“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
— H.G. Wells

As with so many other areas of vital importance to the nation and the world, George W. Bush showed no interest in the abolition of nuclear weapons. Instead, he allowed for the possibility of first use of nuclear weapons by the United States, a policy conducive to nuclear war, nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Treaties and international law in general were not high on the Bush agenda. The one nuclear disarmament treaty he concluded with the Russians during his tenure, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), has many flaws, most notably a lack of verification provisions. If the terms of the treaty are carried out, however, the result would be that the US and Russia would reduce the number of their deployed strategic warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 each by December 31, 2012. Many more nuclear warheads would be held in reserve. On January 1, 2013, the treaty will terminate and both countries will be free to deploy any number of nuclear weapons.

The prospects for nuclear weapons abolition under Barack Obama are much improved. Obama believes in the importance of international law, and he has spoken often of the need to pursue a course leading to a world free of nuclear weapons. On his White House website, he lists as goals of his administration: securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists, strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and moving toward a nuclear free world. In the latter category, it states, “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.”

The website goes on to say: “Obama and Biden will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But they will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. They will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

Obama is supportive of the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, but describes it as a “long road.” He also indicates that he will maintain a “strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist.” Thus, he is positive toward abolition, but cautious. To succeed in moving down that road, no matter how long, Obama will need support from the American people. In the past, opinion polls have shown such support to exist, but not to be a high priority for Americans. Obama will need to nurture and encourage such support, which in turn can help him to succeed on the path to abolition.

I will examine below eight reasons that the public has not been actively engaged in pressing for a world free of nuclear weapons.

  1. Complacency. There has been a widespread belief that the issue is too big and too removed from the day-to-day pressures that we all face. There is a sense of powerlessness on nuclear disarmament issues that gives rise to complacency.
  2. Deference to experts. There has been a strong belief among the American public that nuclear disarmament is an issue requiring political and technical expertise. While some expertise may be required, the general outlines of nuclear disarmament policy do not require such expertise. What is required is a commitment to ending the threat of nuclear devastation to all humanity.
  3. A belief in deterrence. Much of the public has been taught to believe that the threat of nuclear retaliation keeps them safe. In fact, deterrence is only a theory and may not work under real world conditions. It requires rational leaders, and all leaders are not rational at all times. It also requires clear and effective communications, which are not always possible. Most important, deterrence operates at a psychological level. It does not and cannot provide physical protection. A record of non-use of nuclear weapons in the past (since Hiroshima and Nagasaki) is not a guarantee of security from nuclear attack in the future.
  4. Fear of cheating. Many members of the public fear that in a world without nuclear weapons, a cheater will be advantaged. It will require education to assure public understanding that nuclear disarmament will be done in a phased and verifiable manner, and that we will not proceed to zero unilaterally and until we are certain that cheating will not advantage a cheater. By reducing the stockpiles of nuclear weapons gradually, it will be possible to forge trust and demonstrate the willingness of all parties to submit to effective systems of verification. Such systems would be operational years before the final nuclear weapons are dismantled.
  5. Power and prestige. Members of the public often take pride in nuclear arsenals, believing that they bestow power and prestige. In today’s world, this is unfortunately a valid, albeit dangerous, perspective. It will be necessary to shift thinking on this, which will require leadership. In actuality, nuclear weapons, instruments capable of massive annihilation, can be considered instruments of power and prestige only in cultures that are numb to the potential consequences of such technologies of death or that go beyond such numbness to affirm and glorify the wanton destructiveness these weapons represent.
  6. Conformity. In the past, the public went along with possession of nuclear weapons because they were effectively led to believe these weapons provided security. Consequently, there was no effective challenge to the possession of these weapons.
  7. Denial. Nuclear weapons destroy indiscriminately – men, women and children. They are city-destroying weapons. They are so terrible that it is psychologically more comfortable to deny their threat.
  8. Failure of imagination. Many people are comfortable with nuclear weapons because for most or all of their lives these weapons have been a part of the backdrop of reality in which we live. These people consider such possession as routine and fail to imagine the devastating consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

All of these reasons that inhibit engagement in seeking nuclear weapons abolition are counterproductive. They will hopefully be impacted by the Obama administration and reversed or, at a minimum, turned in a more positive direction. The Obama administration is about combating complacency with empowerment. Obama himself campaigned on a platform of change, which was broadly supported by the electorate. The administration is already seeking to involve large numbers of individuals in the decisions that affect their lives, and to provide information for informed consent or dissent. After some 60 years of education that has promoted deterrence, people will have to learn the lesson that deterrence is only a theory, one that in fact makes the possessors of nuclear weapons vulnerable to annihilation. To get over the fear of cheating, people will have to trust that the verification procedures are adequate. They will have to adopt the approach of the committed nuclear abolitionist, Ronald Reagan: “trust but verify.”

The public will need new ways to measure the power and prestige of their country, by indicators such as low infant mortality rates, universal health care for all Americans, increasing use of sustainable energy, and gross national happiness. It will be up to the Obama administration to help people envision new ways of measuring their value. People will have to accept the proposition that conformity is not a virtue, whereas critical thinking enhances both understanding and security. Denial forces us to freeze, to fail to act for our own benefit. Finally, a failure of imagination undermines our capacity to predict the future and prepare for it.

In addition, there are powerful entrenched forces in the military-industrial-Congressional complex that support continued reliance on nuclear arms and oppose abolition. Leadership by the Obama administration can help to overcome the impediments to change that in the past have hampered progress toward nuclear weapons abolition. In return, a more empowered and awakened citizenry can help press forward an abolition agenda, in their own interests and the interests of all humanity. President Obama appears ready to walk down the path of nuclear weapons abolition, but he cannot stand alone in seeking an end to the nuclear threat to humanity. He will need our voices and our presence in support of new policies aimed at achieving a world without nuclear weapons.

I will conclude with a quotation from an abolitionist of another time, Frederick Douglass, whose message remains valid in our time as we confront the continuing dangers of nuclear annihilation: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and a Councilor of the World Future Council.