Looking for the tipping point
What strategy or strategies will lead us to a nuclear weapon-free world?
On Wednesday of this week, IPPNW and its partner organisations in Germany will be hosting a public event on “Paths to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World”, on the eve of an important closed-door conference with government representatives and experts on “Building the Framework and Creating the Conditions for a Nuclear Weapon-Free World”. The international member organisations of Middle Powers Initiative (MPI) are, for the most part, the same organisations that – on a grassroots level – actively participate in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN). About ten days later, ICAN is hosting a large Civil Society Forum just prior to an important states conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons.
Some discussion is going on around the world, perhaps due to limited resources, as to which strategy is the best to follow. Most of the above-mentioned organisations also took part in the World Court Project and went on to found the global network Abolition 2000, that called for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC). Many continue to value this forum for exchange of information and ideas. We have invested large amounts of time in building Mayors for Peace and PNND at the local and national level, and internationally building a bridge to middle power countries through MPI. What was for a long time perhaps a relatively loose network, is now beginning to coalesce into a tighter, focussed campaign with ICAN. At the same time another campaign has emerged, with a different strategy and audience: “Global Zero”.
I was one of the first to criticise ICAN in the early days, when the campaign strategy seemed unclear. Ron McCoy – who is regarded as the father of ICAN – wanted a single issue campaign focussing on the effects of nuclear weapons, in the same way as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. At this time, although it was clear that focussing on the effects was the way to go forward, there was no clear strategy for turning that into an actual process for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Over time, this strategy has been fine-tuned and is convincing in its focus – on reframing the debate. By getting countries to line up behind the issue of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences (CHC) and leaving out the rest of the tortuous discussion, we delegitimise nuclear weapons. In the same way as smoking became something disgusting, that should only be done – if at all – away from all other people, making the non-smoker the norm, it was possible to put a smoking ban in place in most buildings throughout a large part of the world. In delegitimising the weapons, the nuclear weapons “users” become isolated.
The other attractive thing about ICAN strategy is the ease in which this message can be transported to the general public, who has completely lost sight of this fact. Some parts of society are so divorced from the reality of the effects of nuclear weapons that they can contemplate their use on a “small-scale” or believe in their deterrence value against terrorists. So it is obviously high time to get the facts back on the table.
Nevertheless, when talking to those who are still – at least superficially – adhering to the concept of deterrence we come up against a psychological block. There are two counter-arguments to the CHC argument for abolition:
- That is why we need nuclear weapons, to ensure they will never be used.
- We no longer face the danger of all-out nuclear war (and all else would only cause minimal damage).
ICAN might not want to get into a discussion about deterrence, although in my view the consequences show just how great a risk we are running by continuing with this policy. And the point about minimal damage is also being addressed by IPPNW and ICAN by showing how untrue that is with the nuclear famine work. But I do think that other coalitions can and should address these blocks, challenging deterrence and talking about potential scenarios for use. The discussion about alternative security concepts is vital to changing the minds of decision-makers. Deterrence feeds on insecurity and there are plenty of decision-makers who are looking for good arguments to show how we can better provide security by getting rid of nuclear weapons. An example of this is the establishment of a Zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. Nominally, this has almost universal support. But the thing blocking it is the delusional thinking that nuclear weapons somehow secure the existence of Israel. That is the base line.
In each of our countries we can see a potential tipping point where the public and decision-makers suddenly become united in calling for abolition. It has happened already in many countries around the world. It is now important that the allies of the Nuclear Weapons States begin to question the concept of deterrence. The German government is – in my opinion – only holding off on this out of a sense of loyalty to NATO, although they agree with the CHC argument. Having received a bloody nose for the disloyalty of publicly suggesting that US tactical nuclear weapons might be withdrawn fom Europe, they are loathe to upset the apple cart even further. If other NATO countries (not just Norway) start to support the CHC argument, then this will strengthen Germany. But they will not go out front.
However, the issue of tactical nuclear weapons – and now their modernisation – is still crucial to the German debate on a political level. Whether or not these weapons stay in Germany is defined by a.) their necessity and threat scenario b.) their actual use as protection c.) whether they could actually be used, given their effects. And added to this is the question of their cost, although that is much harder to quantify. Getting this debate into the public eye is at the heart of the German campaign “atomwaffenfrei.jetzt” as well as calling for German government support for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The two go hand in hand.
What I am arguing for here is a three-pronged approach:
- ICAN as a young civil society campaign that focusses on CHC unremittingly, both to the general public and to governments;
- MPI and PNND challenging the middle power countries (in particular the allies of the NWS) to work conceptually on alternatives to nuclear threats, calling on the NWS to take action to fulfil article VI and to begin a process leading to the abolition of nuclear weapons;
- Developing national strategies for getting our governments to a “tipping point” where they join with civil society in calling for abolition, perhaps even supporting ICAN.
Where does “Global Zero” fit into all of this? In my view, Global Zero focusses almost entirely on leaders, retired military and decision-makers. The European Leadership Network has a similar high-ranking focus. Even if Global Zero and ELN do not have the same strategy as ICAN, the work they have been doing has helped our cause enormously because they have much greater access. To some extent, they already did the first reframing of the debate by simply calling for the “Vision” of a nuclear weapon-free world. ICAN has been building on that.
Whatever we do, it is crucial that we understand that working together or alongside one another – albeit in differing structures (and to some extent with generational differences) – is the only possible way to succeed. Competing for attention or funds will poison the movement. Where there is conflict, however, there is an opportunity for development. If we can work out a good practicable division of labour, then there is room for everyone to take part in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.