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What’s Next for the Nuclear Disarmament Movement?

Can a dazzling long-term mission—the abolition of nuclear weapons—be achieved through a series of small victories, like those of the last 19 months?

The last 19 months have been a tumultuous time for the nuclear disarmament movement, placing it, today, on the cusp of some important decisions about its future direction.

Nuclear Security Summit Photo by Globovision

President Obama with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. April 12, 2010.

Photo by Globovisión.

Many advocates of nuclear disarmament felt considerable elation at the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In previous years, the Bush administration had scrapped the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, refused to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, championed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons, and abandoned arms control and disarmament negotiations. Obama, by contrast, not only promised to reverse these priorities, but—during and after his campaign—stated his commitment to building a nuclear weapons-free world.

To be sure, there was a sense of letdown among disarmament activists in April 2010, when the Obama administration's long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review showed no significant departures from previous U.S. nuclear doctrine. Furthermore—in an apparent attempt to secure Republican support for Senate ratification of nuclear disarmament treaties—the administration began championing a 10-year, $180 billion plan to "modernize" the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Nevertheless, the successful negotiation of the New START Treaty with Russia and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, held in May at the United Nations, raised expectations for substantial progress on banning the bomb.

Civil Society and the NPT

The May 2010 NPT review conference, particularly, provided a focal point for nuclear disarmament movement energies. About a year before, recognizing the opportunity for publicity and change provided by the conference, peace and disarmament organizations had begun to draw together around it. In the United States, these organizations included the American Friends Service Committee, the disarmament group of United for Peace & Justice, Peace Action, and the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom. Abroad, their ranks included Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, France's Mouvement de la Paix, and the Japan Council against Atomic & Hydrogen Bombs, as well as the major worldwide coalition of peace organizations, the International Peace Bureau.

Gradually, plans coalesced for three key anti-nuclear ventures. The first of these was a worldwide petition drive urging Obama to initiate negotiations for a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. The second was an international conference of activists, to be held in the days leading up to the opening of the NPT conference, calling for a nuclear-free world. And the third, scheduled for May 2, the day preceding the opening of the NPT conclave, was a mass nuclear abolition rally and march.

Can this mixture of somewhat mundane incremental steps and a dazzling long-range vision—the vision of a nuclear-free world—be sustained?

As plans for these events moved forward, mainstream organizations proclaimed their support for nuclear abolition, including the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. They were joined by important international organizations, such as Mayors for Peace and the International Trade Union Confederation. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who in October 2008 had announced a five-point plan toward a nuclear-free world, highlighted the NPT review conference as a potential turning point in the long struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The result was an impressive mobilization of civil society. From April 30 to May 1, 2010, the organizers convened at New York's Riverside Church, an "International Conference for a Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World." Attended by more than 800 people from 30 nations, this standing-room-only gathering featured speeches by numerous movement leaders, including Tadatoshi Akiba (mayor of Hiroshima) and Tomas Magnusson (president of the International Peace Bureau). In a keynote address to the assemblage, Ban Ki-moon declared that "what I see on the horizon is a world free of nuclear weapons. What I see before me are the people who will make this happen…We will rid the world of nuclear weapons. And when we do, it will be because of people like you."

May 2 Nuclear Rally Photo by Asterix611

People gathered to march at the International March for Peace and a Nuclear-Free Future 2010. The rally began at Times Square and finished at the United Nations building in New York on May 2, 2010.

Photo by Asterix611.

On May 2, a mass nuclear abolition rally and march swept through New York City, from Times Square to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations. Among the 15,000 participants were an estimated 2,000 Japanese and about a thousand other demonstrators from around the world. Two days later, event organizers delivered nuclear abolition petitions, signed by some seven million people, to the chair of the NPT review conference, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines.

Media Blackout

To the dismay of their organizers, these important and very colorful events were met with an almost total news blackout by the mass communications media. The best of the lot, the PBS News Hour, devoted about 30 seconds to the May 2 rally. And that was it. None of the major newspapers or commercial television networks in the United States, including those in New York City, gave any coverage to these civil society events. The usual chatter about movie stars, athletes, and terrorist threats flooded the TV news networks ad nauseum. But the rising public demand for nuclear disarmament—the largest since the 1980s—went unmentioned.

By the end of May, the UN conferees had come up with a consensus document that urged nations with the largest nuclear arsenals to lead efforts toward disarmament, called on all nations to agree to more thorough inspections of their facilities, and announced plans for the convening of a conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons."

Against the backdrop of 2005's disastrous NPT review conference, held during the Bush administration, some arms control and disarmament organizations expressed guarded praise for what had been accomplished in 2010. The Arms Control Association hailed the gathering's "modest but important forward-looking plan of action on disarmament, strengthening safeguards, and achieving universal adherence to NPT norms."

But, from the standpoint of the activist groups that had pulled together the popular mobilization for nuclear abolition, the NPT conference resolution was a serious disappointment. Highlighting the fact that the resolution largely restated past commitments, many leading activists emphasized its failure to break new ground. "This is an action plan for treading water," observed Jackie Cabasso, a key figure in the UFPJ disarmament group. Similarly, the Abolition Caucus of NGOs argued that "the gap between reassuring rhetoric about nuclear disarmament and real programs to rid the world of nuclear weapons" remained "unacceptably wide."  Even so, noted John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, "the voices of civil society and of a growing number of countries were heard louder than ever," and "these voices will not be stilled."

Movement Options

Reflecting on the contrast between the Obama administration's nuclear abolition rhetoric and its record, Kevin Martin, executive director of America's largest peace organization, Peace Action, concluded that supporters of a nuclear-free world needed to wake up to the reality that the administration's nuclear disarmament activities were going to be quite limited without very substantial movement pressure. "Obama is in a way being held accountable to expectations he himself raised," Martin remarked, "when in fact it appears all he ever had in mind was a return to the modest, incremental arms reduction treaties of the 1980s and 1990s, not a serious push toward eliminating nuclear weapons." In this context, peace and disarmament groups would have to take a more proactive role, endorsing incremental measures while, at the same time, keeping the idea of nuclear abolition at the forefront of public discussion. This seems to be their likely strategy for the future.

In specific terms, this approach will probably mean that the nuclear disarmament movement will back U.S. Senate ratification of the New START Treaty and of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and oppose congressional funding of the administration's nuclear "modernization" plan, while steadfastly championing the opening of negotiations for a nuclear abolition treaty. If the conference on a Middle East nuclear-free zone gets off the ground—and it might not, given strong Israeli government resistance—the movement will almost certainly support that venture as well.

Can this mixture of somewhat mundane incremental steps and a dazzling long-range vision—the vision of a nuclear-free world—be sustained? It will require activists willing to put significant efforts into securing immediate gains on the road to their long-term goal, and vigorously champion their long-term goal as they engage in immediate struggles. Over the course of history, this has always been a tricky balancing act for social change movements. But with wise leadership and a committed following, there is no reason that the nuclear disarmament movement—which, after all, has campaigned against the bomb, with some effectiveness, for 65 years—cannot manage it in the future.


Lawrence WittnerLawrence Wittner is professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

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