The Nobel Peace Prize and the Legacy of Nuclear Pacifists

Nuclear blast

In 2017, the Nobel Committee chose to award their prestigious Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, continuing a legacy of such awards.  This is the 9th time the award has been granted to a group working on this topic. It once again raises the discussion on the role and influence of nuclear weapons on our global society.

Nuclear weapons are, undoubtedly, a contentious topic. While some view them as an unjustifiable threat to the very existence of humanity, others would argue that their presence prevented the Cold War from ever developing into an outright conventional war, potentially saving millions of lives. This outlook changed somewhat following the end of the Cold War, and a great deal of nuclear disarmament occurred. In the doing so it allowed for a shift in the discussion surrounding them.  In the minds of many nuclear weapons went from an indispensable threat against the perceived enemy to a redundant legacy of a bygone era.

However, in our current political climate of rising international tensions we are seeing a regression in the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons. Both American and Russian leaders have in recent years expressed an interest in modernizing and upgrading their nuclear arsenal, and North Korea looks set to gain the dubious distinction of becoming the newest nuclear armed state. It is this context that makes the Nobel Committee’s decision so very important.  Even in the face of a great many international threats, we cannot forget the dangers nuclear weapons pose to us all. The normalization of nuclear proliferation almost destroyed us once; we cannot allow it to happen again.

It is therefore important to remember the efforts of mid-century “nuclear pacifists,” thinkers and academics who, perceiving the existential danger of nuclear weapons, proposed to use them as a rhetorical and ideological catalyst for renewed efforts at the elimination of war as a tool of statecraft. Their argument then, which is just as true today, was that the risks of any confrontation between nuclear states are unbearable. They therefore advocated for increased international integration, to ensure that war should never come. They realized that states will never give up their nuclear weapons for the purpose of some higher moral principle.  They will only give them up when they feel it is safe to do so. Thus the only way to eliminate nuclear weapons is to vastly expand the role of international institutions, to make states feel secure enough that they do not need nuclear weapons.

The validity of this viewpoint has been supported by two contemporary examples. The first is Iran.  Offered a deal in which they attained international integration, promises of security, and mutual respect from other nations, they willingly froze their nuclear programs. The second case is North Korea.  Threatened and insulted, yet offered no amnesty or meaningful chance for reform, they accelerated their nuclear program dramatically. In their eyes regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi fell because they could no longer protect themselves with nuclear weapons.  For the North Korean regime nuclear weapons provide the only certain security from their perceived enemies. The role of nuclear weapons in international politics should be treated as a catalyst for escalation, not a trigger for increasingly volatile rhetoric.

To return to where we began, we should acknowledge the significance of the Nobel Committee’s decision. They have reminded us that the danger of nuclear weapons has not passed.  It still presents an overwhelming threat to everyone on Earth. The only way to meaningfully rectify the situation is through discussion, compromise, and ultimately the fostering of mutual respect and trust between nations.  History has shown time and time again that attempts at coercion or violence only encourage states to resort to what they perceive as the ultimate form of protection.  As with the nuclear pacifists before us, we must realize that the protection offered by nuclear weapons is fragile.  Should they fail to dissuade aggression, they will quickly change from being our protector to our executioner.

I would say that for us to ensure that we all survive the threat posed by nuclear weapons, we must learn to approach and negotiate with our perceived enemies.  We must learn to accept that though it may be tempting to try to cow all opposition with the threat of overwhelming force, the risk of trying to carry out such a threat is simply too high a cost.  We must therefore redouble our efforts to build international institutions and provide better facilitation of bilateral discussions.   In so doing, we may make diplomacy a more feasible path than military confrontation.  It may not end in a satisfactory conclusion for all sides, however, as it would necessitate the increased security of competing regimes.  The promise of this security is the only way to ensure that states will give up their nuclear weapons.  Nevertheless, it is far better to live together with your rivals than to die alone in nuclear hellfire.

To conclude, I applaud the decision of the Nobel Committee for highlighting the fact that the threat of nuclear weapons is still an overwhelming risk.  At the same time I also hope to emphasize the fact that nuclear disarmament can only occur in a world where states feel safe enough to not need nuclear weapons for protection.  Such a world would be dependent on strong international institutions being able to implement fair compromises in cases of inter-state disputes. With such a structure in place, nuclear disarmament could begin in earnest.  Nuclear pacifism has never earned the legacy it deserves.  Perhaps now it can offer the future we need.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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