David Krieger delivered these remarks at the opening session of the symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse,” held on October 24-25, 2016 in Santa Barbara, California.


Thank you all for taking time to join us to participate in the symposium.

Each of you was invited to participate because we believe in your work and value your insights.

I think that everyone participating feels the urgency of getting to zero, or at least on the path to zero.  Perhaps you are also feeling, as I do, the frustration and pain of putting in so much effort over so many decades, and having witnessed so relatively little progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons.  The world seems stuck, or regressing, on this issue of such great importance to humanity’s future.

We’ve organized this symposium in an effort to achieve a breakthrough in thinking and discourse on the path to zero nuclear weapons.  Our great hope for the symposium is that we may, by brainstorming and common concern, find some creative ways to move the world closer to the goal of Nuclear Zero.  Given the track record of the nuclear-armed states of nuclear entrenchment, reliance on nuclear arsenals for deterrence, and their plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals, I recognize that we are setting the bar high.  The state of the world with its existential nuclear threats, however, is calling out for setting high goals and aiming to achieve them with a sense of urgency.

Let me provide a brief overview of where we stand, by contrasting some positive perspectives with some negative counterpoints:

  1. Positive: Since the mid-1980s, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has been reduced by 55,000.

Negative: There remain more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world.  The use of only a small percentage of these could destroy civilization and much of complex life.

  1. Positive: Nuclear weapons have not been used in warfare since 1945, when two were used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Negative: Since 1945, there have been many close calls related to nuclear detonations due to accidents, false alarms, miscalculations and intentional confrontations.

  1. Positive: We have not yet destroyed civilization or complex life with nuclear weapons.

Negative: The odds of a child born today dying in a nuclear war during his or her expected 80-year lifespan are estimated at one in six.  These are not acceptable odds.  It is like playing Nuclear Roulette with nuclear weapons pointed at humanity’s head.

  1. Positive: The nuclear-armed states are committed under international law to negotiate in good faith to end the nuclear arms race at an early date.

Negative: It is already long past “an early date,” and rather than negotiating in good faith, the nuclear-armed states are all engaged in modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

  1. Positive: The nuclear-armed states are committed under international law to negotiate in good faith for nuclear disarmament.

Negative: No such negotiations are taking place and there doesn’t seem to be either the political will to initiate them, or the judicial will to enforce such good faith negotiations..

  1. Positive: At this point, there are only nine countries in possession of nuclear weapons.

Negative: Nine countries is nine too many.  Also, the U.S. keeps its nuclear weapons on the territory of five countries in Europe and provides a “nuclear umbrella” to more than 30 allied countries, including 28 NATO members.

  1. Positive: The Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union ended without a major world war and without any war going nuclear.

Negative: Relations between the U.S. and Russia are growing chilly and many analysts believe we are entering a new Cold War between the two nuclear-armed powers.

  1. Positive: Young people could take the lead in changing the discourse on nuclear weapons.

Negative: Young people, by and large, are not well educated on the issue and give priority to other issues.

  1. Positive: It is not too late to change our thinking, our discourse and our actions with regard to nuclear dangers.

Negative: There are few signs that political leaders of nuclear-armed states are ready to engage in this issue with the commitment and political will necessary to achieve Nuclear Zero.

It is a formidable task to overcome the many obstacles on the path to Nuclear Zero.  These include:

  • the lack of political will by the leaders of nuclear-armed countries and their allies;
  • a managerial policy orientation (arms control rather than disarmament);
  • an inadequately agreed-upon global ethic;
  • the extreme arrogance of nuclear possessors, including belief in their infallibility;
  • the strong belief in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence (a Maginot Line in the Mind);
  • the widespread ignorance and complacency on the part of the public and elites;
  • the mistaken belief that nuclear weapons provide protection to their possessors;
  • the tyranny of experts (that is, “national security” elites);
  • the conformity of political leaders;
  • an insufficient global structure to support and enforce Nuclear Zero;
  • the inability to make progress in changing our modes of thinking, as Einstein warned we must; and
  • a failure of imagination.

I hope that these and other obstacles to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons will be touched upon in the course of our discussions.  I am also hopeful that we will each grow in understanding by our sharing of insights in dialogue with one another.  Finally, I hope that we may develop and agree upon a Final Statement that will be a message to people everywhere that will help move the world closer to the goal of Nuclear Zero.