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Beatrice Fihn Is Banning Nuclear Weapons, With or Without Us

In Nonviolence, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on December 6, 2018 at 12:02 am

It was a rare dark note for the Swedish anti-nuclear activist, who has built her career—and her organization’s Nobel Peace Prize—on a unified front in the face of fear.

“People are beginning to wake up to the reality that we’re still living under the threat of these weapons every single day,” she said. “They are starting to experience the terror of the Cold War. And it’s our job to give them hope.”

But Fihn, along with the rest of the world, had indeed woken up to a new threat. Watching the sunrise in Santa Barbara, California, where she was being honored by an anti-nuclear organization, Fihn took in the news that President Donald Trump had ordered the United States to pull out of its longtime arms control treaty with Russia, a move that experts warned could escalate an arms race of a kind not seen since the 1970s. “We are facing dangerous times,” she wrote on Twitter that morning.

In her speech that evening, Fihn alluded to the news. “It would be all too easy to name Donald Trump as a rogue,” she said. “The truth is that a system that one impulsive person or unpredictable person can uproot is not an appropriate security system in the first place.”

But convincing Trump to give up America’s nuclear stockpile is not a part of ICAN’s plan. With 69 signatures on the treaty, and 31 more needed for ratification (the last step before it enters into force), Fihn is fighting to change laws and norms, not hearts and minds. She will save the skeptics, whether they believe her or not.

At the benefit in Santa Barbara, a chairman of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the group hosting Fihn, pointed her out to me amid a flurry of cocktail dresses and suits. This, of course, was unnecessary—and not just because I’d spent a week watching her press appearances on a loop. Beatrice Fihn is easy to pick out of a crowd. She embodies the American public’s favorite Swedish stereotypes: tall, blonde, and perpetually poised, speaking with a musical lilt not heard in these parts since “Dancing Queen” topped the charts.

Despite the nuclear-armed states that refuse to sign on, ICAN has had some resounding successes lately, and Fihn’s stop in Santa Barbara was part of a congratulatory tour in one of the friendliest states in the union to her campaign. Before her speech, she chatted with California Assemblymember Monique Limón, who drafted statewide legislation in support of the nuclear ban, over gold-flecked chocolate mousse (“It’s not always so glamorous,” Fihn warns. “It’s activist work.”) In Los Angeles, she met with supporters of the city’s local disarmament resolution, the next phase of ICAN’s campaign: If organizers can’t convince a national government, they’ll take their fight local.

Beatrice Fihn addresses the U.N. open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in May of 2016.

(Photo: Tim Wright/International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons)

Though Fihn has always been a firm proponent of disarmament, her ascent to becoming the movement’s public face was somewhat unlikely. When Fihn first went to work at the U.N. as an intern, she was surprised to learn she’d be focusing solely on nuclear weapons—but only because she assumed most governments had already given them up. “It sounded like an old-fashioned, outdated issue,” she says, recalling her start in the early aughts. “The idea that some people from some countries have the right to end the world if they want—that’s crazy. And we’ve just accepted it.”

At the U.N., Fihn met activists who would later collaborate with ICAN and its partners. She learned diplomacy and activist work from a group of all-female organizers and drew inspiration from a women-led campaign to ban land mines in the 1990s. Rick Wayman, an early adopter in the ban treaty campaign, says Fihn has always offered a “hopeful message.” But at the time, her own friends doubted her. Even now, when she gets into a taxi, she has the familiar exchange: What do you do? “I work for a campaign to prohibit nuclear weapons.” Ah, not gonna happen.

She has spent 12 years working on this, she says, compiling rational arguments and scientific evidence, yet less informed strangers will still pick a fight. But, she adds, “I prefer to argue with politicians than people on the street.”

Since joining ICAN and becoming its executive director in 2013, that’s exactly what she’s done. In 2017, the group lobbied delegates at the U.N. in New York for three months, alongside experts from more than 100 partner organizations. By September, negotiations were complete. With support of nearly two-thirds of members, the U.N. adopted the first-ever international treaty banning nuclear weapons. Though the ban has yet to go into force, two of the world’s biggest pension funds added nuclear weapons to their exclusion list. But you can’t fit all of that in on one taxi ride.

Almost as long as there have been nuclear weapons, there have been dissenters. ICAN was born out of another disarmament organization, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize for its non-proliferation work. In his memoir Perestroika, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev credited the coalition of activist-scientists with a role in ending the Cold War. “It is impossible to ignore what these people are saying,” he wrote.

Decades later, these treaties persist, but the old optimism is gone. “Almost 20 years after warnings were published … about the dangers of ‘accidental nuclear war,’ nearly 2,000 weapons remain on ‘launch-on-warning’ hair-trigger alert,” wrote the group’s founders in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year. Public opinion proved just as stubborn: One study found that, although fewer Americans approve of nuclear weapons now than in 1945, 60 percent still support the bombs’ use in a situation akin to World War II (in the study’s example, killing two million Iranians to save a few thousand U.S. soldiers).

In 2007, the physicians launched ICAN, which would take up the same fight and, 10 years later, win the same award. But its efforts have not been met with praise from polarizing heads of state. This is fine with the campaign. “I always measure how effective we’re being by how mad the nuclear-armed states get—and they’re furious about this treaty,” says Wayman, deputy director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an ICAN partner, who helped lobby for the ban at the U.N. (After the treaty passed, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France swore never to “sign, ratify or ever become party to it,” citing security concerns.)

Often the issue can seem technical and unapproachable. Historically, political scientists have defended America’s nuclear capability as an important deterrent strategy; more recently, others have countered that deterrence doesn’t work, citing instead the power of an international norm against the use of these weapons. Fihn prefers to bypass this talk entirely. Instead, she sees nuclear weapons as a human-rights issue, and a feminist one at that. When she talks about norms, it’s to advocate for changing them. ICAN brings together activists, researchers, and concerned citizens to push governments to ban the weapons, even without enforcement, in order to stigmatize them. “I think we’re going to see disarmament of nuclear weapons when people no longer associate these weapons with prestige and power—when they are symbols of shame,” Fihn says.

Fihn would like the conversation around nuclear weapons to be about survivors: women, children, and indigenous people. After all, she says, they are the ones who suffer the costs, not hawks talking strategic stability in the situation room. When the atomic bombs razed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of people, long-term effects such as cancer impacted women at higher rates; those who survived the blast were more likely to miscarry or give birth to stillborn babies and children with birth defects. For this, they were often shunned by their own people. In the Marshall Islands, the U.S. government conducted nuclear tests 1,000 times more powerful than those in Japan, subjecting hundreds of indigenous people to burns, cancers, and birth defects—all without so much as a warning.

It’s true that governments have long hidden the nuclear threat from view. In 2013, new documents revealed that the U.S. and U.K. brought the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war in a 1983 “war games” exercise called Able Archer, all without public knowledge. Other documents, recently obtained by the New York Times, contain ominous warnings from the Central Intelligence Agency to then-President Harry Truman.

By putting survivors at the forefront of the campaign, ICAN is attempting to subvert this practice—starting with the Nobel Peace Prize celebration. Setsuko Thurlow, an 85-year-old Hiroshima survivor, accepted the award alongside Fihn. ICAN said the city shut down a highway for them, and outside, supporters marched in the torch-lit snow. Congratulations poured in from family and friends, the pope, and celebrities (Fihn was especially excited about a shoutout from model and Twitter personality Chrissy Teigen.)

As with survivors, the ban also highlights the voices of women—which is “unusual for a weapons of mass destruction disarmament treaty,” wrote Bonnie Jenkins, coordinator for threat reduction programs with the U.S. Department of State, in a 2017 Brookings Institute brief. Part of banning nuclear weapons is changing the culture—and that culture is toxic beyond its literal radioactivity, Fihn argues. She says men created this problem, sacrificing the safety of millions to compare bomb sizes, and there still aren’t enough women in government to fix it: “You have an issue that’s an existential threat to the entire world, but only half the population is being involved in the decision-making.”

For Fihn, this fight is personal. She was the only woman in her class of largely white Nobel laureates. She brings her daughter’s pen, adorned with a smiling Elsa from Frozen, to panels and posts photos with officials in between family portraits. She’s been to known to compare nuclear weapons to the patriarchy (the weapons themselves are phallic, after all) and condemns their use as both racist and sexist. When she employed that argument at one North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, “The old white dudes of the U.S. Department of Defense and the German defense ministry looked pretty puzzled,” she wrote on Instagram.

But Fihn saves her most scathing critiques for the leaders of nuclear-armed states. In one speech, she likened Trump and Kim Jong-un to her three- and six-year-olds. During her official Nobel Peace Prize interview, she was questioned about a tweet from two days prior that read, “Donald Trump is a moron.” (She admits that the timing wasn’t great, but stands by the sentiment.) She’s especially vocal about Trump’s stance on weapons negotiation, which he’s often condemned as a sign of weakness—another reason the campaign cannot rely on U.S. participation.

Wayman, with the NAPF, told me that ICAN’s strategy to move forward with the ban was, at first, “a slap in the face” and an “ego check” for some supporters in America. They knew the U.S. government would never agree. And yet here ICAN was, banning nuclear weapons without it.

I asked Fihn if she ever felt discouraged. After all, in the time between our conversations, North Korea wavered on its promise to disarm. “Sometimes I have moments like, I should work for something a little less political,” she says.

In these moments, she draws inspiration from movements whose victories seem inevitable to us now: the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and other human rights campaigns. These organizers didn’t wait for governments to acquiesce. They mustered support. They forced culture shifts. “When it feels tough some days, I like to think: This is what it is to fight for these issues. And one day we’ll win,” she says. “And then we’ll forget all about it, and move on to the next one.”

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Atoms for Peace: How Eisenhower envisioned ridding the world of nuclear weapons

In Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on December 4, 2018 at 1:12 am

Dallas Morning News, Dec. 3, 2018

The longest journey begins with a single step. One of the first steps toward eliminating nuclear weapons came 65 years ago, on Dec. 8, 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech.

This history can inspire us today for getting rid of all nuclear weapons worldwide.But first, have some breakfast. That is what Ike’s assistant C.D. Jackson and Atomic Energy Commission director Lewis Strauss did when writing “Atoms for Peace.

As Eisenhower recalled in his memoirs: “To work on the draft of the speech on this subject, Strauss and Jackson met again and again at the Metropolitan Club in Washington for breakfast; appropriately, the project ook on the code name Wheaties.”

Their goal was to alert the American public about the growing threat of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union had recently tested a hydrogen bomb and the Cold War nuclear arms race was accelerating rapidly. The nukes were vastly more powerful than the weapons of World War II combined.

The technology to make nuclear weapons was no longer a secret just for the United States. The Soviets had long had it and many others were likely to as well.

Eisenhower wanted the speech to provide hope for escaping this nuclear nightmare. He made last-minute edits on the plane ride to New York where he would deliver the speech before the U.N. General Assembly. There were two major proposals made by Eisenhower in “Atoms for Peace.”

The first plan was for the Cold War rivals to divert nuclear technology away from military use. Instead,  atomic energy should be used for peaceful purposes like fighting disease and hunger or providing energy.

“The United States would seek more than the mere reduction or elimination of atomic materials for military purposes. It is not enough to take this weapon out of the hands of the soldiers. It must be put into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace….. If the fearful trend of atomic military build-up can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind,” Eisenhower said in the speech.

Jackson pointed out that the press overlooked the second major proposal Eisenhower had made in the speech. The president invited the Soviets and others for negotiations “to seek an acceptable solution to the atomic armaments race.” Arms control and disarmament would not happen overnight, but must be pursued through diplomacy.

“Atoms for Peace” led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957. As the agency’s current director Yukiya Amano has explained: “We work to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and we help countries use nuclear science and technology to produce more food, generate more electricity, treat cancer and respond to climate change.”

These are the critical issues that bind all nations. But as we sit here today, there are still 15,000 nuclear weapons globally, most of these held by the United States and Russia. Think of all the precious resources lost in making these bombs that would have been better served in peaceful applications.

As Eisenhower said, we need diplomacy “if the world is to shake off the inertia imposed by fear and is to make positive progress towards peace.” The United States could start by finally ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a goal first pursued by Eisenhower. We should promote disarmament and more peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Every person can make their voice heard on eliminating nuclear weapons. Breakfast anyone?

William Lambers is the author of Nuclear Weapons, the Road to Peace and Ending World Hunger. 

Democrats going nuclear to rein in Trump’s arms buildup

In Cost, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace, Politics, War on November 25, 2018 at 4:16 am

Control of the House will give them ‘the power of no — the ability to block programs, cut funding, withhold agreement.’

Democrats preparing to take over the House are aiming to roll back what they see as President Donald Trump’s overly aggressive nuclear strategy.

Their goals include eliminating money for Trump’s planned expansion of the U.S. atomic arsenal, including a new long-range ballistic missile and development of a smaller, battlefield nuclear bomb that critics say is more likely than a traditional nuke to be used in combat.

They also want to stymie the administration’s efforts to unravel arms control pacts with Russia. And they even aim to dilute Trump’s sole authority to order the use of nuclear arms, following the president’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and other loose talk about doomsday weapons.

The incoming House majority will have lots of leverage, even with control of only one chamber in the Capitol, veterans of nuclear policy say. They point to precedents in which a Democratic-controlled House cut funding for Ronald Reagan’s MX nuclear missile and a Democratic-led Congress canceled the development of a new atomic warhead under George W. Bush.

“They can block funding for weapon systems,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “The Democrats’ ascendancy will prove a much-needed check on the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policy and approaches.”

Leading the charge is Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, who is set to become the first progressive in decades to run the House Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for setting defense policy through the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

Smith has long criticized both President Barack Obama and Trump’s $1.2 trillion, 30-year plan to upgrade all three legs of the nuclear triad — land-based missiles, submarines and bombers — as both unaffordable and dangerous overkill.

He’s made it clear in recent days that revamping the nation’s nuclear strategy will be one of his top priorities come January, when he is widely expected to take the gavel of the largest committee in Congress.

“The rationale for the triad I don’t think exists anymore. The rationale for the numbers of nuclear weapons doesn’t exist anymore,” Smith told the Ploughshares Fund, a disarmament group, at a recent gathering of the Democratic Party’s nuclear policy establishment.

The day-long conference included leading lawmakers, former National Security Council aides, peace activists and an ex-secretary of defense, William Perry, who was once an architect of many of the nation’s nuclear weapons but is now a leading proponent for a major downsizing.

Arms control and disarmament groups see Smith’s emergence as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to craft a much more sensible approach to nuclear weapons and reduce the danger of a global conflict.

The mere appearance of a would-be Armed Services chairman at the recent gathering demonstrated how much circumstances have changed.

“I have never seen a chairman give nuclear policy such a high priority, have such personal expertise in the area, and be so committed to dramatic change,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund.

Cirincione served as a staffer to then-Rep. Les Aspin, who chaired the panel during the fierce debates over nuclear weapons policies in the 1980s, which he sees as an instructive period for today.

“I know that a Democratic House can have a major impact on nuclear policy,” he said. “It is the Power of No — the ability to block programs, cut funding, withhold agreement to dangerous new policies. Democrats may not be able to enact new policies, but they can force compromises.”

High on the priority list is halting or delaying the development of a planned new nuclear bomb that would have less explosive power than a more traditional atomic bomb. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for the so-called “low-yield” weapon last year.

Advocates assert that the weapon, to be launched from a submarine, will provide military commanders with more options and better deter nations such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran that are building up their own nuclear arsenals. Such a modest nuke would not destroy a city but would devastate a foreign army — and adversaries would have reason to fear that the U.S. might use it in a first strike.

But Smith, who will also influence the House Appropriations Committee’s recommendations for Pentagon funding, insists such a new weapon “brings us no advantage and it is dangerously escalating.”

“It just begins a new nuclear arms race with people just building nuclear weapons all across the board in a way that I think places us at greater danger,” he told Ploughshares Fund.

Democrats are expected to revive legislation proposed earlier this fall in both the House and Senate to try to roll back the program.

“There’s no such thing as a low-yield nuclear war,” says Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat and one of the co-sponsors, who also gave his pitch at the Ploughshares Fund gathering this month. “Use of any nuclear weapon, regardless of its killing power, could be catastrophically destabilizing.

Leading Democrats also have their sights on a new intercontinental ballistic missile that is under development as the future land-based leg of the nuclear triad. The Ground Based Strategic Deterrent is set to replace current ICBMs that are deployed in underground silos in Western states such as Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

“The ICBM is where the debate will focus,” predicted Mieke Eoyang, vice president of national security at Third Way, a centrist think tank, and a former aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

One key argument will be cost, she added.

“People make the case for all three legs of the triad, but when you look at the budget situation the Pentagon is going to have to make some tough choices,” Eoyang said in an interview. “The modernization of the triad is a big- ticket item that comes over and above what current Defense Department needs are — at a time when budget pressures are coming the other way.”

Critics also argue that the ICBM has outlived its usefulness.

Perry, who served as Pentagon chief for President Bill Clinton, has argued that land-based ICBMs are the leg of the triad that is most prone to miscalculation and an accidental nuclear war. He says submarine- and aircraft-launched nuclear weapons would provide a sufficient deterrent on their own.

But not everyone thinks cutting one leg of the triad will be easy. They cite the political clout of defense contractors and their political supporters in both parties, including the so-called “ICBM Caucus” — especially in the Senate, which will remain under Republican control.

“They won’t be able to take on the triad,” warned former Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, who chaired the national security and foreign affairs panel of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

But Tierney and others said the House can pursue other areas for reshaping nuclear policy — and force the Senate to take up their proposals.

One way is to revive legislation adopting a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons, declaring that a president could not order the use of nuclear weapons without a declaration of war from Congress.

“We want to avoid the miscalculation of stumbling into a nuclear war,” Smith said. “And this is where I think the No First-Use Bill is incredibly important: to send that message that we do not view nuclear weapons as a tool in warfare.”

The unfolding strategy will also rely on inserting new reporting requirements in defense legislation as a delaying tactic on some nuclear efforts or to compel the administration to reconsider its opposition to some arms control treaties.

While the president negotiates treaties and the Senate is vested with the constitutional authority to ratify them, the House also has some power to force the administration’s hand.

Trump, citing Russian violations, has threatened to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that Reagan signed with the then-Soviet Union in 1987. He recently sent national security adviser John Bolton to Moscow to relay the message.

But critics say the landmark treaty, which banned land-based missiles with ranges between 50 and 5,500 kilometers, is still worth trying to salvage with the Russians. And Democrats can try to force the Trump administration to curtail plans for a new cruise missile that would match the Russians.

The Democrats can put the cruise missile “back on its heels,” Tierney said. “Sometimes they can delay, sometimes defeat.”

Democrats also worry that the Trump administration will opt to not renew the New START Treaty with Russia, which expires in early 2021. That pact, reached in 2010, mandates that each side can have no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons and requires regular inspections to ensure each side is complying.

Trump and his advisers “are opposed to multilateralism just based on principle,” Smith told the crowd of arms control advocates. “That is John Bolton’s approach, that he doesn’t want to negotiate with the rest of the world, almost regardless of what it is that we negotiate.”

But Kimball, who met recently with Smith, said Democrats have options on that front, too.

“If the Trump administration threatens to allow New START to expire in 2021, the Democrats are not under any obligation to fund the administration’s request for nuclear weapons,” Kimball said.

He pointed out that Obama secured bipartisan Senate support for ratifying the New START treaty in return for a pledge to increase spending on upgrading the nuclear arsenal and new missile defense systems. “That linkage works the other way, too,” Kimball said.

What is clear is that the nuclear arms control crowd sees Smith as the best hope for change in many years.

“I don’t think it is going to be easy, but we see a chance that we haven’t seen in a long time to have a different path forward on nuclear weapons,” said Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War, an antiwar group. “There isn’t enough money available for the wild plans we had before, let alone Trump’s new objectives.”