Nuclear weapons are back in the news. And, for the first time in a long time, people are scared. But the “fire and fury” threatened by the current US president has been with us, impacting our lives, for the past 73 years.
Most people may be unaware of the billions of dollars sunk fistful after fistful into the nuclear-weapon industry since the end of the Cold War. The leaders of the nuclear-armed countries call it “modernization”—a euphemism for ensuring that these weapons last long into the 21t century. We’ve read the headlines about Trump’s eagerness to “rebuild” the nuclear arsenal, but this didn’t start with Trump. Presidents Clinton and Obama both made deals to invest billions in the nuclear-weapon complex in exchange for the ratification of treaties that were supposed to limit the testing and deployment of US nuclear weapons. Spoiler alert: The United States didn’t ratify the test ban, and the agreement with Russia on reducing the number of deployed warheads wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. But each time, billions were spent on nuclear weapons.
Now Trump is talking about restarting nuclear testing and building new nuclear weapons—including so-called “low-yield” weapons that the military hopes could be used in conflict. He trashed the Iran deal, and John Bolton, his national-security adviser, seems intent on sabotaging any hope of denuclearization in the Korean peninsula. Trump’s vision is terrifying, but it is built on the foundations laid by previous leaders of the United States.
The leaders of the United States are not alone in this mad pursuit. In Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, generations of governments have upheld their nuclear arsenals as providing the “ultimate security,” and have spent billions on maintaining these weapon systems for the indefinite future. Each has built their nuclear arsenal on backs of human beings, testing their weapons on the bodies and lands of the most marginalized of their own or other societies.
A legacy of institutionalized madness
This buildup of weapons of death and destruction, disguised as policies of reason and rationality, is part of a system of “institutionalized madness,” as former nuclear-war planner Daniel Ellsberg describes it. In his recent book The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg catalogues a number of shocking policies and practices that have held the world on the brink of nuclear war throughout the atomic age. Any social system, Ellsberg writes, that creates and maintains the apparatus and system to destroy the world “is in its core aspects mad.”
Their madness goes further. The states possessing nuclear weapons threaten and ridicule governments and citizen movements that support a total ban on nuclear weapons. Rather than welcoming the initiative to help foster the political conditions and legal framework for nuclear disarmament through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted in July 2017 at the United Nations, they argue that this initiative “destabilizes” the world order. Despite scientific facts about the catastrophic impacts of nuclear weapons, along with the legal and moral obligations to disarm, the nuclear-armed states continue to choose their mad quest for power.
Nuclear war would end civilization as we know it. The use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law and basic morality. Nuclear weapons should simply be eliminated. This is not a naive, utopian dream. It is the core belief and objective of the vast majority of countries in the world. A hundred and twenty-two countries voted for the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The commitment of those countries is a beginning. But the interlocking system of institutionalized madness—bolstered politically by those that profit from this system—still stands in our way. Breaking out of this system is one of the biggest challenges we face today. That will require building up the global antinuclear movement.
Rise and resist
There has not been a mass social movement against nuclear weapons since the 1980s. This is not to say that antinuclear activism has gone away. But public consciousness about nuclear weapons has dissipated and the antinuclear movement has struggled for visibility and engagement.
Over the past decade, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has emerged. Since 2007, ICAN has grown into a transnational advocacy network spanning the globe, engaging people of every age from many diverse countries and backgrounds. We have worked to reignite the discussion on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, educating a new generation of diplomats and activists alike about the dangers of nuclear weapons. We worked with governments, academics, international organizations, and campaigners from around the world to develop the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Now this issue needs once again to be elevated among the public and our politicians.
A fierce resistance to nuclear weapons means disrupting the dominant narratives about nuclear weapons as tools of “safety” and “security” and “peace.” These Orwellian descriptions of the most horrific weapon ever invented need to be challenged and dismantled through conversation, academic literature, op-eds and letters to the editor, and public debate.
A fierce resistance means connecting with other movements and initiatives for social change. Gun violence, climate change, racial justice, indigenous rights, diversity in political life—all of these and so much more are relevant for challenging nuclear weapons.
A fierce resistance means working locally with city or municipal council members to divest public funds from nuclear-weapons production. ICAN’s Don’t Bank on the Bomb initiative provides information about financial institutions around the world that invest in the companies contributing to the manufacture of nuclear-weapons systems. Local efforts in cities and towns across the United States and in other countries are helping to divest personal funds, as well as government pension funds and other public money, from these companies. Activists are also encouraging their cities to comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and to call on their federal governments to join the Treaty.
A fierce resistance means educating legislators, parliamentarians, politicians, and other government officials about nuclear weapons and about the nuclear ban. ICAN’s Parliamentary Pledge, through which representatives commit to getting their government to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, already has over 900 signatures in more than 40 countries. As of right now, not a single US representative has endorsed the pledge. There is much to be done to change this—including by working with new representatives at local, state, and federal levels to inform and inspire them to take action.
A fierce resistance means going to the sites of nuclear violence—sites of their use and testing, as well as their sites of production and manufacture, sites of uranium mining and waste dumping, sites of their assembly or their deployment. It means interrupting the daily work at the sites, distributing information about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and about the prohibition treaty, speaking with local communities and workers, and building connections among people.
Ending nuclear weapons means breaking out of our own silos, connecting with other people, moving our own money away from the bomb, and demanding political and public attention be directed toward getting rid of these weapons once and for all. Seventy years is too long to live with this threat. It’s time for disarmament.