In July 2017, the United Nations passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal of abolishing them altogether. When 50 nations have ratified the treaty it will take effect, and 24 more countries are required. Many are dragging their feet, to include the United States. A political movement called the ICAN Cities Appeal has been created as a way for citizens and local governments to encourage change on the federal level. At a summit last Saturday, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was joined by several speakers in declaring Anchorage an ICAN city. I was able to meet with two speakers, Kathleen Sullivan, a 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who has been engaged in the nuclear issue for more than 30 years. I also spoke with Ray Acheson, the director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an organization founded to “challenge militarism, patriarchy, and capitalism as root causes of war in 1915.” Acheson won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for her work highlighting human consequences of nuclear weapons in relation to negotiating and adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Alaska has always had a place in the Nuclear Weapons discussion. A likely target for Russian missiles in the Cold War, Alaska also held the testing of three nuclear warheads under the island of Amchitka, which would later result in leukemia rates among workers on the island that were 10 to 18 times higher than the rest of the state’s population.
Despite the outrageous amount of destruction wielded by nuclear weapons with an incomprehensible scope of after-effects, operated by humans inveterately capable of error in the clearest mind, nine world powers can’t stop playing with them.
Is this something completely in the hands of financial and political power structures, or is there anything citizens can be doing?
Ray: “Absolutely, one of the other campaigns, in addition to the ICAN Cities Appeal, we have a divestment initiative, and that’s something all citizens can do, is find out if your bank is investing in nuclear weapon producing companies, remove your money, or urge your bank to divest. We’re also working at the city level, for example we have an initiative with the New York City Council to get the city level Pension Fund to withdraw their money from nuclear weapons producers. So there’s all sorts of practical things that citizens can engage in to try to affect the economic support for nuclear weapons, which we’ve seen work with landmines and cluster bombs which are also prohibited weapons under international law. The U.S. government has not joined either of these treaties, but they no longer produce these weapons because it is no longer economically viable because they are stigmatized by the public and under international law. The last producer of cluster munitions in the United States announced in 2016 it wasn’t going to make them anymore, because it just wasn’t economically viable. We want to take the same approach with nuclear weapons as well. That’s obviously much bigger, and there’s a lot more money involved, but we want to use the same idea, stigmatize nuclear arms, first through this treaty. We’ve worked with a hundred and twenty-two governments at the UN to negotiate and adopt the Treaty Of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we’re taking this now, into the cities and into the streets to re-educate and revive the end to the nuclear movement.”
Kathleen: “From a New York City perspective our pension fund is 192 billion dollars. The comptroller of New York City is in a process to divest from fossil fuels, but what we have been encouraging is that we first divest form nuclear weapons producers. There are only 20 companies that transparently are part of the portfolios, the various pension funds of New York City, so it would be a much less complex endeavor, and we think it would be a really good example for the ongoing divestment project from fossil fuels… so there’s other ways that we can have a more robust response to the federal government’s drive to modernize our arsenal, and, you know, reinforce things that are currently being torn asunder like, very bog standard arms control architecture that the Trump administration is aggregating. Just last week there was a missile test that would have been prohibited by the Intermediate Forces Treaty, and now that we’re not a part of that, those tests have resumed. So, there’s things we can do on a citizen level, within cities, that are very important, and the other reason we want to look at cities as places of activism is, because nuclear weapons target cities, so the mayor’s responsibility is to take care of their citizens. So the idea of the ICAN cities appeal is also to say we are going to work hard to save and to take out of harm’s way, these cities that are the targets of nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons as we all know cannot discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.”
Alaska, effectively, has two cities. How are we going to combat the nuclear influence with two cities in a state that is largely rural?
Kathleen: “It doesn’t just have to be cities, it can be towns and municipalities as well. I mean, the ICAN cities appeal is named that but it’s not restricted to cities, but it’s about how to engage a population.”
Ray: “It goes to your question of what people can do. The idea isn’t that Anchorage joining the Cities appeal puts ‘x’ amount of pressure on Trump so he’ll get rid of nuclear weapons, it’s about rebuilding the end to the nuclear movement that has abated since the end of the Cold war, when at that time we had about 70,000 nuclear weapons around the world. A lot of the knowledge and fear and understanding of that risk disappeared with the end of the Cold War, but the risk itself has not, just the knowledge of it and the popular consciousness of it, so we’re trying to revive that and we’ve found that engaging with citizens on the city level and doing this type of public event, talking at high schools and universities like we have been this week, these are ways to reengage the next generation of people to be aware of nuclear weapons.”
Do you think the reduced concern about nuclear weapons is just a matter of it being less in people’s minds since the end of the Cold War? Why did the interest reduce so much?
Ray: “Largely, yes. People assumed the problem would be solved. Also, with the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia did begin a process of dialing back the absolute numbers, so we have begun that process, they have signed a number of bilateral arms control agreements, largely between the United States and Russia and brought the number down from 70,000 to around 14,000. The problem is, we’re not going down below this number where we’ve been hovering for about a decade or more, and the U.S., Russia, and all the nuclear arms states, there’s only nine in the world, are all reinvesting in nuclear arms, so we’re going to see a resurgence, a new nuclear arms race, we’re on the brink of one happening right now, and at the same time, Trump and Putin are ripping up all the old arms control agreements and walking away from them. So we’re losing all these controls and constraints at the same time we’re watching all these new investments, but people aren’t aware of that the way they were during the Cold War. There was all kinds of popular media and movies and kids in school had to do duck and cover drills. Now kids in this country do gun violence training, and nuclear concerns aren’t in the forefront of people’s minds. Part of it also is the other risks we face, gun violence, climate chaos, that mounting crisis, I think, has more resonance for people, being able to feel that, see that, and want to respond to that. So, it’s sort of, how many disastrous existential threats can we confront in our daily lives and hold in our minds, do we really want to engage with? So I think these other things have taken precedence. But we see nuclear weapons as being very intimately tied up with both of those crises.
As the anti-nuclear assurances get dialed back, how hard is it going to be to get back to a safer place?
Ray: “We haven’t really talked about this but I think it might look different than what we’ve had in the past. So in the past we’ve had these bilateral agreements, mostly with Russia and the United States, and that was in a bipolar super power world, if you like. Now we have a much different world order, a multipolar world order, we have economic and international integration in ways we didn’t have by the end of the Cold War. So I think the architecture, how to rebuild, or really just build for real this time a safer environment, is going to be more of a multilateral international effort than it was previously. And so that’s where this new treaty that was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 is very significant, because it is a hundred and twenty-two governments of the world, voted for the adoption of this agreement, and we’re in the process now of seeing countries join on at the national level and ratify this instrument, and that’s going to be ongoing over the next few years. But to have that many countries already indicate their support for it—and what this treaty says is that no one can have nuclear weapons, can’t possess them, can’t develop them, can’t test them, can’t threaten to use them, it’s a complete prohibition, and the countries that do have them, if they join, will have to get rid of them. So, its an agreement that could bind the entire world in one treaty. Or moving forward, the nuclear arms states may engage with each other, in negotiations, just amongst the nine, to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But either way we’re going to have to see a more cooperative approach than we have before. It does feel like we’re at a crossroads of a lot of what’s wrong with the world, whether it’s climate change or the way international relations is conducted, we’re seeing economic trade wars, et cetera, are we going to pursue this path of, might is right, whoever has the biggest dick has the most security and rules the planet, or are we going to engage on a different, more collaborative project that is beneficial to humanity? Nuclear weapons are a piece of this, but they’re not the only thing that’s important to it.”
Kathleen: “I think what’ Ray’s speaking to also is about the shift in narrative that we’ve experienced with the introduction of the work around this treaty. We’re no longer thinking of nuclear weapons themselves in terms of who has them, what can they do, where are they, focusing on the military doctrine, but coming at it from a point of nuclear harm, what happens to humans, what happens to the land, the water, the air, the more than human world, and this has been an inspirational, and also intersectional approach, where people who might have been more focused on environmental issues feel called into this movement, people who have been working for the rights of indigenous people, called into this movement, because indigenous people across the world have been disproportionately affected by nuclear weapons testing, uranium mining and production. So it’s bringing together a lot of players and creating this momentum that’s focusing on humanitarian and ecological threat and harms that are the product of the nuclear industry.”
Outside of creating pressure for nuclear governments, what incentives do they have to be dialing back their nuclear arsenals?
Kathleen: “Nuclear weapons are purportedly weapons that can never be used, right? They’re these symbolic, very strong walls, they, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ There’s not a real objective to actually use them. because they tip us into what could usher in the end of the world. unfortunately we have a current president who doesn’t seem to understand that and thinks of nuclear weapons in war fighting. Early in his administration, you know, he asked some of his advisers, if we have these weapons why can’t we use them? Two weeks ago he suggested nuking hurricanes. This is clearly a person who doesn’t understand what nuclear weapons mean. So, given the other threats we face, with global climate chaos, which will cause, perhaps increased migrations across the planet, perhaps resource wars, we need to be investing in infrastructure of human security instead of putting money into these weapons, if you want to call them that—instruments of genocide — that apparently would never be used. If you take a hawkish perspective on this, top military brass aren’t interested in the modernization of nuclear weapons, they want weapons they can use. So there is a lot to be said about the transfer of resources and ingenuity, you know, the human brain, that could not be be focused on more and more powerful ways to destroy the planet but how we can come together and use our skills and resources for human needs and environmental threats that increasingly we face.”
Are governments resisting banning nuclear weapons as a matter of maintaining their symbolic power?
Ray: “Primarily, more than anything, yes. And also, in the Unites States in particular, we have an economic embeddedness of nuclear weapons into this economy, and the private corporations that are managing the nuclear weapons labs are lobbying congress and senators to keep the nuclear weapons enterprise alive. It’s a piece of the Military-Industrial Complex, so it has that effect on policies as well, but I would say that, across the nine states, the main reason they cling to their weapons is exactly that, the symbolic power it gives them. The feeling they are in command of the world and can dictate how international relations unfold, are exercised, is really the main motivation, I would say.”
Kathleen: “In some cases it’s not only symbolic. The first five nuclear weapon armed countries are permanent members of the Security Council. So, there is real power as well. But how do we define power, how do we define cost? These are important questions if you think about the extraordinary investment in weapons that are never meant to be used, that have been tested, exploded, all over the North American continent, Alaska, Nevada, the South Pacific and other places. If you look at the example of Alaska and the lower 48, it’s an extraordinary thing to think we are bombing ourselves, contaminating our own land, air and water, not that we own the air and water, but we’re contaminating ourselves in the project of creating these weapons that would never be used, and robbing the public purse of other things that could be supported for human needs or infrastructure, or the many other things that we really do need funding for, so it’s a crazy thinking.”
How much do you think nuclear arms threaten peace overall?
Kathleen: “Every moment of every day everything we love and everyone we love is threatened by the use of nuclear weapons either by accident or design. There are thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, right at this moment, pointed at old Cold War coordinates. Even though it seems like Trump and Putin could go and play nine holes of golf, they’re still pointed at Moscow and New York, which is another weird Orwellian doublespeak of, what is the policy and what is the reality? But we are threatened every single moment of every single day by the existence of nuclear weapons.”
On a scale of 1 to 10 — one being most stable — how safe are we?
Kathleen: “I’d say a seven.”
Ray: “Oh yeah.”
Kathleen: “I’d say a ten.”
Ray: “Exactly. Yeah, definitely.”
Kathleen: “I mean it’s almost like you start to believe in divine intervention.”
Ray: “And there’s been, the lack of transparency around the near misses, the near accidents, the ‘we’ve almost detonated the entire planet,’ the number of times that has happened is just shocking, and we only know about it through certain records that get revealed forty or fifty years after the fact so it’s really hard to piece together in the immediate term and it takes deep dive investigative research to pull it out, so we know some of it because of Eric Schlosser, I don’t know if you’re familiar with his work, he’s an investigative journalist, he wrote Command and Control. Part of it is all about the failures of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise. Dan Ellsberg, who was the Pentagon Papers whistle-blower, he also worked for Rand Corporation and the U.S. Government on nuclear war planning and he’s recently put out a book on this as well and if you read those they’re exactly what Kathleen was saying about how much risk we live with, so don’t take it from us, take it from these people that have actually been either part of the system or spent their lives researching it, it’s like, the documentation is there, and it’s so brave but most people aren’t aware of it, it’s just not part of the public consciousness.
What is a number of close calls?
Kathleen: “That’s impossible to tell because they’re classified. The military refers to them as broken arrows but, you know, I wouldn’t want to give you a number to quote me on. But it’s many. Many, many. But, first of all we can’t know because we aren’t given the information. Eric’s book only covers a certain number of years because the Freedom of Information Act only goes into effect to certain classified documents, so we really can’t know… There was an accident with a Russian nuclear bomb a couple of weeks ago, and it was discovered because of a spike in radiation, and Moscow basically said, ‘no problem here, move on,’”
Ray: “These are not the droids you’re looking for,”
Kathleen: “And, five people died. Who knows what kind of radiation exposure was left behind after that accident, but the fact is, we are human beings, we make mistakes, and we, any machine that we have built, will eventually break, there’s no such thing as a fail-safe. A few years ago there were missileers in Minot, North Dakota, who were found to be smoking pot, eating magic mushrooms, while they were down in their silos, with those missiles that are on hair trigger alert.”
After speaking with these Nobel Laureates, it dawned on me that the United States and the world have never left the grips of a nuclear merry-go-round, we just forgot about it. As soon as Kubrick wasn’t around to remind us to ‘stop worrying and love the Bomb’ — we did. But it’s still out there, in methodically placed silos the world over, waiting for the red button to be sneezed on. Or, rather, there are nine red buttons. Actually, there are nine sovereign nuclearized nations, each with some undisclosed number of red buttons, available to be sneezed on, or mashed outright.