With an alphabet soup of treaties, why haven’t we achieved disarmament?

We need a cooperative movement of movements for peace

By David Krieger

Nuclear weapons, unique in their power and capacity for destruction, pose an existential threat to humanity. Their inability to discriminate between soldiers and civilians, diversion of resources from social necessities, and concentration of power within a small number of leaders in a small number of countries make them incompatible with a just and sustainable world.

Fortunately, the number of nuclear weapons that exist today (nearly 15,000 across nine nuclear-armed countries) is far fewer than the Cold War peak of 70,000. But it is still enough to destroy civilization several times over. The vast majority of these weapons are in the arsenals of the US and Russia, the two countries that have always led the nuclear arms race.

It is clear that the status quo is not working. The paradigms of arms control and non-proliferation that dominate international diplomacy assume the continued existence of nuclear weapons. However, the dangers inherent in nuclear weapons will remain whether there are tens of thousands or only a few. As long as they exist, they can be used, whether by malicious intent, miscalculation or careless accident.

A Brief History of the Nuclear Age

In 1945, the US shocked the world by becoming the first country to use the atomic bomb in war, killing tens of thousands of people in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The immense power of this most deadly of weapons set off an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the emergent superpowers of the postwar era. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept the use of these weapons in check. But in 1962, restraint was nearly abandoned. In a thirteen-day confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union after the Soviet placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba—known as the Cuban Missile Crisis—the outbreak of a World War III, now with nuclear weapons, became a very real possibility.


The dangers inherent in nuclear weapons will remain whether there are tens of thousands or only a few

After reaching the brink, the US, UK, and Soviet Union took steps to control the nuclear arms race. First, the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. The PTBT’s preamble stated clearly that it sought “to achieve the discontinuance of all test explosions of nuclear weapons for all time, [and was] determined to continue negotiations to this end.” But it would take another 33 years for the international community to adopt and open for signatures the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which went beyond the PTBT to ban all nuclear testing, including oft-used underground testing. However, the CTBT has yet to secure the necessary support to enter into force.

The second treaty in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970. It aims not only to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries but also, importantly, to provide for the disarmament of then existing nuclear states: the US, USSR, UK, France, and China. Indeed, the NPT could have been more accurately called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Treaty. Parties agreed to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” But a major loophole undermined non-proliferation: the treaty refers to nuclear energy as an “inalienable right.” Israel, India, and Pakistan never signed the NPT, and drew upon their so-called peaceful nuclear programs to develop nuclear weapons, while North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006.

The next two decades saw continued efforts by the Cold War superpowers to mitigate the risks of nuclear war. In 1972, the US and Soviet Union entered into the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which set limits on the number of sites that could be protected with missile defense systems (the deployment of ABM systems had exacerbated the arms race as countries sought to build even more powerful weapons to overcome them). Then, at a 1986 summit in Reykjavík, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev jointly stated that “a nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought.” They came close to agreeing to abolish their nuclear arsenals, but negotiations collapsed over Reagan’s insistence on developing missile defenses. With the fall of the Soviet Union several years later, the Cold War came to an end, but bloated nuclear arsenals remain a troublesome and dangerous legacy of Cold War rivalry that has been difficult to dislodge.

The post-Cold War era has offered a mixed landscape on nuclear disarmament. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty, and soon began deploying missile defense installations in Eastern Europe near the Russian border, purportedly against a threat from Iran. But Russia is concerned that their real purpose is to take out any Russian offensive missiles that might survive a US first strike. The US abrogation of the ABM Treaty also removed restraints on stationing weapons in outer space. US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty may prove to be the single greatest blunder of the nuclear age.

This checkered history notwithstanding, there has been some progress. A series of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) have substantially reduced US and Russian arsenals. As of 2018, each country is limited to the deployment of 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons, still far more than enough to destroy most humans and other complex forms of life on the planet.

Ban treaty celebration

The Swedish IPPNW delegation celebrates moments after the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passes at the UN, July 7, 2017. ) Photo: Ralf Schlesner, courtesy of ICAN.)

In July 2017, the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the result of a partnership between the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of civil society organizations, and most non-nuclear weapon states. They joined forces to assert that nuclear war would be a dead end for humanity, with a total ban on nuclear weapons the only way out. ICAN’s 2017 Nobel Peace Prize builds momentum, but achieving the necessary ratifications of 50 countries will take time. The US, UK, and France have vowed never to sign or ratify it, preferring to control their own nuclear arsenals rather than to cooperate in preserving a livable world—a reminder of the entrenched opposition the nuclear abolition movement faces.

Just as no nation can succeed on its own, in our interdependent world, no movement seeking fundamental change can truly succeed on its own. However, movements are too often isolated in different issue silos, competing for support and scarce resources. This fragmentation erodes unity and long-term impact. The nuclear abolition movement must join with other movements seeking systemic global change.

Challenges for Movement-Building

The nuclear disarmament movement reached its apex in the early 1980s, when the arms race looked bleakest. In 1982, more than a million people took to the streets in New York to demand that the number of nuclear weapons be frozen and further deployment cease, a fairly modest goal. However, once the Cold War ended interest in nuclear disarmament issues rapidly faded.

Various factors have contributed to this decline in enthusiasm. First and foremost is ignorance. The awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons lacks tangibility since they are largely kept out of the public sight and mind. As a result, many in nuclear-armed countries see them as a positive source of prestige and necessity for security. Nuclear countries boast of technological achievement and belonging to an exclusive “club,” when possessing nuclear weapons, in fact, makes countries more likely to be nuclear targets themselves.

Beyond ignorance and its cousin pride, another source of apathy is a sense of fatigue. It is very difficult to sustain such fear in the public mind year after year, decade after decade, in the absence of nuclear war. The world has come close on many occasions, but malice, madness, or mistake has not yet triggered the use of nuclear weapons in war since World War II. Nonetheless, only by sounding the alarm can we build a movement with sufficient power to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all.

Cut Trident

Progress on disarmament will be made when we recognize the impact on social issues. (Photo: Dun.can, Wikicommons.)

Even when people understand the dangers of nuclear weapons, however, they may still be paralyzed by a perceived lack of power to bring about change. With decision-making power on nuclear policy highly centralized, individuals lack influence—unless they become politically active in large numbers. Ironically, the perception of impotence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that impedes movement-building and effective change.

The only way to change direction is to build a strong popular movement, in the nuclear-armed countries and throughout the world, to delegitimize nuclear weapons, support the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons, and oppose reliance on nuclear arsenals.

Toward Systemic Change

Nuclear abolition requires collective global action—a deep shift in values and institutions lest the forces that created the nuclear age continue to prevail. As such, a reinvigorated nuclear abolition movement must join forces with other movements seeking systemic change. Synergy is most promising between the nuclear abolition movement and the wider peace movement, the environmental movement, and the economic justice movement. Each of these movements demands a global sensibility and global action. And each calls into question the governing assumptions of society that have led us down an unsustainable path.

Golden Rule

Veterans for Peace have relaunched the Golden Rule to help reinvigorate the peace movement (Photo: The Golden Rule Project)

Such synergy may be asking a lot of a US and global peace movement that appears to be exhausted after the long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East that have dragged on for more than a decade. But there are bright spots. New approaches to peace literacy are sprouting up. Veterans groups, such as Veterans for Peace (VFP), have helped to reinvigorate the peace movement and have resurrected the Golden Rule, a ship that first sailed in the 1950s to protest atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Now, she sails again in support of nuclear abolition and to display the bravery and tenacity that can overcome militarism. VFP also supports such disarmament projects as the lawsuits filed by the Marshall Islands in 2014 at the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear-armed countries. (Although the lawsuit was dismissed, this type of action helps to forge a united front for a livable future.) The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and other groups work to support veterans who have suffered radiation exposure from nuclear tests.

Nuclear abolition has not been high on the priority list of the environmental movement, which, at least in the US, has been preoccupied with defensive battles against an administration intent on rolling back environmental protection. Even before, it focused on tangible and immediately pressing battles while tackling such planetary-scale threats as ozone depletion and climate change.

Environmentalists have, however, sounded the alarm on the deleterious impacts of so-called “peaceful” nuclear power, particularly in the aftermath of the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, and Fukushima in Japan. And, as nuclear energy always contains within it the possibility of nuclear proliferation, advocates of nuclear abolition must likewise get behind the fight for a renewables-driven clean economy that would render such technology unnecessary.

The economic justice movement should recognize the deprivation that has resulted from the vast overspending on nuclear weapons. The US alone has spent more than $7.5 trillion on its nuclear arsenal, and plans to spend $1.7 trillion more over the next three decades to modernize it. World nuclear weapons expenditures exceed $1 trillion per decade, with the US accounting for over sixty percent of the total, with Russia accounting for 14 percent and China 7 percent. These resources could be far better used to provide food, clean water, shelter, health care, and education to those in need.


The economic justice movement should recognize the deprivation that has resulted from the vast overspending on nuclear weapons

Nuclear abolition serves the cause of economic justice. Equally, those of us who care about the nuclear threat need to advocate for greater justice. Economic inequality within and between nations fosters polarization, migration pressure, and geopolitical conflict, thereby raising the risk of (nuclear) war. Thus the peace movement has powerful incentives to ally with social justice movements.

Peace, a healthy environment, and economic justice will remain elusive in a nuclear world. A cooperative movement of movements would enhance the capacity of each constituent to achieve its own goals, while fostering the cross-movement solidarity that can bring a Great Transition future. With the alarms sounding, the time has come to act together with a sense of urgency.

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. This article was first published in August 8, 2018 on the Great Transition Initiative website and is reproduced with permission of the author and Tellus Institute.

Headline photo shows a visit by ICAN executive director, Beatrice Fihn, to the Faslane Peace Camp in Scotland. (Photo: Faslane Peace Camp.)

If you’d like to be the first to read stories like these, sign up for our Monday email digest. We will send you a very brief synopsis of the new stories on our site, with links to read them and learn more. Sign up today!

%d bloggers like this: