The fate of the world depends upon whether humankind will be able to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals. Nuclear weapons, designed to cause massive damage to large populations, are essentially city-destroying weapons, as was tragically demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These weapons may be created in the hope that they will never be used, but this cannot be guaranteed. Once created, nuclear weapons are an ongoing threat to humanity and other forms of life. So long as these weapons exist, no leader can provide a guarantee that they will not be used.

I keep on my desk a small booklet, published by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, with the words of General George Lee Butler, a former Commander of the United States Strategic Command. General Butler, who advocates abolition of all nuclear weapons, believes that humanity has been given a “second chance” by our Creator. Here is the perspective of this retired four-star general who now sees himself simply as “a citizen of this planet”:

“Sadly, the Cold War lives on in the minds of men who cannot let go the fears, the beliefs, the enmities of the Nuclear Age. They cling to deterrence, clutch its tattered promise to their breast, shake it wistfully at bygone adversaries and balefully at new or imagined ones. They are gripped still by its awful willingness not simply to tempt the apocalypse but to prepare its way.

“To them I say we cannot at once keep sacred the miracle of existence and hold sacrosanct the capacity to destroy it. It is time to reassert the primacy of individual conscience, the voice of reason and the rightful interests of humanity.” 1

These are powerful words, not the kind we are accustomed to hearing from politicians or military leaders. General Butler, an anomaly, is a retired air force officer, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, who once commanded the entire US strategic nuclear arsenal, and came away from this experience sobered by what he had learned. For a short time, General Butler spoke eloquently for a world free of nuclear weapons, his military background giving authenticity to his concerns.

But there are few military men such as General Butler, and fewer still who have spoken publicly on this most important of all issues confronting humanity. For the most part, military leaders and politicians appear comfortable moving forward with only slight variations of the nuclear status quo. It appears that if there is to be change toward a world free of nuclear threat, the leadership must come from civil society organizations. These organizations face the challenge of awakening largely dormant populations within somnambulistic societies that seem content to sleepwalk toward Armageddon.

Civil Society Leadership

In the area of nuclear disarmament, the role of civil society leadership is critical. We obviously cannot depend upon political leadership, which is capable in our frenetic world of only dealing with problems as they become acute. There is a furious pace to politics that dulls the political imagination and often results in less than visionary leadership.

There are two possible paths to awakening the political imagination on the issue of nuclear disarmament. The first and tragic possibility would be a sadly belated response to a nuclear detonation destroying a city, whether by accident or design, by a nuclear weapons state or by a non-state extremist group. The second would be by an effective campaign led by civil society that awakened and empowered the people of the planet to put sufficient pressure on their political leaders for them to take action as a political expedient without needing to engage their moral imaginations.

Clearly the second option is far preferable to the first. The critical question is whether civil society organizations can actually provide the leadership to sufficiently awaken a dormant public to in turn move political leaders to take action.

Why have civil society organizations and their followers not been successful in past campaigns calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Intrinsic psychological, political and social factors impede efforts to build a sustained and effective mass movement seeking this goal. A crude but accurate analogy can be made with the plight of a frog placed in a pot of lukewarm water and placidly treading water while the pot is gradually heated to a boil. Here are some of the reasons one could speculate that the frog (or our own species) fails to take the necessary action to save itself:

  • Ignorance. The frog may fail to recognize the dilemma. It may be unable to predict the consequences of being in water in which the temperature is steadily rising.
  • Complacency. The frog may feel comfortable in the warming water. It may believe that because nothing bad has happened yet (even though it has), nothing bad will happen in the future.
  • Deference to authority. The frog may believe that others are in control of the thermostat and that it has no power to change the conditions in which it finds itself.
  • Sense of powerlessness. The frog may fail to realize its own power to affect change, and believe that there is nothing it can do to improve its situation.
  • Fear. The frog may have concluded that, although there are dangers in the pot, the dangers outside the pot are even greater. Thus, it fails to take action, even though it could do so.
  • Economic advantage. The frog may conclude that there are greater short-term rewards for staying in the pot than jumping out.
  • Conformity. The frog may see other frogs treading water in the pot and not want to appear different by sounding an alarm or acting on its own initiative.
  • Marginalization. The frog may have witnessed other frogs attempt to raise warnings or jump out, and seen them marginalized and ignored by the other frogs.
  • Technological optimism. The frog may understand that there is a problem that could lead to its demise, but believe that it is not necessary to act because someone will find a technological solution.
  • Tyranny of experts. Even though the frog may believe it is in danger, the experts may provide a comforting assessment that makes the frog doubt its own wisdom.

Identical challenges must be overcome if civil society initiatives are to be successful in moving the human population to action. Other challenges have to do with the mass media, which is not inclined to cede either time or authority to civil society leadership. Thus, the messages of those who often have little to say, but are in powerful positions, tend to dominate the media, while civil society organizations struggle for even modest media exposure.

Civil Society Initiatives

Indeed, there have been many courageous and ambitious civil society initiatives for nuclear disarmament over the period of the Nuclear Age. They have included marches, protests, appeals, policy recommendations and civil disobedience. I will discuss a few of these important initiatives that have occurred in the post Cold War period, although there are far too many for me to provide a comprehensive overview. Some of these outstanding initiatives have been Abolition 2000, The Middle Powers Initiative, the Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons, and the Turn the Tide Campaign of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Abolition 2000, a global network of over 2,000 civil society organizations and municipalities, was formed during the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference by representatives of organizations that were disappointed with the manner in which the nuclear weapons states, particularly the United States , had manipulated the outcome of the Conference. Despite the serious lack of progress by the nuclear weapons states in fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations to that point in time, the treaty was extended indefinitely. Abolition 2000 began with a Founding Statement, created by civil society representatives at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, which articulated its principles. 2 The strong points of Abolition 2000 were that it was broadly international, included many forms of expertise, was activist in its orientation, and was committed to complete nuclear disarmament. This network was largely responsible for bringing the terms “abolition” and “elimination” into the dialogue on nuclear disarmament. It moved the discussion from arms control to abolition.

The initial goal of Abolition 2000 when it was formed in 1995 was to achieve an agreement for the total elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. When this agreement by governments proved impossible to achieve, despite Abolition 2000 having drafted a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, the network decided to continue its abolition work, maintaining contacts within the global network with the more than 2,000 civil society organizations and municipalities that comprised the network.

The Middle Powers Initiative (MPI) is a coalition of eight international civil society organizations. It was formed in 1998 to encourage middle power governments to promote a nuclear disarmament agenda. Only months after MPI’s formation, a group of middle power countries, calling itself the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), went public with a strong nuclear disarmament agenda. These countries were: Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden. 3 They have been active in promoting their agenda in the First Committee of the United Nations (Disarmament Committee) and at the meetings of the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They were instrumental in achieving the consensus adoption of the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

MPI has given support to the New Agenda countries by convening high level consultations, sending delegations to many countries, including NATO countries and Japan , and publishing briefing papers in support of NAC positions and the preservation of the NPT. By its support of the NAC, the Middle Powers Initiative has tried to focus the attention and efforts of key civil society organizations to bring pressure to bear on the nuclear weapons states from friendly middle power governments. 4

The Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign to Ban Nuclear Weapons, also known as Vision 2020, is a relatively recent campaign, having begun its work in 2003. The goal of the campaign is to press governments to begin negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons in 2005, to complete negotiations on this treaty by the year 2010 and to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2020. In a sense, this Emergency Campaign picks up from Abolition 2000, setting its target date for governments to complete negotiations just a decade further in the future than Abolition 2000. This Emergency Campaign has another important element. It is led by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , two cities dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and is composed of mayors in over 600 cities. 5

The Mayors for Peace participated in the 2004 Preparatory Committee meeting of the 2005 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, bringing 16 mayors and deputy mayors from 12 countries to New York to attend the meetings. They are planning to bring over 100 mayors and deputy mayors to the 2005 NPT Review Conference. There is no doubt that the Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign is bringing important new energy to the global effort for nuclear disarmament. Abolition 2000 has created a special arm, Abolition Now!, to support the mayors campaign and that calls upon all countries to make public their plans for nuclear disarmament in accord with their treaty obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. 6

A new and hopeful campaign focuses on the United States , the world’s most powerful state, because US leadership and support is essential for serious global progress on nuclear disarmament. The campaign, called Turn the Tide, is a project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. It seeks to inform and mobilize US citizens to participate in directing messages via the internet to their elected representatives on key nuclear weapons issues. The campaign utilizes sophisticated software to send action alerts and enables easy communications with key officials. 7

The Turn the Tide Campaign is based on a 13-point Statement:

  • Stop all efforts to create dangerous new nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
  • Maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
  • Cancel plans to build new nuclear weapons production plants, and close and clean up the toxic contamination at existing plants.
  • Establish and enforce a legally binding US commitment to No Use of nuclear weapons against any nation or group that does not have nuclear weapons.
  • Establish and enforce a legally binding US commitment to No First Use of nuclear weapons against other nations possessing nuclear weapons.
  • Cancel funding for and plans to deploy offensive missile “defense” systems which could ignite a dangerous arms race and offer no security against terrorist weapons of mass destruction.
  • In order to significantly decrease the threat of accidental launch, together with Russia , take nuclear weapons off high-alert status and do away with the strategy of launch-on-warning.
  • Together with Russia , implement permanent and verifiable dismantlement of nuclear weapons taken off deployed status through the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).
  • Demonstrate to other countries US commitment to reducing its reliance on nuclear weapons by removing all US nuclear weapons from foreign soil.
  • To prevent future proliferation or theft, create and maintain a global inventory of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials and place these weapons and materials under strict international safeguards.
  • Initiate international negotiations to fulfill existing treaty obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for the phased and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons.
  • Initiate a moratorium on new nuclear power reactors and gradually phase out existing ones, as these are a primarily means for the proliferation of nuclear materials, technology and weapons; simultaneously establish an International Sustainable Energy Agency to support the development of clean, safe renewable energy.
  • Redirect funding from nuclear weapons programs to dismantling nuclear weapons, safeguarding nuclear materials, cleaning up the toxic legacy of the Nuclear Age and meeting more pressing social needs such as education, health care and social services.


For nearly 60 years, since the first nuclear test at Alamogordo , New Mexico , the world has been muddling through the nuclear dilemma. Despite the end of the Cold War, we are far from being secure from the nuclear threat. The threat today takes a different form, but is no less dangerous. In our divided world, there are terrible tensions and there is the possibility that nuclear weapons could end up in the hands of non-state extremists who would have no reservations about using them against the populations of many countries, including the nuclear weapons states. The irony of this is that none of the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states can provide an ounce of deterrence or security against such extremists.

The only way to assure the security of the nuclear weapons states, or any state, from a nuclear attack, is to eliminate these weapons in a phased, orderly and verified manner and place the materials to make these weapons under strict and effective international control. This is the reality of our common nuclear dilemma, and getting this message through to the leaders of nuclear weapons states, particularly the United States, is one of the most critical challenges, if not the most critical challenge, of our time. Only with the success of civil society in meeting this challenge can we have a reasonable expectation, in General Butler’s words, to “reassert the primacy of individual conscience, the voice of reason and the rightful interests of humanity.”

David Krieger is a founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is the co-author of Nuclear Weapons and the World Court and may other studies of peace in the Nuclear Age.

Butler , George Lee, “Ending the Nuclear Madness,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Waging Peace Series, Booklet 40, September 1999.


Originally Slovenia was also a part of the New Agenda Coalition, but did not stay long in the coalition.