September 20, 2017: Speech by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko during the 72th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Image credit: Drop of Light/

I argue in my six-part essay “Revelations of the War In Ukraine” that Vladimir Putin’s “no bluff” brandishing of the nuclear sword makes irrefutably clear the urgency of returning to the task of nuclear abolition—a task belonging not only to the Left, but to world leaders, and to citizens everywhere. Yet I then fault the tradition of anti-nuclear activism to which I have long belonged for its irresponsible refusal—or simple inability—to engage with the real-world demands of what nuclear abolition actually requires. 

Objectors like me, thinking magically, have wanted the world as it is, but without nukes. We haven’t done the hard work, I complain, of thinking the problem all the way through to its most difficult part, which involves questions of national sovereignty, state power, corporate dominance, and the difficulty of corralling the world-ending destructiveness of weapons technologies. It is foolish to dismiss such objections lightly, and any effort to reimagine our nuclear future must take them up again and again. The responses I’ve had to my essay—like others likely to come—require me to reconsider the core argument I am making. That is the point, after all, of presenting the case in Public Seminar.

I am grateful to Frida Berrigan, Jeremy Varon, Robert Jay Lifton, Robert Edwards, and Randall Kennedy for their gracious and thoughtful responses to my essay. The difficulties involved in the vision I lay out are implicit in some of their reactions, and other readings press even more forcefully against some of my assumptions. Andrew Bacevich, the distinguished historian associated with the Quincy Institute, was generous enough to engage my proposals in a conversation hosted by Christopher Lydon’s Open Source Radio. Professor Bacevich surely spoke for many in detecting more than a whiff of utopian wishfulness in my thinking. I am grateful for all these reactions precisely because they prompt me to ask again the hard question: Is what I propose as a way forward out of the nuclear abyss any more “realistic” than what has been proposed by the short-fall abolitionism I have myself criticized?

I assert in the essay that, in order to be free of the world-threatening prospect of nuclear annihilation, humans must create international structures of security that enable nuclear haves to yield their arsenals, and enable nuclear have-nots to yield their ambition to acquire them. I then go on to assert—and here my critics begin to close in—that the first steps toward that reimagined world order can be taken from the starting place of the United Nations. In particular, I lift up the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons., which was adopted by 122 nations, and went into force in 2021 when 50 nations formally ratified it. A signal of that treaty’s wild-eyed impracticality is taken to be the fact that, excepting Netherlands, no NATO member state accepts it, never mind any of the nine nuclear weapons states. Furthermore, the prospect of the UN as a center of new forms of world comity in the aftermath of Russian aggression in Ukraine is made ludicrous by Russia’s continued standing as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council. Really, James.

In politics, as in all human affairs, there is the near-term, and there is the long-term. Definitions of what is possible focused exclusively on the former have been upended again and again by outcomes in the latter. The first point I meant to emphasize in my essay is that the hair-trigger delicacy of nuclear deterrence—the balance of terror on which the international order stands—has been shown by Putin’s sociopathic malevolence to be radically unsustainable. (Donald Trump’s locker-room boast about the size of his nuclear button was smaller scale, but still frightening, American forecast of this revelation.) But the Ukraine epiphany comes not only from Putin: the corrupt Russian military’s now blatantly apparent ineptitude shows that Moscow’s doomsday arsenal is almost certainly not subject to the minimally competent procedures of command and control that are essential to nuclear oversight. And whatever international systems of safeguards, norms, weapons management, red-alert communications, forms of mutual verification and other precautions might once have enabled the balance of terror to hold, it is clear now that all such buffers have eroded. The guardrails are down. Ironically, the countering equilibrium of the Cold War was the very thing that allowed all such checking measures to work. Obviously, the equilibrium is gone. The vestigial myth of fail-safe has itself become the danger because it underwrites the habit of looking away from the peril. But Putin is making us look again.

The first principle of animal evolution is that felt danger precedes adaptive action. Across millennia, the human species has survived by responding to extinction threats by creating survival strategies, and that is what can happen now. To fall back, as the Right and Left both do, into well-worn disdain for the United Nations as an outmoded vehicle for significant adaptation is to ignore the changes that make the twenty-first century different from the twentieth. Most obviously, arrangements of national sovereignty are not what they were. The nation state as invented in the enlightenment era—and as enshrined in the UN Charter—no longer exists, anymore than geographic boundaries drawn on maps meaningfully limit collective identity. The invention of new modes of transnational commonwealth is an unfinished project. The vigor with which it is being resisted by ethnic chauvinists of many stripes shows the power of the dawning social mutation, a transformation being shaped by pressures from markets, media, transportation, mass migration, and other factors, including viruses. My insistence is that chief among the pressures that can now reshape the international order is the increasingly acknowledged extremity of nuclear danger. 

It is time to rekindle the founders’ hope for the United Nations. Like ours can be, that hope first came in the form of determination to push back against the weaponized atom—that General Assembly call in 1946 to reject the nuclear bomb. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons should be seen not as the end of this movement, but as a new beginning. Advancing that treaty; arguing for it; organizing around it; recruiting supporters from civic groups of all kinds, including scientists, academics, pundits, and students—all this is exactly the sort of on-the-ground, practical work that real change requires. A new peace movement cries out to be ignited. It is not too much to expect that credentialed members of the national security elites and military leaders would come over to this cause, since they know the nuclear hazard better than anyone. After all, that happened before, with first generation atomic physicists like Leo Szilard and Andrei Sakharov, as well as second-generation nuclear mandarins like Paul Nitze and Henry Kissinger, turning against the bomb they had unleashed.

With the UN’s nuclear prohibition treaty, a stake has been planted in uncharted territory, and no one should foreclose the possibility that it will lead to others, as yet unconceived. Indeed—and this should always be emphasized—this is something that happened before, when, in ten short years, the Nuclear Freeze campaign was instrumental in transforming the arms race: first, into arms reduction, and then, into the non-violent end of the Cold War.

The United Nations is a work in progress. A hundred years from now—indulging a projection derived from that theme of the long-term—its successor organization will be very different from what the UN is today. The post–World War II appointment of a controlling victors’ oligarchy—the current veto-empowered Security Council—will have yielded to another as yet unimagined cooperative executive, with real power being invested in a more democratic governance that gives voice to the peoples of the world. It is impossible, as of now, to know precisely how such cooperative global agreement will have been reached, but the controlling impetus will surely have been the ancient one—of finding a way to survive the threat of species extinction.

There is the essential point, the one with which I respond to all my critics. As the Ukrainian people’s valiant resistance to Russia was at first derided as “unrealistic,” so with what I propose—the urgent replacement of an international order based on the suicide-pact of mutual assured destruction. What I propose is not pie-in-the-sky, but the only possible protection of life on earth. 

James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.

Click here to read James Carroll’s six-part series reckoning with nuclear weapons, peace activism, and war in Ukraine. The series was accompanied by responses from Frida Berrigan, Robert Edwards, Randall Kennedy, Robert Jay Lifton, and Jeremy Varon.

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