“Come Together in Peace” poster, between 1965 and 1975 © Yanker Poster Collection | Library of Congress
It would be tragic if the nuclear peril illuminations of the war in Ukraine were wasted. But what if, instead, they were fulfilled?
National security mavens, knowing the risks of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) deterrence better than anyone, could explore its theoretical and practical alternatives, much as key members of the inventing generation of nuclear physicists sought to head off the arms race. With scholars, activists, and statespeople working together, realistic and achievable steps toward a world without nuclear weapons could be defined. Politicians could articulate the unbreakable—if often obscure—link between parochial interests and global well-being. Emulating those who attempted it before, world leaders could conjure revisions in the international structures of security, enabling nuclear haves to yield their arsenals, and nuclear have-nots to yield their ambition to acquire them.
None of this will happen if left to states and corporations alone, but even states and corporations can be pressed from below. See Poland’s Solidarity Movement and New Forum in East Germany, each of which was a massive grassroots movement key to the nonviolent overthrow of brutal Communist dictatorships. See La Causa, the seventies era grape-and-lettuce boycott campaign of the United Farm Workers that forced U.S. agribusiness to recognize farm workers’ unions. Indeed, the U.S. peace movement, having periodically bent the arc of history in the past—that halting of U.S. escalations in Vietnam, that Nuclear Freeze underwriting the nonviolent end of the Cold War—could rise to the occasion once more.
As at crucial turning points in the past, it falls to citizens everywhere—in civic organizations, religious groups, professional associations, student bodies, political parties, environmental activists, trade unions, worker co-ops, senior circles, business syndicates, sports leagues, feminist collectives—to mobilize a mass movement of nonviolent change, lifting up the required new vision, insisting on its feasibility.
The slogan “Ban the Bomb” was adopted by anti-nuclear activists in the early fifties, a relatively innocent time if measured by the low numbers of nuclear weapons in existence: but a decisive turning point, too, since that was when the hydrogen bomb, moving fission to fusion, began to be deployed in such numbers as also to move the scale of potential consequences from genocide to omnicide. Since then, dozens of anti-nuke organizations put stakes in the ground: groups like the Clamshell Alliance, the Plowshares movement, Greenpeace, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), Global Zero, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Such dedicated activists have maintained an abolitionist position through the ups and downs of political fashion and media distraction.
Taken individually and collectively, these groups now amount to eddies, backwaters and counter-currents running along the margins of today’s tsunami rush toward rearmament. Yet given the manifest truth of global danger that much of the world has glimpsed in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, these veteran groups can stand, shifting the metaphor, not as pooled water, but as steel—the skeletal girding of a renewed international structure that could now be readily erected.
But a revived anti-nuke movement will not begin with a debate-ending demand for massive surrenders of national sovereignty, the insistence that has undercut nuclear abolition for decades.
Rather, I suggest we should start with the far simpler appeal for “shared” oversight of the globe’s nuclear arsenals, a multilateral cooperation akin to what long defined the successful, if now moribund, arms control regime. In light of the recently laid bare dangers of one man’s radically unshared nuclear domination, such a call today can seem less radical than ever.
Yet mechanisms for that “sharing”—the word that American statesman Henry Stimson used in 1945, proposing that the U.S. “share” the bomb with the USSR—can only be established through a reinvigorated arms control project, which assumes a major effort by the international cohort of technical experts and politically empowered world leaders.
Ironically, the fact that present-day arms control—with Moscow disqualified, Washington re-weaponized, and Beijing uninterested—is demonstrably dead in the water may yet offer the impetus towards the truly fresh start that is needed. Why can the primal recognition of radical self-interest, which turned the Soviet Union and the United States away from nuclear competition toward nuclear cooperation, not be recapitulated? How could that radical self-interest, applying to all the great powers, be more manifest than it is in the wake of Putin’s saber rattling?
And today, in this ever more technologically determined era, nuclear cooperation among nations would be more achievable than it ever was during the Cold War. Provisions for mutual verification, cooperative intelligence, jointly authorized satellite surveillance: together with the whole range of newly invented cross-border cybersecurity systems, all could make the “sharing” which is essential to “control” far less problematic than it was in the arms control heyday of the eighties and nineties.
Through all of that, returning to the first point, it remains true that the necessity for diminished forms of national sovereignty for all parties will become clear, but that recognition can come as the back end of this new negotiations regime, instead of as a deal-killer at the front end.
In other words, the “shared sovereignty” transformation at the levels both of strategic theory and military practice, can unfold organically—in synchrony with the manifold changes that are already reshaping the transcendent mutuality of nations. As global economic interdependence and unfettered information exchange—not to mention the worldwide health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic—make clear, national sovereignty is simply not what it was just a few decades ago. In this unprecedented context, a laserlike focus on banning the bomb can be a politically viable process, surpassing the failed efforts of bygone years, and even leading to the broader mitigation of “militarism” toward which peace movements have striven without success. A dynamic thus rooted less in peacenik moralism than in the agreed necessities of species survival—the project that defines the human condition now—can lead naturally to the agreed “internationalism” a world without nuclear weapons requires.
Which brings me back to the United Nations.
If the first resolution ever passed by the General Assembly was, as we saw, that 1946 call on nations to reject nuclear weapons, then how can this more recent call be ignored? In 2017—only five years ago!—the General Assembly approved the UN’s first formal ban—the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Representatives of the 122 nations who voted for the Treaty were surely aware that, again and again, beginning with that first resolution 61 years before, disarmament promises by nuclear powers had gone unfulfilled, but the Prohibition Treaty advocates insisted that the time for waiting was over.
There should be no surprise that the nine nuclear powers ignored the new Treaty, as did the 30 member states of NATO, with the exception of the Netherlands. In a way, that refusal to engage the question only emphasized the Treaty proponents’ point when they described themselves as “concerned” by “the slow pace of nuclear disarmament, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons in military and security concepts, doctrines and policies, and the waste of economic and human resources on programs for the production, maintenance and modernization of nuclear weapons.”
The Treaty’s proposed “prohibition” is not based on the warm wishes of an unreal world, but on universally agreed propositions and social norms as they already exist today. The treaty is founded, as the text says, “on the principles and rules of international humanitarian law, in particular the principle that the right of parties to an armed conflict to choose methods or means of warfare is not unlimited; the rule of distinction, the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks; the rules on proportionality and precautions in attack; the prohibition on the use of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering; and the rules for the protection of the natural environment.”
There’s the point: “Any use of nuclear weapons would be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, in particular the principles and rules of international humanitarian law.” This prohibition is not a new law: the use of nuclear weapons is already illegal. And the point is distilled further: “Any use of nuclear weapons would also be abhorrent to the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.”
The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) drew little notice at first. Even when, upon its ratification by the fiftieth nation in January of 2021, it formally entered into force, the worldwide news media barely took note.
In all honesty, I myself paid it little heed at first, wearily assuming the call to prohibit nukes was yet another wild-eyed dream of “elimination.”
But my return in this reflection to the previous post-war moments, when new international structures of peace were attempted, has made me see the perennial relevance of just such an impulse. That the League of Nations failed—and that the United Nations itself fell short of what the nuclear age required—does not mean that the once-attempted construction of cross-border institutions of law and order should not be pursued again. Indeed, those previous endeavors might be taken as dress rehearsals for what now amounts to the main event. The renewed movement to prohibit nuclear weapons can be the needed impetus for a larger recasting of the United Nations itself, an institution that has already moved to a fix-or-finish crisis on multiple fronts.
Obviously, after Russia’s self-banishment from the center of responsible international statecraft, Moscow’s holding veto power over the UN Security Council decisions is impossible to sustain. Vladimir Putin, and those who uphold him in Russia, remain a monumental present obstacle to any movement of these crucial questions. But Putin and his kind must not be allowed to hold the world’s future hostage.
Even abstracting from Russia’s present disqualification, the reinvention of the Security Council itself is an absolute mandate now. It is an outmoded structure whose veto-wielding permanent members are the U.S., France, the UK, Russia, and China—privileged status belonging to the victors of World War II. Why should the veto be exclusive to them in the twenty-first century?
The question of the Security Council’s stand-alone dominance over the UN General Assembly is already being revisited. The ghosts of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt hover in the eaves of the Security Council chamber and the Assembly Hall both. New visions of the future will be articulated. New orders of shared power will be created.
As was true in 1945, nuclear weapons once again are the pressure point of change. That the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons already stands as the United Nations’ own declaration of intent could not be more fortuitous. That it has only narrowly registered with the public since 2017 does not mean that, in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, its moment will not come.
True, with the United States and Russia in particular (each with its mutually enabling preoccupation), pretending not to hear the plea of billions of human beings, the Treaty did indeed seem dismissably wishful at first. But that plea lands differently now, globally endorsed by hundreds of groups representing hundreds of thousands of people.
In August, half a year into the war in Ukraine, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, warning of the danger exacerbated by that unfolding catastrophe, said that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” At that moment, Russian forces were using Europe’s largest nuclear power plant—in Zaporizhzhia in south-eastern Ukraine—as a military base from which to shell Ukrainian forces, knowing that Ukrainians could not return fire without risking a nuclear disaster. Guterres condemned the Russian strategy of making the nuclear plant into a human shield as “suicidal.” Yet it, too, was a revelation.
The great unveilings of Putin’s war have given the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons a sudden and unexpected salience as a starting point of the new era. As the possible starting point of a reinvented United Nations itself, the Treaty is the unmistakable marker at that fork in the road.
Can we choose a new direction, at last? My mind goes back to what prompted this long examination of conscience.
I recall what I saw at the outbreak of Putin’s war in Ukraine—not so much his venality, but Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s nobility. A first surprise. At the beginning of this reflection, I assumed, like most observers, that Ukrainian resistance, however valiant, would quickly fail—and the Russians would overrun the country. That Ukraine held on; pushing the Russians back was the second surprise. Even when the war reached a stalemate, the astonishment of that first surprise did not fade—that in the Ukrainian people’s defense of their shared common good was laid bare with unprecedented clarity what I, and others like me in the West, had been striving toward across our whole lives.
The social virtue—a commonwealth of liberal democracy—that Zelenskyy and his nation were prepared to die for, was what I had been trying to shore up ever since I’d first glimpsed its American shape in the prophets of my youth: from Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day to John F. Kennedy and Daniel Berrigan. And what Ukraine has been showing me all these months is that it is possible not only to want such values, and to defend them, but actually to fight to enable them to prevail. The impossible, in the transforming spaciousness of imagination and courage, is possible.
At first, in seeing such purpose in the bloody resistance to Putin, I had found myself in favor of war—an unprecedented turn.
But now—without yielding that visceral moral commitment—I see as I never had before, in relation to the transcendent threat of nuclear devastation, that the embrace of peace is more urgent than ever. The nations of the world, with the next leg of the nuclear arms race well begun, are on the cusp of abandoning the dream of peace once and for all.
But peace is still possible. Without moralism or naïveté, I am convinced we can insist on that.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the next front in the battle against the Putins of the world—including the Putins that live in us. And if Zelenskyy and his people can stand against the odds in defending their land with no guarantees for the outcome—precisely because of the truth and justice embodied in their struggle—why can the rest of us not stand against the odds in defending the human future?
James Carroll is the author, most recently, of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie.