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International Relations

Disarmament: Learning to Challenge Our Assumptions

Photo: Truthout.org/flickr.

On 12th June 1982, an estimated one million people converged in Central Park, Manhattan, to rally in support of nuclear disarmament.  It marked the peak of a wave of public engagement that began over nuclear power, but had morphed into a push against the nuclear arms race that had come to epitomize the Cold War era.  In Europe, a number of similar protests in 1983 drew an estimated total of 3 million people.

The public were calling for a “nuclear freeze”.  As the Cold War dragged on, they were rallying against the ongoing build-up of nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and Russia, and calling for a halt in the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons.  They felt the risks first hand, and wanted to stop them.  

Today, public interest in nuclear weapons issues looks decidedly different.  The crescendo of engagement that rose through the Cold War has quieted and plateaued.  The issue today feels esoteric, the preserve of defense specialists and nuclear wonks.  The risks that existed in 1982 may continue largely unabated, but their place in our daily lexicon has shifted. 

Arguably, our policy vision has been shortened by today’s rapid pace of information exchange and our ongoing obsession with media headlines.  Emerging policy makers are, for the most part, concerned with threats they perceive to be more immediate: countering terrorism, economic crises and regional instability.  These are issues that have been front and centre of their daily discourse from the word “go”.  The feelings of fear and vulnerability that defined our Cold War days have receded, taking with them the sense of urgency.  The ongoing existence of 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world simply does not resonate in the same way today as it did in 1982. 

But the risks are still as terrifying as they have ever been – it is only our perception of them that has changed.  Eric Schlosser’s recent book, Command and Control, explores the close calls we have had with nuclear weapons in recent years, and the picture isn’t pretty.  Schlosser’s book is framed around an incident in 1980 in Arkansas, U.S., in which an intercontinental ballistic missile was accidentally launched as a result of a socket wrench being mistakenly dropped down the missile shaft.  Other incidents are equally alarming: such as the weather satellite launched from the Norwegian Sea in 1995, four years after the end of the Cold War, which was mistaken by Russian officials for a U.S. nuclear-armed missile heading towards Russian territory.  Although, in the six minutes he was given, President Yeltsin ultimately decided against any retaliatory strike against the U.S., it is sobering to think that a different leader, in a different frame of mind or making different calculations, could have come to a very different conclusion.

A nuclear detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or intent, would cut to the core of our globalised world, impacting issues as diverse as the global financial markets, economic stability, food security, health and the environment.  These are risks that do not recognize national borders. 

The dynamics around nuclear weapons possession sit at the very heart of our entire international policy discourse.  They underpin the global power structure, undermine the international cooperation required to address the global challenges of our generation, and eat into our increasingly lean national budgets.  They frame the plethora of other issues we consider to be most pressing.

Today’s lack of public discourse on the issue is starting to bleed into the policy discussion: the less profile the issue has and the more it is seen as esoteric, the less drive there is for future policy makers to focus on it.  The result is a limited, circular debate that remains rooted in a Cold War mindset.  It is telling that the U.S. and European discussion around future nuclear weapons reductions is heavily reliant on what Russia chooses to do.  Regardless of the fact that nuclear weapons are unlikely to be a tool we would ever use in military response, we continue to look at each other to see who will blink first.

Our challenge now is even more complex than the bilateral freeze that was at the heart of the 1982 protests.  We are now considering how to fundamentally reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategies.  These aren’t easy questions, and there will be no simple answers.  But what is clear is that we need the innovation, creativity and fresh thinking of the next generation if we want to deliver on this change.  We need people who are willing to engage openly with mixed opinion and ask different questions; who are willing to test the psychological framework of the discussion and reconnect it with modern concerns.

BASIC is launching a new initiative aimed at doing just that.  Please join us and be part of the #NextGen of thinking.


Rebecca Cousins is BASIC’s Program Director in Washington. Before joining BASIC in October 2012, she was a distinguished career diplomat, recently awarded an MBE by Her Majesty The Queen for her role in leading and communicating the consular in-country British response to the 2011 Japan earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear incident.


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