Every minute since July 1945, when the United States tested its first nuclear weapon in New Mexico, we have been living under the threat of massive nuclear violence. Nuclear weapons are designed to incinerate cities, to burn and irradiate human bodies, to destroy everything we have built and that we love. They are perhaps the ultimate symbol of the extreme edge of human power and hubris—the ability to devastate the entire planet.
In his latest book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg uses classified materials and personal notes to describe the seven decades of US policies and practices related to nuclear weapons as “immoral,” “insane,” and “a chronicle of human madness.”
Today we have to look no further than Twitter. 2018 more or less began with the president of the United States using social media to taunt another nuclear-armed country’s president about the size of his… arsenal. A few weeks later, the wrong push of a button led to Hawaiians’ being terrified by a notification that there was an incoming ballistic missile.
While there may be no real nuclear button for anyone to actually push, the use of nuclear weapons is not that far away. It never really has been. “Fire and fury” have put the threat of nuclear war back in the headlines, but it was never off the table. And, where there was once only one, there are now nine countries that can unleash this fire and fury, with North Korea the latest to join the group.
There is one difference, however, between now and decades past. In 2017, activism and advocacy against the bomb, combined with diplomatic action on the international stage, achieved a legal ban on nuclear weapons. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), comprised of 468 nongovernmental organizations in 101 countries, helped to outlaw nuclear weapons—for which it was then awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
This treaty is a feat of collective action by people who came together to do something that had not been tried before. Like anything created by people, it has its imperfections. But it gives a glimpse of what is possible in this world—including that it is possible to do something that all of the “great powers” in the world collectively forbid. Resistance may take time to have an effect, but it can make a difference.
On July 7, 2017, 122 governments voted for the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which outlaws the development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, stationing, deployment, transfer, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons, or assisting with any of these prohibited activities. You can’t do anything with nuclear weapons under this treaty—except get rid of them.
You might not have heard about the ban, though media did cover it at the time—albeit sparsely, and with skepticism. The skepticism was greatly encouraged by the nine countries that possess nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They did not participate in the negotiations. Nor did the countries that claim security from US nuclear weapons, countries that rely on the fantasy of “extended nuclear deterrence” for their perceived protection (those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as Australia, Japan, and South Korea).
Meanwhile, the governments supporting the ban were largely those of the Global South. Most of the countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia led the initiative to ban the bomb. A cross-regional “core group” of countries, comprising Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, together with a number of others such as Costa Rica, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Thailand, drove the process forward despite the opposition to it.
They were compelled to do so by a simple logic, one that seems lost to policy makers in nuclear-armed states. Nuclear weapons have catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences and must never be used again. The only way to ensure that they are never used again is to eliminate them.
The nuclear ban was conceived as part of a set of tools that could help change the politics and economics related to nuclear weapons. It was also a departure from the past practice of allowing the nuclear-armed states to dictate terms to the rest of the world.
The representatives of nuclear-armed states have been dismissive and disrespectful of the views of the rest of the world for decades. Attempts to convince or cajole the nuclear-armed states into nuclear disarmament have been unsuccessful. While the United States and Russia dismantled thousands of warheads after the Cold War, they and the other nuclear-armed states have continued to invest billions since that period in “modernizing” and extending the lives of their nuclear arsenals. These countries broke disarmament commitments made to each other and to the rest of the world. The situation has been untenable for years, but those without nuclear weapons felt unable to change it.
Until now. A flame was lit around 2010, and it grew into a raging fire by 2017. At the beginning of this decade, US President Obama spoke about nuclear disarmament. His rhetoric ignited the imaginations of those who wanted a nuclear-weapon-free world, and this new sense of urgency did not wither away even when Obama’s failed to deliver.
In addition, while progress had stalled on nuclear disarmament, two other weapons causing serious humanitarian harm had been banned: antipersonnel landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008. International treaties prohibited the possession, use, manufacture, and trade of these weapons, and provided for their clearance and elimination. These treaties also set the standard for a new concept of humanitarian disarmament, containing provisions for victim assistance. Facing pressure from well-organized divestment campaigns, banks and pension funds withdrew investments from companies that produced these illegal weapons.
During this period, nuclear weapons had also arguably become more visible as a symbol of oppression and inequality in international relations. Rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union, which had resulted in conflict as well as economic and political inequality around the globe, had ended—but the conflicts and inequalities had not. Even while nuclear war was a fading threat in the consciousness of the general public, the injustice of nuclear weapons was only growing among diplomats representing countries without them.
Given the vested interests of a few powerful countries in favor of retaining nuclear weapons, a key goal was further stigmatize these weapons. Making them illegal, for everyone, is a key part of this stigmatization process. This has been true for biological and chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs. These weapons have not magically disappeared, but their prohibition has led to their stigmatization, to elimination processes, and to condemnation of their use. Those supporting the nuclear ban expect that the prohibition of nuclear weapons will have similar effects.
Stigmatizing nuclear weapons is easier than you might think. Even the handful of countries that possess nuclear weapons of declare US weapons essential for their security suddenly burst with righteous indignation and economic sanctions against any new country that may be developing a nuclear-weapon capacity—at least, against any country that they don’t particularly like. If a North Korean or Iranian bomb is so awful that anything is justified to stop it, how is an American or Russian bomb any different?
The recent process to ban the bomb has, more than any other disarmament initiative before it, exposed the cognitive dissonance of “nuclear deterrence,” illuminating its corrupt self-serving rationale and its influence over international affairs. Those engaged in banning nuclear weapons took away the veil of legitimacy and authority of the nuclear-armed states—dismantling their arguments, disrupting their narratives, and ultimately standing up to their projection of power.
It took governments to negotiate the treaty banning nuclear weapons. But governments alone did not ban nuclear weapons. They could not have done so without the ideas, support, advocacy, analysis, and coordination of activists. In negotiating and adopting the nuclear-ban treaty, Ambassador Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica explained last October, “we acted on behalf of a grand coalition of committed activists, survivors, civil society, scholars and politicians. They were the ones who steadfastly set aside the entreaties of the naysayers—that band of skeptics who at every turn told us we were embarked on a fool’s errand.”
This “grand coalition” began in 2007 in Melbourne, Australia, when a group of committed antinuclear activists founded ICAN, which they envisioned would work at grassroots and diplomatic levels around the world to end the nuclear age. After a few years in action, ICAN began advocating for a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons—even if the nuclear-armed states didn’t support it. This was a radical departure from previous advocacy, which had focused on getting the nuclear-armed states to agree to multilateral nuclear disarmament.
Of course, the story of the nuclear ban doesn’t begin with ICAN. It’s a story rooted in the heroic activism beginning in the 1940s, of countless grassroots initiatives and actions aimed at confronting and resisting the insanity of the age. It’s a story of raging against 70,000+ nuclear bombs at the height of the Cold War. Of fighting against the targeting of cities with massive nuclear violence designed to turn human beings into shadows and smudges amid the smoldering ruins of all that we’ve built and shared as human society.
The story of the nuclear ban—and why it could be achieved now—must also be seen in the much larger context of the broader global resistance to injustice and oppression. In the United States in 2017, we have had Native Nations Rise actions; protests at airports and strikes at bodegas to protect the rights of immigrants; Black Lives Matter actions and professional athletes taking a knee to protest police violence against people of color. Around the world there have been initiatives to protect LGBTQIA people, refugees, workers, the environment. The Women’s March and the #MeToo campaign have smashed through layers of silence, exposing specific men but also disrupting the culture of misogyny, sexism, harassment, assault, and abuse.
Nuclear weapons are part of these bigger systems of patriarchy, racism, militarism, and capitalism—systems that have been challenged throughout history, and that are being challenged now in new ways, from new collectives of people around the world.
For three decades, Carol Cohn has deftly described the association of nuclear weapons with toxic masculinity. This analysis exposes the limitations that gender norms place on possibilities for disarmament and the pursuit of peace. In addition, the placating gestures of the nuclear-armed states that we are all safer because they “responsibly” deploy the capacity to commit mass murder, as well as their denial of people’s lived experience under nuclear testing and terror, are characteristic of patriarchy. Women and LGBTQIA people are leaders in ICAN and the broader antinuclear movement, challenging the normative discourses that traditionally allow certain perspectives to be heard. Women also played a leading role among the diplomats in the process to ban nuclear weapons, with some delegations to the negotiations even being comprised solely of women.
People of color also played a leading role in the nuclear ban. The process was galvanized and led by the nonwhite world, both in terms of governments and civil society. ICAN campaigners from Brazil to Kenya to the Philippines were instrumental in advocacy while most of the governments involved in the process are also from the global south. Indigenous nuclear-test survivors from Australia and the Marshall Islands gave testimony during negotiations alongside Japanese atomic-bomb survivors. Nuclear-weapon policy has long been recognized as racist and colonial. Banning nuclear weapons meant taking a stand against these policies, working together at the United Nations where all countries are supposed to have an equal say.
As with all the other social-justice issues mentioned, laws will not fix everything straight away—and whatever gains are made are assaulted by pushback from those who fear loss of their privilege and power. But things do change. The nuclear ban must be seen in this context: in the context of resistance to injustice, inequality, and oppression; and in the context of making meaningful change through acts of courage.
Key to this process is belief that change is possible. Throughout history, systems of oppression and inequality have cracked, crumbled, and been decimated. The changes necessary to achieve this were mostly not instant, but iterative. They happened because of the persistence of people who believed that change could and must occur, who fought even when the odds were stacked against them. People who took the smallest gains as immense victories because they could recognize that every chink in the armor of power weakens its foundations, making it more and more vulnerable to pressure.
Those working for the nuclear ban based our actions in resistance. Resistance to the pressure from nuclear-armed and nuclear-alliance states. Resistance to attitudes of cynicism and of defeatism. Resistance to staying the course, being placated, being told to be patient, that the “important” countries will handle this matter.
And, hope. Hope that change is possible. Hope that by working together we can achieve something that can disrupt some of the most powerful, heavily militarized structures and doctrines in the entire world. Hope that a shared sense of humanity could prevail against all odds—but with the knowledge that even if did not prevail, we still had to try. After the ban treaty was adopted on July 7, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney quoted poet Seamus Heaney in his remarks, noting that “hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is a good worth working for.”
Things are changing, just as we hoped they would, in ways we cannot possibly know in advance. What else can we achieve by standing together to confront power in the name of justice and humanity?