclear weapons. And I thought, “Isn’t this kind of outdated?” But I wanted to go to Geneva and see the UN, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.” So it was complete accident, but then I saw how it’s a form of oppression that goes with all these other issues. It’s an equality issue; it’s a justice issue; it’s a rights issue. In people’s minds, nuclear weapons are separated from everything else that we care about, but it’s not isolated. It’s an issue of power: A small group of countries have decided that they should have the power, and everyone else should be powerless. So yeah, I got sucked into it, and I can’t stop now.
ES: In some ways, there’s been enormous progress in terms of the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, and yet things have changed in the world that I think also increase the danger. What has it been like working on this field so intensely and on one hand getting the Nobel Peace Prize and then on the other hand seeing Trump in the White House? How do you balance the optimism with the pessimism that would be justified by some of the world events?
BF: Like so many other issues, we’re seeing the best and the worst at the same time. In gender issues, women have more power than ever, but we are also seeing a backlash. It’s the same thing with nuclear weapons. We have this amazing development—a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. We have all these countries making a legally binding commitment to never use, possess, or develop nuclear weapons. That’s a huge victory. But at the same time, we have these few countries that go in the complete opposite direction and are being very loud about it. It’s frustrating, and it is so easy to focus on the negative. I think that we have a challenge today to lift up all the progress we’ve made and all of the positive steps that are being taken, and to look at them. We should be inspired by them—instead of only being glued to the TV and watching Trump say crazy things all day.
ES: One of the early conversations that I remember having with you was about a glossary that’s being compiled as part of the non-proliferation regime. Most people may not realize but Richard Nixon as president signed a treaty committing the United States to the abolition of nuclear weapons, that’s part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So, what is this glossary? And what are some of the other ingenious methods in which this country and other nuclear powers have found to delay abolition?
BF: At the time, the five nuclear-weapon states committed to disarming but without a timeline. And so what they do in the meantime is keep everyone very distracted. They call a conference where they’re supposed to negotiate nuclear disarmament. For 20 years, they haven’t gotten to the negotiation part, because they can’t agree on an agenda. Here’s the thing: They have an agenda. It consists of four issues; they just can’t agree in which order to negotiate. So, for 20 years, diplomats have gone into this room, sat there, debated on the order, and then gone back home. They have this every fifth year. But one time the nuclear-armed states agreed on a glossary. And when I joke about this to US State Department officials, they get very offended. I’m sure that they put a lot of effort into it, but it’s not really getting us to a world without nuclear weapons.
ES: It took 20 years for the glossary, but now they have to work on the index! An audience member asks, “Do you have anything positive to say about men and any concerns about women?”
BF: This week? No! Nuclear weapons are so connected to this idea of masculinity, of strength, of rationality, and disarmament and negotiation is considered weak, fragile, and naive. And I think that the conversation about the US-Iran nuclear deal is such a good example of that. This agreement that works for both parties is somehow considered weak. The only good deal is where you dominate and humiliate your opponents. First of all, that’s not a deal, that’s war—usually. These concepts are so ingrained in our society that we need to start calling it out much more.
ES: There was a feminist scholar who described the world of nuclear planners as white men in ties discussing missile size.
BF: My button is biggest than yours, I mean Trump tweeted it. We tried to make these arguments, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in particular has worked on gender and weapons for a long time. And sometimes people don’t get it: “But everyone will die in nuclear war.” “It’s not a gender thing.” “Why you have to bring feminism into every issue?” And then Trump tweets that his button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, and people are like, “Yeah, I see it.”
ES: So there was a New Zealand news article that said the effects of the nuclear test in the South Pacific islands have never been fully investigated. Can you comment on that?
BF: We talk about nuclear weapons as keeping us safe, but who do they keep safe? The voices of the people that’ve been impacted are very rarely heard. I talk about, for example, the birth deficiencies in Kazakhstan. People are like, what? Or the women in the Pacific that are having miscarriages or giving birth to stillborn babies because of nuclear testing. That’s not the conversation we have when we talk about nuclear weapons. We talk about strategic balance and power dynamics. We don’t talk about humans enough. And it’s not hard to why: It’s because they’re marginalized communities—women, people of color, indigenous populations. They didn’t test nuclear weapons outside Washington, DC; they tested them on Native American land, they tested them islands—on people who didn’t matter to them or that they didn’t even think were there. We need to see the racism in the issue as well.
ES: One of Jonathan Shell’s great insights was to connect nuclear war with climate change. Historically the anti-nuclear movement and the environmental movement were closely connected. How do you see possibilities for galvanizing an anti-nuclear movement through the climate-change movement and vice versa?
BF: These are the two existential threats that we are facing today. Climate change is happening in slow motion, and nuclear weapons will happen very, very fast. We are struggling with similar problems: The threats are so massive that people become passive. No one is in favor of global warming, and no one is in favor of nuclear war; that’s not the problem. The problem is getting people to do something about it. The size of the threats and the fact that they are existential make it difficult to act. We need to break it down into manageable steps that are meaningful and will lead to the end goal. We need to find these ways of putting pressure on our politicians to fix these problems.
ES: I think that if a nuclear weapon were to detonate in any city anywhere in the world, you’d get a major anti-nuclear movement as a result. But ideally you’d get the movement without the mass murder. Another audience members asks, “You mention the role of banks supporting the development of nuclear weapons. In light of that, what do you think the role of capitalism is alongside patriarchy as an obstacle toward denuclearization?”
BF: I mean, money runs things, right? This is a very profitable industry. Trump has issued new military-spending contracts on nuclear weapons. I think that we have to fight them with what they know—money. We have this great divestment campaign called Don’t Bank on the Bomb, where we identified the producers of nuclear weapons and looked at banks, pension funds, and other financial institutions who invest in them. We’ve made huge progress. Just this year for example, two of the five biggest pension funds in the world, the Dutch and the Norwegian state pension funds, have divested from nuclear-weapons companies. It should never be comfortable to be a part of making nuclear weapons a reality.
ES: President Obama gave a wonderful speech in Prague calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. What was your experience during the Obama administration, and what’s your experience now during the Trump administration?
BF: When we started the negotiations, US Ambassador Nikki Haley held a protest outside. It was quite funny to see the most powerful countries in the world standing outside protesting while we were inside negotiating. It was a bit of a change from what it’s usually like. But the fight against this treaty shows that is meaningful. They wouldn’t do that unless they were scared of this treaty. You have the nuclear-armed states saying that this treaty is useless, but then they try to go after Ghana and say don’t sign it. It shows that they know that the more countries that join this treaty the harder it is going to be for them to uphold this idea that this is a reasonable weapon. Each state that joins it chips away the legitimacy. That’s why they’re angry.