On October 20, President Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after more than 30 years. In doing so, he ended an agreement that abolished an entire class of nuclear weapons and recklessly pushed us to the brink of a new Cold War. He’s brought us back to a time when the United States and Russia could develop and expand their nuclear arsenals without restraint.
Trump’s decision is a wake-up call as much as it’s a clarion call. It highlights the flaws of a system in which one man can determine our collective fate, and makes clear why all nations need to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted by 122 countries at the United Nations last year. By banning nuclear weapons under international law, we can still pull the hand brake on a new arms race.
In a series for The New Yorker, Jonathan Schell wrote a masterpiece on the horrors of nuclear war. Schell’s series was such a tour de force that when it was published as a book, The Fate of the Earth, in 1982, The New York Times wrote: “It accomplishes what no other work has managed to do in the 37 years of the nuclear age. It compels us, and compel is the right word, to confront head on the nuclear peril in which we all find ourselves.” Schell embedded his argument against nuclear weapons in human stories. As with climate change, simply explaining the basic facts rarely provokes action. Talking about the absurd number of nuclear weapons challenges people only to reduce stockpiles, but describing what the fire following a nuclear blast felt like at Hiroshima and Nagasaki makes us realize that these are weapons of mass slaughter.
The breakthrough for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came after we showed political leaders the faulty foundations of the realpolitik arguments underpinning the nuclear world order. When it comes to doomsday weapons, the supposed realists ignore reality. Reality like the 7,000-degree-Fahrenheit ground temperature in Nagasaki after an American B-29 bomber dropped “Fat Man” on the city in August 1945, or the radioactive rain that poured down later. Reality like the people in Hiroshima crying out for help, although none was forthcoming because 42 of the city’s 45 hospitals had been instantly destroyed, and 90 percent of the doctors and nurses killed or injured. Or reality like the testimony from inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, where the United States conducted 67 nuclear blasts. One resident, Dretin Jokdru, recalled trying to survive on fish: “We got sick from them, like when your arms and legs fall asleep and you can’t feel anything. We’d get up in the morning to go to our canoes and fall over because we were so ill. We were dying.”
When faced with these realities, the insanity of what we have done for the last 73 years becomes hard to ignore. Recognizing the threat to humanity from climate change, ecological destruction, and nuclear weapons, we ask: “What is the fate of the earth?” I’d answer that by borrowing from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton: “The fate of women is the fate of the earth, and the fate of the earth is the fate of women.” To state this more explicitly: The survival of the human species depends on women wresting power from men. For too long, we have left foreign policy to a small number of men, and look where it has gotten us.
Roughly 1,000 miles west of New York City, a radioactive by-product of the Manhattan Project pollutes the air, soil, and water. Now where do you picture a pile of carcinogenic waste from the government’s most famous science project being stored? It’s not buried underground or contained within a lead-lined storage tank; it’s not in a secured government facility. It isn’t even in some remote field. No, this waste sits within the city limits of St. Louis, Missouri. When a handful of St. Louis moms, families, and neighbors began experiencing headaches, nosebleeds, and breathing problems one winter, they identified the problem and organized. Now a bunch of moms in St. Louis are a regular feature at the State Capitol, lobbying their representatives to clean up the mess that is killing their community. They fittingly called their group Just Moms, and they are only one example of the women around the world leading the charge to fix the problems created by men.
Even if these weapons are never used—which, by the way, is unlikely—they still harm people. In Texas, contract workers at the Pantex Plant are removing plutonium cores from nuclear weapons by hand. Why? Because they need to make room for a new generation of even more lethal nuclear weapons. The United States is scheduled to spend at least $1.7 trillion updating its arsenal, because our leaders are locked in an archaic view of national security—one that believes against all reason that terror provides safety.
Since the dawn of the nuclear age, many serious men have said that we need to get rid of these weapons, but they have lacked the vision, creativity, and strength to do so. We can no longer leave it to the same men who created these problems to solve them. As with so many issues, the consequences of men’s nuclear hubris fall disproportionately on women. Women in Hiroshima and Nagasaki die from cancer at twice the rate of men due to ionizing-radiation exposure. Findings from Chernobyl indicate that girls are considerably more likely than boys to develop thyroid cancer from nuclear fallout. Pregnant women exposed to nuclear radiation face a greater likelihood of delivering children with physical malformations or stillbirths, leading to increased maternal mortality. Near the Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site in Kazakhstan, one out of every 20 babies is born with serious deformities. These effects will last for generations.
I should be careful here to make a distinction. I often say, “The leaders are not the problem; the weapon is.” This is a key point: While we might feel safer with Theresa May or Hillary Clinton in charge of our nuclear arsenals, we are not in fact safe. I don’t believe that having these weapons in the hands of women is a solution. That is not what I mean by wresting power from men. When you are concerned about the ease of one person’s access to world-destroying firepower, the answer is not to choose the most level-headed person; the answer is to remove the possibility that anyone could be in that position in the first place. That is the power we must wrest from men and the feminist foreign policy we need.
In September, I found myself addressing an unprecedented gathering of powerful women. Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, invited female foreign ministers from around the world to convene in Montreal. The discussions were simultaneously refreshing and worrying. When the doors closed, brilliant women filled the wide-ranging conversations with remarkable insights. Yet I found the debate around nuclear weapons limited—still set by men, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was useless. Having more women in positions of power is insufficient if we are restricted to such an outdated, patriarchal worldview. We are in desperate need of a foreign policy that is cooperative, inclusive, and based in our shared humanity—that is to say, feminist.
Nuclear weapons are the beating heart of our colonial and patriarchal order. These weapons and the security apparatus that places faith in them are inherently dehumanizing. Consider that just a few months after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a poll showed that less than 5 percent of Americans thought laying waste to those cities was a bad idea, and nearly a quarter said that the United States should have dropped more bombs in order to inflict maximum suffering and death before Japan had a chance to surrender. Or consider the financial order that encourages banks to fund companies that produce nuclear weapons, so long as they produce them for European countries and the United States. Or consider how the proponents of deterrence claim that nuclear weapons have prevented war, in spite of the millions of deaths in proxy wars in Korea, Southeast Asia, Africa, and now the Middle East. The loss of those lives is considered a necessary evil or even a policy success.
Or perhaps consider the swimsuit—yes, the swimsuit. You’ve probably never heard of one called the atome, the French word for “atom.” In 1946, it was declared the world’s smallest swimsuit. In addition to denoting the tiny size, the name was chosen to announce that the swimsuit would be as shocking as the atomic bomb—a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign built on thousands of deaths. A few weeks later, a competing designer released an even skimpier suit. He wanted his product to be provocative, even explosive, so he named it after a famous nuclear-test site: the Bikini Atoll. The tests at Bikini were called, appropriately, Operation Crossroads, and they were the first of many that would destroy lives and livelihoods in the Marshall Islands. Mistakes, miscalculations, and negligence saw the tests spread radiation across the islands, causing death, sickness, stillbirths, and deformities. The first bomb had a picture of the Hollywood star Rita Hayworth stenciled on its side, and was even named “Gilda,” after her character in the 1946 film by the same name. The movie’s tagline? “Beautiful, deadly, using all a woman’s weapons.” Or consider that the US military government of the Marshall Islands assembled the Bikinians and asked them to leave their homes—temporarily, the military governor assured them. When the residents doubted him, he implored them that it would be for “the good of mankind.”
Perhaps I’ve illustrated sufficiently that nuclear weapons are linked to patriarchy; perhaps not. Did I mention that former vice president Dick Cheney claimed that Barack Obama had “neutered” the international order with the Iran deal? Or that Pakistan said that efforts to keep it from developing nuclear weapons amounted to “castration”?
Whether or not you agree with the premise that nuclear weapons are part of a patriarchal world order, I hope you can at least agree that what we’re doing now is not working. We cannot move forward with new nuclear weapons that tie us to this security order; we cannot achieve peace by threatening mass murder; and we cannot build stability through instability. We must choose an approach that ends nuclear weapons before they end us.
Luckily, we know what works. Victory will require us first to change the terms of the debate. We need to articulate the human ramifications of nuclear war, move away from an understanding of international relations as a series of zero-sum battles, and accept that nuclear weapons know no borders.
Over 500 organizations make up our effort, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). We have worked to build a global movement, and in many places, it’s being led by women. Through these partnerships, we are helping to reshape how people talk about nuclear weapons, highlighting stories of real people. This moment in history is fragile, but it’s not hopeless. For the first time, the majority of countries have stood up to nuclear-armed states and said: “Enough—we will not be held hostage to these weapons any longer.” Nine countries have deployed some 15,000 nuclear weapons, with more nations tacitly endorsing them by living happily under a nuclear umbrella. But there are 122 countries on our side. It’s been a year since the treaty was opened for signatures. So far, 69 states have signed it, and 19 have ratified it. Once 50 countries ratify it, the treaty will go into effect. At that point, nuclear weapons will be banned under international law.
I have to confess that there were moments in this campaign when I doubted that this treaty would ever happen. We expected a chorus of noes from the old guard, but even many allies cautioned us not to push too hard or expect too much. We learned very quickly, however, that the humanitarian case for banning nuclear weapons resonated, and those claiming to respect international law while relying on these weapons were soon forced into convoluted and nonsensical arguments. We also learned that fearless, committed women were a requirement to get things done.
I don’t believe that women are inherently more peaceful, but what I do know is that women are more realistic about what is needed to keep our families, communities, and world safe. I believe that women are the doers. We cannot afford to wait for some kindly but charismatic leader to rise up and change nuclear policy. We certainly can’t count on the current men in power to choose sanity and security over fear and instability. But we also can’t leave this to the dreamers. In this movement, we are always going to be the optimists, but we are also the doers committed to ending the nuclear world order. We just want to achieve this through collaboration, not domination. We are the realists squarely facing up to the nuclear threat and formulating a strategy. Believing that we can keep these weapons indefinitely is a dream.
With the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, we have a plan, a legal framework, and momentum. What we need now is you. People everywhere need to claim their right to speak and act on nuclear issues. We need to bring democracy to disarmament and take action in local contexts. The US Conference of Mayors supports our work. Several towns and cities, including Baltimore and Los Angeles, have endorsed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; in August, the state of California did likewise. This is not just a symbolic victory: From the Manhattan Project onward, every nuclear weapon developed in the United States was designed in labs managed by the University of California. Right now, we’re also working to stigmatize those companies—like Boeing in Seattle and BlackRock, the largest investor in companies making nuclear weapons, in New York City—who benefit from Trump’s nuclear doctrine.
Instead of leaving life-and-death decisions to a few men, this movement allows us all to have a say in our future. To achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, we must all educate, motivate, and activate. In order to educate others, learn how your community, your bank, and the services you use are complicit in developing nuclear weapons, and share that information. Don’t let people forget that these weapons exist and that there’s something they can do to stop them. To motivate, tell people about the treaty and the support behind it. Most people have no idea that this treaty was adopted and that another way is possible. And to activate, work with others to find concrete steps you can take—perhaps by engaging our local partners in ICAN. Also, don’t forget to tell your representatives that the United States should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Most importantly, do what women making history have done for decades: Refuse to be constrained by the ruling order’s lack of vision and belief in humanity. When you’re called crazy, keep going, and when you’re told it doesn’t matter, know that it does.
For decades, only men were allowed to engage in high-level discussions about nuclear weapons and global security. It’s time to challenge that. The nuclear-ban treaty presents a chance for us to correct the course of history. We have pried open the door to the halls of power, and we have rooted our progress in international law. It is time to counter the old vision of the world with a new one based on reason and cooperation; it is time for a truly feminist foreign policy. The fate of the earth depends on it.