By Ray Acheson
Seventy-five years ago, the United States detonated the first ever nuclear weapon in a desert of New Mexico, Jornada del Muerto—Journey of the Dead. The test marked the culmination of years of secretive work to develop an atomic bomb, a collaborative project of scientists and government officials in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. On 16 July 1945, the light, heat, and shock wave of the Trinity Test blast could be seen and felt for miles. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the lead designers of the bomb, later remarked that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Three weeks after this test, the US government dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities: one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki. These two detonations unleashed hell on Earth for those within both cities, incinerating hundreds of thousands of people along with plants, animals, and buildings. The heat and fire from the blast melted objects and turned human beings into shadows. The burns and the radiation poising killed many more in the days, months, and years after the bombings. As testimony from the survivors, the hibakusha, tells us, the terror of the bombs impacted forever the lives of those who survived.
Living under the threat of extinction
For seventy-five years, the world has lived under the threat of radioactive blast and firestorm, the effects of which are immediately devastating and punishingly intergenerational. For seventy-five years, from production to testing to use to storage of radioactive waste, nuclear weapon activities have contaminated land and water—and will continue to do so for thousands of years more. For seventy-five years, some of our governments have spent billions of dollars building and deploying these weapons of terror, putting all our lives at risk and stealing much needed money from the things we need to be safe and secure.
Those who possess or desire nuclear weapons argue that the mere possession of the bomb prevents conflict and deters attack. They insist on talking about nuclear weapons in the abstract, as magical tools that keep us safe and maintain stability in the world. But nuclear weapons are not abstract. They are made of radioactive materials. They are made to destroy flesh and bone. They are designed to turn human beings into shadows. To melt the skin from our bodies. To reduce entire cities to ashes.
Nuclear weapons are arguably the most extreme expression of violence and control of the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist world order. To the majority of people struggling daily under this oppressive order, the abolition of nuclear weapons may not seem like a priority. When faced with the grinding unemployment, chronic poverty and food insecurity, displacement, climate catastrophes, war and occupation, violence of settler colonialism, racist police brutality, mass incarceration, border imperialism, and violence in our homes and communities, nuclear weapons may seem like an abstraction. But these weapons are part of the spectrum of institutionalised violence. Even without being launched, they are used to project the power and invincibility of their possessor. They are the pinnacle of a state’s monopoly on violence, the ultimate signifier of domination.
Hope in the radioactive ash
Yet, there is hope. The movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons has persisted for these same seventy-five years. While it has undergone ebbs and flows of its numbers and reach, the antinuclear movement is as alive now as it ever was. It is alive in the efforts of activists and diplomats to ban the bomb at the United Nations; it is alive in work undertaken in cities and parliaments and pension funds to stigmatise nuclear weapons and demand their elimination; it is alive in the testimony of the hibakusha, in the music and art of those who have survived, and in the eagerness of younger generations to take up the work.
But the hope for nuclear abolition lies more broadly in the efforts of all activists for social justice. Everyone demanding disarmament and abolition of police forces; everyone calling for a redirection of military spending towards collective care; everyone envisioning a more equitable, just, and peaceful world order—all of their efforts are collaborative with the efforts for nuclear abolition. Whether deliberate or not, our work for peace, social and economic justice, decolonisation, and environmental protection is entangled. Our fates are woven together: the world we seek to build—a world of solidarity, health, and well-being across peoples and our shared planet—is not compatible with a world with nuclear weapons and the other technologies of violence stockpiled in the arsenals of hate built and viciously safeguarded by our so-called leaders.
There is not an order in which things must be dismantled or eliminated or changed; there is no set playbook we can follow. But the systems of hate and hierarchy, and the structures of violence through which they manifest and solidify their control over our lives, they will all be torn down—including the nuclear bomb. They will, because they have to be.
Nuclearism and its profiteers
As of April 2020, there are approximately 13,410 nuclear weapons in the world. Over 90 per cent of these belong to Russia and the United States. The rest are in the arsenals of China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.
This is a lot less than existed at the height of the Cold War. In the 1980s, peak global nuclear arsenal reached around 70,300 weapons. But the draw-down since then has not resulted in elimination. In fact, investments in nuclear weapons are reaching some of their highest levels. In 2019, the nine nuclear-armed states spent nearly $73 billion on their nuclear weapon systems. This comes to $138,699 spent on nuclear weapons per minute. Each of the nuclear-armed states is currently investing not just in the maintenance but also the “modernisation”—the upgrading, updating, and life-extending—of nuclear weapons.
The profits of nuclearism
Who is profiting from all of this? Corporations. It is private companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Bechtel that build nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and manage nuclear weapon laboratories. Most of these companies also produce other goods and are open to public investment. 325 financial institutions from around the world are investing hundreds of billions into the companies that generate and sustain nuclear arsenals.
In addition, certain academics, politicians, and bureaucrats have risen through the ranks of think tanks or government administrations in positions bankrolled by the nuclear profiteers, spinning theories of “nuclear deterrence” and “strategic stability” to justify this massive, unconscionable investment in technologies of massive violence.
For the past seventy-five years, we have been told that nuclear weapons are absolutely necessary for (a select few) governments to possess. Eliminating nuclear weapons, they argue, will lead directly to another global conflict. (As if the globe is not embroiled, right now, in conflicts of mass slaughter and destruction.) This is what Robert J. Lifton and Richard Falk describe as nuclearism: “a political and psychological dependence on nuclear weapons to provide an impossible security.” Nuclearism is an epic feat of gaslighting that insists that weapons that can kill everyone on the planet many times over are the only things keeping us safe.
As theory and myth, nuclear deterrence has likely been so successful because it provides a solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear weapons. Economies and careers are bound up in sustaining a rationale for the maintenance of nuclear weapons. These weapons are catastrophic to use, so their existence needs to be justified. In short, “deterrence” provides an easy answer to an impossible question—that is, how can the money and privilege and prestige they offer and entail and supply and absorb be justified? One way to justify nuclear weapons is to create a theory that we need them in order to never use them. That we need them to prevent war. That by reinvesting in them regularly, making new kinds, building more facilities—we are ensuring security, stability, and safety for all.
Fetishising the bomb
Over time, through relentless political and academic repetition, the value assigned to nuclear weapons as “deterrents” has come to be treated as intrinsic to the weapon itself. They have become what Marx would describe as “fetish objects”. They are the physical embodiment of power, argues Anne Harrington de Santana, similar to how money is the physical embodiment of social value and wealth. “Just as access to wealth in the form of money determines an individual’s opportunities and place in a social hierarchy, access to power in the form of nuclear weapons determines a state’s opportunities and place in the international order,” she writes. “In both cases, the physical form of the fetish object is valuable because it serves as a carrier of social value. In other words, the power of nuclear weapons is not reducible to their explosive capability. Nuclear weapons are powerful because we treat them as powerful.”
This fetishisation occurs through a process. Nuclear deterrence is not an inherent quality of nuclear weapons. It is a concept that we ascribe to nuclear weapons. That’s why it can be helpful, as Nick Ritchie suggests, to look at and talk about nuclear weapons as “social objects”—objects that are embedded in a network of relationships, interests, and identities.
Myths, legends, and power projection
Those of us listening to governments talk about nuclear weapons at the United Nations and other international spaces can see this process very clearly. It sometimes feels as if the diplomats representing nuclear-armed or other nuclear-supporting countries believe that if they say the same thing over and again, they can make it true, even if the majority of other governments believe the opposite. The nuclear-armed assert that nuclear weapons make us safe, while most of the rest of the world says they increase insecurity and put our whole world in peril.
Meanwhile, within the nuclear-armed states, academics and policymakers are churning out rhetoric and war planning that asserts nuclear deterrence as fact and nuclear weapons as the golden ticket to national security. Nuclear weapons themselves “don’t provide material protection or security; indeed the weapons may make one more vulnerable and insecure,” explains Shampa Biswas. Yet they are “nevertheless considered indispensable, and in arms races induced by panics, they are accumulated in ever-increasing numbers to provide a magical sense of impossible omnipotence that can overcome the paralysis.”
Preserving “national security” through nuclear deterrence is the main purported motivation for acquiring, possessing, and brandishing nuclear weapons, but in reality the nuclear weapon fetish seems to have much more to do with questions of national identity than security. Images of prestige and political power, coupled with domestic political dynamics, play a significant role in embedding nuclear weapons in the politics, economics, and culture of certain countries.
A decision to deploy and maintain nuclear weapons is generated by an idea of the state as an important player on the world stage and an idea of nuclear weapons as a crucial element of being such a player. In this context, nuclear weapons are assigned particular meanings that must be strengthened and sustained in order to maintain a country’s identity. In short, the thinking goes, if we want to be an important world power, we must have nuclear weapons as a representation of our power and as a means of enabling us to act in the world. This kind of national sense of identity reinforces the purported legitimacy and necessity of continued nuclear possession. Nuclear weapons have become signs of national power; the “ultimate arbiter of state security” but also as “the one true sign of ‘superpower’ status”.
States with imperial ambitions and a sense of invulnerable power also use nuclear weapons to coerce other states on matters of international relations. These bombs found that “the possession of nuclear weapons imbues a subtle political confidence and has a quiet, implicit, intangible effect on the political decisions of other states, not as a crude, overt means of exercising influence, but as a deeply embedded, unstated form of political authority.”
This authority is used, among other things, to protect economic interests and advance capitalist accumulation. Ironically, this has perhaps most overtly played out under the pretence of preventing other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction—i.e. the United States and United Kingdom, two nuclear-armed states, using the pretense of Iraq developing WMD to invate, occupy, and secure oil resources for themselves, at the expense of millions of lives.
Nuclear weapons, colonialism, and racism
This projection of political authority offered by the bomb is built on what all structure of violence of are built upon—a white supremacist world order. The former UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, Baskut Tuncak, described nuclear weapon testing as “one of the cruellest examples of environmental injustice” that has left in its wake a “harmful legacy of racism that surrounds this tragic chapter of humanity.”
The history of nuclear weapons is a history of colonialism. If we look just at testing in the Pacific, a clear pattern emerges. Between 1946 and 1996, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States tested over 315 nuclear weapons on largely remote, rural and First Nations communities across the Pacific. These tests contaminated vast areas in the Marshall Islands (Bikini and Enewetak islands), Australia (Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga), French Polynesia (Moruroa and Fangataufa), and the Pacific islands of Kiritimati (Christmas island), Kalama (Malden) Island, and Johnson Atoll. As Nic Maclellan “the most bombed nation on earth”. The US government also said 35 Indigenous groups in a statement to the negotiations of the nuclear weapon ban treaty in July 2017. Delivered by Karina Lester, a Yankunytjatjara-Anangu woman from South Australia, the statement explained that Indigenous people “were never asked for, and we never gave, permission to poison our soil, food, rivers and oceans.”
Gendered impacts of nuclear weapons
The use and testing of nuclear weapons also has gendered impacts. Studies on women’s health in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and in Kazakhstan, and the Fukushima nuclear power disasters provide useful but incomplete analyses of ways in which women are uniquely impacted by radioactive violence. In particular, high rates of stillbirths, miscarriages, congenital birth defects, and reproductive problems (such as changes in menstrual cycles and the subsequent inability to conceive) have been recorded. A possible link between breast cancer in young women and women who were lactating at the time of exposure to nuclear radiation has also been found to exist.
In 2012, Calin Georgescu, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics, visited the Marshall Islands to assess the impact on human rights of the nuclear testing conducted by the United States from 1946 to 1958. He found that the full effects of radiation on Marshallese women might have been underestimated. Among other things, the bathing and eating habits of women potentially played a role in their higher rates of contamination.
For more than sixty years, radiation exposure was measured based on the people primarily developing and testing nuclear weapons: adult white men. Nuclear regulators, including the International Committee for Radiological Protection, use what is called “Reference Man” to evaluate exposure. This model is based on adult white men—officially, “between 20 to 30 years of age, weighing 70 kg, is 170 cm in height, and lives in a climate with an average temperature of from 10°C to 20°C. He is a Caucasian and is a Western European or North American in habitat and custom.” Only one study from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki assessed impacts of radiation based on age and sex. Mary Olson, who leads the Gender and Radiation Project, has found that sex and age are “potent factors influencing the outcome of radiation exposure.”
Disproportionate impacts on First Nations
Similarly, the key reference guide for radiation exposure is not adequate for measuring possible exposure amongst Indigenous populations. In the United States, for example, due to differences in diet, activities, and housing, the radiation exposure of Native Americans are not well represented in the Department of Energy dose reconstructions. It leaves out exposure to radioactive iodine from eating small game, while exposures from drinking milk and eating vegetables have not yet been properly estimated for these communities.
But the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapon testing and production on the US Indigenous population are well documented. The Diné/Navajo Nation saw cancer rates double from the 1970s to the 1990s due to nuclear weapon testing as well as uranium mining and milling in the southwestern US. Abandoned uranium mines in the region The list goes on.
Despite all of this suffering, those who have been subjected to nuclear testing, and to the harms of nuclear weapon development, have not been silent victims. Far from it. Almost immediately after the tests in the Marshall Islands, for example, islanders were voicing concerns about their relocation and the effects of the testing. In 1954, after the devastation of the US government’s Castle Bravo test, they presented a petition to the United Nations Trusteeship Council calling for the cessation of all nuclear tests on the islands. Since then, the country’s advocacy has continued in a range of forms, including petitions, court cases, and lobbying through regional and international forums.
Reports of fallout across the Pacific led to some of the most sustained protests against nuclear testing in the world, particularly in the early 1970s when the French were still conducting atmospheric nuclear tests. Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji took a case to the International Court of Justice in 1973–1974 to force France to end atmospheric testing. Many Pacific nations created sanctions against French products and French airlines, which were picked up around the world. Algerians have also taken action against the French government for its testing there, with a major human rights organization in Algeria contacting the Human Rights Council in 2017 requesting it look into France’s conduct of 17 nuclear tests in the Algerian desert.
African-Americans organising against nuclear weapons in the United States have frequently connected their work to both antiracism initiatives at home and anticolonial initiatives abroad. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and other civil rights leaders elaborated on the inseparability of nuclear disarmament and the end of colonial empires. Bayard Rustin travelled to Algeria to help organize protests against French nuclear testing there with the US civil rights movement. “Black leftists held firm in their belief that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inextricably linked to colonialism and racial equality,” writesVincent Intondi in his study of Black antinuclear activism. They saw that colonialism, institutionalized racism, and segregation “each grew from the same seed and represented a form of violence,” as Jacqueline Castledine noted.
US Indigenous activists have argued the same. “Colonization isn’t just the theft and assimilation of our lands and people, today we’re fighting against nuclear colonialism which is the theft of our future,” remarked Leona Morgan of the Diné/Navajo Nation in Nevada. The Western Shoshone Nation, which has long protested the bombing of its lands at the Nevada Test Site, today continues its resistance against nuclear colonialism by fighting off a nuclear waste disposal site commissioned for Yucca Mountain in southwestern Nevada. Indigenous activists have also commented on the connection between the struggles of Water Protectors fighting the construction of pipelines and those fighting to keep uranium in the ground.
Persistent racism in nuclear weapon policy
The protests and legal actions taken by survivors of aggressive nuclear weapon activities by the colonial powers persist today. But so does the racist, colonial nuclear world order. It is one of the dominant paradigms present in discourses and practices around non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament today. Hugh Gusterson has documented the “nuclear Orientalism” commentary of Western governments and media about their racialised anxieties around “irrational” governments acquiring nuclear weapons.
The fact that some “nonwhite” governments possess nuclear weapons does not undermine these points. The value accorded to nuclear weapons by their possessors, as described earlier, makes them desirable objects, situating nuclear weapons as objects of “white power”. The Indian government, for example, argued that its acquisition of nuclear weapons proved equality with the white nations possessing the bomb and a rejection of racist, colonial non-proliferation efforts.
But these weapons, as Arundhati Roy says, are “the ultimate colonizer”. Possession of nuclear weapons is not a postcolonial achievement of equity, but of a new form of subjugation—this time to the bomb. Those that buy into the idea that nuclear weapons provide security are perpetuating norms of violent power. They are deciding to take money away from the well-being of their populations to devote to the development of objects of obscene destruction. This is not independence, this is submission to constructs borne of white supremacy.
The racist underpinnings of nuclear policies extend not just to preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons to nonwhite countries but also to dismissing the legitimacy of their demands for nuclear abolition. During the recent process to ban nuclear weapons at the United Nations, for example, where diplomats primarily from the global south together with those of a few European countries led the way, the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supportive allies were quick to argue that these pro-ban countries had no relevant security interests that would entitle them to speak out on this subject.
Thus, at the same time as the nuclear “powers” rode roughshod over the security interests of the inhabitants of the countries and Indigenous nations they bombed, leaving contamination of land, water, bodies, and politics for generations to come, they claim in international discussions that these same people had no grounds upon which to speak on the subject of nuclear weapons. This incredibly blatant racist approach to nuclear weapon discourse and negotiation has everything to with colonial power and nothing to do with the lived reality of people around the world.
Patriarchy and the bomb
The denial of lived reality is a classic patriarchal technique.
Patriarchy is a system of power. It is, in the barest sense, a hierarchical social order in which women are subordinate to men. But it is more than that. It is an order that shapes and entrenches gender as a cultural construction. Patriarchy is not only “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females,” notes bell hooks, but it is a system that endows the hegemonic male “with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”
Nuclearism is patriarchy: it is the dominance of a mindset that says violence equals power, that weapons equal security. It is a mentality that comes from the domination of men over women, of white supremacy and wealth, of able-bodiedness and heteronormativity. It comes from the capitalist prioritisation of profit over people, and from the militarism that accumulates wealth through war.
Militarised gender norms
Framing nuclear weapon possession as an exercise in patriarchy helps reveal some of the critical obstacles to nuclear disarmament. It shows how the “hegemonic Framing norms” about masculinity—i.e. that a “real man” is someone who is heterosexual, cisgender, and makes claims to being independent, risk-taking, aggressive, rational, physically tough, courageous, and unemotional—affect the mythologising around the value of nuclear weapons.
It is important to note that such norms are constructed—they are neither inherent nor universal. Gender norms are produced in various sites, including through the policies of states, security discourses, education, media debates, popular culture, and family relations. The military plays a primary role in shaping images of masculinity in the larger society, to the point where“the dominant adult male role model could largely be the product of the military.” As Judy Wajcman notes, “War provides the ultimate test of manliness and is the legitimate expression of male violence.”
The masculine mythologies of nuclearism
Feminist scholars have long studied the connections between militarised masculinities, the quest for dominance in international relations, and nuclear weapons. Carol Cohn’s “close encounter with nuclear strategic analysis” starting in 1984 led to illuminating articles in Signs and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the gendered discourse on nuclear weapons. These articles provided the foundations for a feminist analysis of nuclear war, nuclear strategy, and nuclear weapons themselves.
Cohn described the “sanitized abstraction and sexual imagery” used in US nuclear war planning, including metaphors that equate military and political power with sexual potency and masculinity—such as “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks,” and discussions about how “the Russians are a little harder than we are.” She and Sara Ruddick suggested that this type of highly sexualised language serves to “mobilize gendered associations and symbols in creating assent, excitement, support for, and identification with weapons.” It is also“a way of minimizing the seriousness of militarist endeavors, of denying their deadly consequences.”
In later years Cohn, along with Ruddick and Felicity Ruby, expanded the inquiry into the sense of masculine strength afforded by nuclear weapons. They listened to a Hindu nationalist leader after India’s 1998 nuclear weapon tests, who explained, “we had to prove that we are not eunuchs.” They argued that statements like this are meant to “elicit admiration for the wrathful manliness of the speaker” and to imply that being willing to employ nuclear weapons is to be “man enough” to “defend” your country. They also examined how disarmament is “feminised” and linked to disempowerment, weakness and irrationality while militarism and attaining nuclear weapons is celebrated as signs of strength, power, and rationality.
In her study on the valuation of nuclear weapons, Catherine Eschle illuminated the ways in which “the protector” is coded as masculine and “the protected” as feminine in a discourses that defend nuclear weapons as necessary for security. She noted that these discourses reinforce and play into fantasies of “real men” and masculinity as defined by “invulnerability, invincibility, and impregnability”. She and Claire Duncanson further elaborated on how such gendered stereotypes guide the framework of security from a “realist” perspective on international relations and set the stage for a masculinised approach to security that accords status to nuclear weapons as both markers of masculine domination (capable of inflicting violence) and masculine protector (capable of deterring violence).
This gender analysis of nuclear weapon possessions helps us decode much of the rhetoric around nuclear deterrence and the power of the bomb. It illuminates the rationale for all of the efforts that the nuclear-armed states, and some of their allies, put into trying to discredit those who demand the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The process to develop the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), for example, provides an excellent case study in patriarchal resistance to nuclear disarmament. Proponents of nuclear weapons sought to use a logic of rationalism and power to defend their possession of these weapons and to “feminise” opponents of nuclear weapons by claiming they are “emotional” and “irrational”.
As part of this effort, the representatives of nuclear-armed states berated government representatives and activists pushing to ban the bomb. The nuclear-armed and their allies ridiculedthe TPNW supporters’ perspectives on peace and security, accused them threatening the world order, and suggested they were delusional. In one case, a Russian ambassador suggested that those wanting to prohibit nuclear weapons are “radical dreamers” who have “shot off to some other planet or outer space.” In another, a UK ambassador said the security interests of ban-proponents are either irrelevant or non-existent. A US ambassador asserted that banning nuclear weapons might undermine international security so much it could even result in the use of nuclear weapons.
These assertions are a study in patriarchy and patriarchal techniques—including victim-blaming and gaslighting. For example, the US government’s suggestion that banning nuclear weapons could result in nuclear war is reminiscent of men who assert that women who have been victims of sexual assault must have been acting or dressing a certain way to be “asking for it”. The message is clear: if you try to take away our toys of massive nuclear violence, we will have no choice but to use them, and it will be your fault.
Meanwhile, Russian and French representatives described the desire to prohibit nuclear weapons, and the focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, as being “emotional”. The nuclear-armed states resist the conversation about the humanitarian impacts because this discourse focuses on what nuclear weapons actually do to human bodies and the planet. Looking at the physical and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons undermines the abstraction of these weapons as deterrents and refocuses attention on the fact that they are tools of genocide, slaughter, and extinction.
The assertion that the humanitarian impacts discourse is emotional is an easy way to dismiss and discredit those raising it. In effect, it is an act of gaslighting. This is the practice of denying lived reality, of questioning the capacity of an individual to really understand what they are saying, given their emotional investment, and insisting on a truth that is fiction. It is an incredibly destabilising technique, orchestrated through constant denial, misdirection and misinformation, and ridicule.
Gaslighting in the realm of nuclear weapons has been practiced since the beginning of the atomic age. The discourse of deterrence denies the lived reality of those who have experienced the intergenerational harms of nuclear weapons use and testing. It insists that nuclear weapons are for security, not genocide. It claims that anyone who thinks otherwise is being emotional, overwrought, irrational, or impractical.
Privileging power through discourse
What is considered to be realistic, practical, and feasible is determined by those who hold power in a given situation. How these concepts are measured and used to described reality relies exclusively on those who control the mainstream discourse or narrative. In the context of nuclear weapons, this is men and women of incredible privilege; elites of their own societies and in the global community—such as politicians, government personnel, military commanders, and “national security” practitioners and academics. It is definitely not the people affected by nuclear weapons development, testing, stockpiling, use, or threatened use.
Within the constructs of the “national security” elite, disarmament seems impossible—like a utopian vision of a world that cannot exist because, the argument goes, there will always be those who want to retain or develop the capacity to wield massive, unfathomable levels of violence over others. Therefore the “rational” actors need to retain nuclear weapons for protection against the irrational others.
In a recent example, in 2018, the US government began asserting that all of the past commitments it has made to nuclear disarmament are out of date and out of step with today’s “international security environment”—as if the security environment is not directly related to the US government’s own actions, including its build-up of its nuclear arsenal. The current US administration has articulated a new approach to nuclear weapon policy, which is focused not on what the United States can do for nuclear disarmament but what the rest of the world can do for the United States in order to make it, as the most heavily militarised country in the world, feel “safer”.
This approach to international relations and disarmament insists upon the notion that states, as coherent units, must always be at odds with one another, rather than collectively pursuing a world in which mutual interdependence and cooperation could guide behaviour through an integrated set of common interests, needs, and obligations, considerations that characterise human security. But “security can’t be possessed or guaranteed by the state,” argue Duncanson and Eschle. “It is a process, immanent in our relationships with others and always partial, elusive, and contested”.
Challenging mainstream, dogmatic conceptions of security is critical. The pursuit of “security” by elite factions within states lies at the heart of each of the structures of violence explored in this series. The justifications rendered for borders, for police forces, for the carceral system, for war and weapons all centre on the ruthless quest for “security”. The word itself must be contested, for its definition is fundamentally different depending on where its pursuer is situated.
Challenging “security discourse”
Internationally, as well as nationally within most countries, security discourse and practice tend towards violence. As seen from the perspective of each state’s political masters—its economic elite and the agencies built to police and preserve the unequal, extractive relations upon which many countries are built—security requires an arsenal of weapons, surveillance and carceral apparatus, and other technologies of violence, control, and coercion. Security, from this perspective, is about managing and enforcing the destruction of the commons—it is about maintaining the inequal distribution of wealth, power, and resources.
This framing of security is what is behind the United States’ nuclear arsenal; its 800 military bases and its deployment of special forces and an alphabet soup of “intelligence” agencies around the globe; its military- and prison-industrial complexes; its heavily armed police forces and border patrols. This is why the US government, regardless of which party or individual has the leadership, invests in weapons and war instead of the well-being of its own citizens let alone its immigrants or people abroad.
This framing of security is also why so many other countries in the world invest in weapons and training for their military personnel instead of investing in the well-being of people. Rather than trying to prevent or mitigate the growing impacts of climate change, or investing in social safety nets that reduce inequalities, many governments follow the lead of the most heavily militarised countries in fortifying against unrest or migration by bolstering their capacity for violence.
Investing in peace
These government choices of investing in perpetual war over peace are precisely why the majority of people in the world hold such a diametrically opposed view of “security”. Security, for so many people, is about survival. It is about surviving the crumbling scaffolding holding up our world—surviving climate change, pandemic, famine, war. And it is about thriving, in a different world, in a different order, that is more equitable and fair.
For the majority of the world’s population, security is not a weapon. It is not a prison. It is the direct opposite. It requires investments in completely opposing structures. Security means safe housing. Sustainable and healthy food, water, air, and energy. Equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Freedom from violence, fear, hunger. Freedom from the threats emanating from certain states—surveillance, incarceration, detainment, deportation, harassment, and murder. Security means not living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, police brutality, or systemic repression.
For most people, security means stability. Not “strategic stability,” or other theoretical notions of equity amongst those capable of committing acts of monstrous violence against one another. But stability in terms of life and livelihood, of employment, access to health services, ability to care for family and community. Security, in this context, also means peace. Not some false “peace through terror” as professed by myths of nuclear deterrence, but the peace of promiscuous care, of nonviolent networks and mechanisms of solidarity and collective well-being.
Security is not an object or an achievement, it is a process that depends on the interactions of many moving parts. In this understanding, security cannot be reached through weaponisation but through our relationships to one another and with our environment—and these are always changing, as are we. “How we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world—the process—not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation,” writes Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
Thinking about security in this way and overturning the mainstream “security discourse” is part of the effort to build a different kind of world, a world that works for more people in more places. Changing narratives is a crucial part of changing minds, of overturning long-held beliefs about the way things work, the way things are, the way things “have to be”. This deliberate shifting of mainstream consciousness was crucial to the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, movements around labour and LGBTQ+ rights, for banning landmines, cluster bombs, smoking—and most recently, nuclear weapons.
Antinuclear activists with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) built on the lessons of other social movements, intentionally refocusing international discussions toward the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons. It might sound surprising, but most of the last 75 years, this has not been the focus of intergovernmental discussion about nuclear weapons. For the last several decades at the United Nations, nuclear weapons were discussed by governments primarily in what Carol Cohn describes as “technostrategic” language—a language that helps nuclear war planners to rationalise their actions in planning the deaths of millions of people while disassociating themselves emotionally and morally from this task. This affected the way even antinuclear governments spoke about nuclear weapons, primarily framing their opposition to the bomb in sanitised language about “international peace and security” and possible risks about use based on nuclear weapon policy details.
A key challenge for antinuclear activists and governments has been to disrupt. this narrative and elevate in its place a discourse based on the realities of nuclear weapons: the death and destruction caused by their use and testing; the descriptions of what blast and heat from a nuclear detonation due to human bodies; the radioactive legacies and environmental degradation. Amplifying the testimonies of survivors over the theorising of policymakers in boardrooms, and framing nuclear abolition as part of a broader pursuit of equity and justice, the diplomats and activists engaged in this work sought to stigmatise nuclear weapons in order to spur on their prohibition and abolition.
Banning the bomb
As a direct result of these efforts to change the discourse and to organise strategically for new pathways to disarmament, in 2017 the United Nations outlawed nuclear weapons. Adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons on 7 July 2017, 122 governments voted to place nuclear weapons—along with chemical and biological weapons, blinding laser weapons, landmines, and cluster bombs—on the list of technologies that are unacceptable on the basis of their indiscriminate and horrifically devastating levels of violence.
Unlike the piecemeal nuclear weapon governance agreements before it, the new instrument prohibits nuclear weapons for all countries and sets the stage for the elimination of these weapons. It offers various pathways for nuclear-armed states to comply with the Treaty and eliminate their nuclear weapon programmes, with verification and within set timeframes.
The Treaty is also first nuclear weapon agreement to recognise the disproportionate impacts that nuclear weapon activities have had on Indigenous communities, to recognise the gendered impacts of radiation, and to encourage gender diversity in discussions on nuclear weapons. It is also the first to include provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation, recognising the harms that have been caused and the needs of communities that have suffered.
While the effort to ban nuclear weapons through an international agreement at the United Nations is a relatively recent effort, it builds on decades of antinuclear activism around the world. The 1960s and 1980s were particularly vibrant times for action against nuclear bombs and missiles, but those campaigning for nuclear abolition have been working all throughout the atomic age, demanding an end to the existential threat posed by these weapons of terror. Over these years, various agreements were reached among governments, largely due to the demands of people on the streets fighting for the future of their families and our planet. But all of these are now under threat themselves, as the US government holds a lit match to the paper upon which various limitations to nuclear weapons were painstakingly written over decades.
The fraying remnants of nuclear arms control
Until 2017, international agreements on nuclear weapons were piecemeal. A treaty aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, adopted in 1968, has been mostly successful in this endeavour. However, the nuclear-armed states that are party to that treaty have not complied with the legal obligation contained within to completely eliminate their nuclear weapons—which was part of the “grand bargain” in exchange for other countries never acquiring them.
In addition, a treaty banning nuclear weapon tests, adopted in 1996, still hasn’t entered into force. While most nuclear-armed states have exercised a moratorium on nuclear weapon testing in recent years, the US government has indicated that it might resume testing.
The United States and Russia have agreed to many bilateral arrangements over the years to reduce and limit the size of their deployed nuclear weapons—but the last of these is set to expirein 2021 with currently no indication that it will be renewed or replaced.
Over the past few years, the current US government has been determined to dismantle all of the nuclear arms control architecture built over decades, withdrawing from and refusing to join or implement all of the treaties that put any constraints on its nuclear arsenal. It claims that the “international security environment” is no longer suitable for nuclear disarmament. This glosses over the fact that US actions, above all else, determine the so-called international security environment. And the fact that it in the last 75 years, while the United States and Russia may have reduced their nuclear stockpiles, they have never pursued nuclear disarmament. And the fact that nuclear disarmament could in fact improve international security.
While it was initially the US government expounding this view that the world is not ready for nuclear disarmament, the other nuclear-armed states have all taken it up in various ways. It provides a comfortable rhetoric to hide behind: we’d really like to do this thing we promised to do, but if we do it, it will hurt everyone, so… maybe later.
Despite the persistent gaslighting, the majority of governments in the world reject the idea that the time is not “ripe” for nuclear disarmament. “Disarmament is a driver of security,” the government of Ireland has argued, for example. The international security environment “is not a pretext to shirk obligations or to defer progress on disarmament. Concrete progress on disarmament creates an enabling environment, enhances security and provides a reinforcing loop to allow further progress.”
Most countries have renounced nuclear weapons as tools of genocide and injustice. Criticising the nuclear-armed states for their hypocrisy in asserting themselves as protectorates of “international security” while wielding weapons of unconscionable violence, many governments have acknowledged the global power disparity that is entrenched by nuclear weapon possession. South Africa’s diplomats, for example, have drawn comparisons between the nuclear order and apartheid, arguing that it is another example of minority rule, in which “the will of the few will prevail, regardless of whether it makes moral sense.”
So far, the minority-ruling nine have all refused to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. So have the US allies that claim protection from nuclear weapons through their security agreements with the United States—these include the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, as well as Australia, Japan, and Republic of Korea. In contrast, it was countries of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, together with a few European countries, who championed the nuclear ban treaty.
Their negotiation and adoption of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons was a brilliant end-run around the nuclear-armed states. Despite pressure and threats from several of the bullies with bombs, they stood their ground to say, enough. The normative impacts of such a move cannot yet be measured, but the stigmatising force is already being felt around the world. Financial institutions are divesting from nuclear weapon producers; political leaders and parliamentarians in nuclear-supportive countries are demanding a change to their governments’ policies; city councils around the world are saying, we do not want to be a target in a nuclear war.
Confronting the continuum of violence
Nuclear abolition is possible. The international law is in place. The technical capacity for dismantlement of nuclear bombs has been established. Most of the world is hungry for disarmament. But the nuclear armed-states are not ready—not ready to relinquish their self-perceived god-like power derived from The Bomb. Not ready to join the rest of the world in cooperating for peace instead asserting dominance and control over the order they created, the order from which they extract wealth and privilege.
Understanding the relationship between nuclear weapons and power, the role that the bomb plays in our current world—not as a relic of history but as an immediate and tangible threat to all life—is crucial to advancing toward abolition. This includes witnessing and renouncing nuclear weapons as part of the broader continuum of violence that so many of us confront every day: among other things, the systems of white supremacy behind nuclear weapon development and use; the patriarchal control possessors claim to derive from nuclear weapons; the economic tragedy of billions wasted on bombs at the expense of human well-being; the impacts a nuclear weapon detonation would have on our climate, food production, and environmental sustainability.
From here, we can oppose nuclear weapons not just as material objects in their own right, but as deadly cogs in a bigger system of violence and injustice. Our activism against the bomb is not “just” a demand for nuclear abolition, but for the disruption and dismantlement of the economic, political, and cultural systems that make nuclear weapons possible, that make them seem desirable, and that hold up all the other structures of violence that prevent us from developing equitable societies of care and nonviolence.
Nuclear weapons and white supremacy
There are many ways to connect nuclear weapons to other structures of violence that are considered in this series. At the heart of each is white supremacy.
The policies and practices of nuclear weapon development, testing, and use, described earlier, are policies of radioactive racism. The same racist ideology that enables certain governments to explode nuclear bombs, dig up radioactive materials, and bury nuclear waste on Indigenous lands, Pacific islands and North African deserts also lies within carceral systems and border controls.
The dismissal of survivor testimony as expert contributions to nuclear weapon discourse or policymaking is mirrored in the exclusion of Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, as well as LGBTQ+ and other people with lived experience of police brutality, from decisions about policing and community safety. Similarly, patronising racism is on display when nuclear-armed states argue that countries of the “global south” have no legitimate security interests when it comes to nuclear weapons—that they should just be quiet and let the “adults” handle things.
Nuclear weapons and carceral systems
Beyond the embeddedness of white supremacy, nuclear weapon policy and activities also hold other similarities to carceral systems of policing and incarceration. As much as the bomb is a coloniser, it is also a prison. The justifications for nuclear weapon possession, told over and over to our populations and entrenched within our economies and politics, cage our imaginations along with our bodies and our futures.
Just as many people find it difficult to imagine security without police or prisons, many also find it difficult to imagine security without nuclear weapons. Yet, as Angela Davis notes, there is widespread “reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and at the same time, it is absent from our lives.” Likewise, many people acknowledge that nuclear weapons are horrible, yet claim they are a “necessary evil”. They accept the abstract notion that nuclear weapons “keep us safe”—because the bomb is for them out of sight and out of mind, and not something that they have ever experienced themselves. They exist, but they are meant to never be used. Thousands have been detonated, but on Black and brown bodies, near poor communities, on Indigenous lands.
The persistence of the faith that nuclear weapons bring security, force fed to us by the state as dogmatic Truth, is also similar to the faith in carceral systems to keep people safe. In both cases, we must ask, whose security do they serve, and against what or whom do they offer protection? Much like police forces only bring stability and order to the capitalist class, to those with property and wealth that require “protecting” from the masses, nuclear weapons only bring stability and order to the warmongers who seek the capacity to destroy the world in order to preserve their dominance of it.
Responses to violence and inequalities that are witnessed are also similar. In the face of police brutality, some politicians or even activists suggest that the police can be reformed. With more body cameras, with better training, with more prosecutions and accountability, we can improve the operation of police. Whether these assertions are well intentioned or a deliberate tactic to defuse protest and demands for change, they rest on the notion that the structure itself is fine and its operation just needs to be tweaked. Likewise, there are plenty of advocates for nuclear arms control, calling for reductions of nuclear arsenals done to a “reasonable” level, or for the cancellation of modernisation programmes and development of new missiles or bombers, or for cutting some of the budget for nuclear weapons.
But as with police forms, none of these adjustments get to the heart of the problem—which is that carceral systems and nuclear weapons both are extremely violent tools to oppress, control, and kill human beings. The problem is not simply the budgets or the size or the policies of police forces, the prison system, or nuclear arsenals—the problem is that each of these is designed to cause harm. You cannot reform away something when it is the fundamental nature of that thing.
Nuclear weapons and border imperialism
If we think of nuclear weapons as the “ultimate colonisers,” as Arundhati Roy describes them, the implications for their role in enforcing border imperialism become clear.
Nuclear weapons are part of the toolkit for maintaining the inequitable privileged world order, a radioactive line between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. In terms of nuclear weapon possession, but even more acutely, in terms of access to wealth and power. For the most part, nuclear weapon possessors and supporters are among the wealthiest countries in the world; most are located in the global north. With the exception of Brazil and Mexico, the 15 countries with the highest GDPs are all nuclear weapon possessors or support the US nuclear weapon programme through alliance agreements.
As economic inequality between states, and between people within states, has skyrocketed, borders have become essential tools to “protect and secure not individual nations but the international class of wealthy nations,” as Jeff Halper explains in War Against the People. To this end, most wealthy countries, particularly the United States, Australia, and the European countries that are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, are engaged in violent suppression of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. As outlined in another article in this series, on any given day, there are about 50,000 asylum seekers and migrants in detention in the United States. Even more are detained across Europe, with the highest numbers currently in France. Australia is currently detaining nearly 10,000 migrants, mostly in “offshore” detention facilities. In each of these situations, government officials engage in illegal push-backs and denial of entry, deliberate spread of misinformation, as well as abusive conditions in detention.
These countries are spending billions on “border security” to keep people out. Notably, some of the same companies developing militarised surveillance apparatus for borders are also involved in weapons production, including nuclear weapons. For example, Leonardo, an Italian arms company, supplies drones to EU coastguard agencies. It is also involved in the production of medium-range air-to-surface missiles for France. So is Thales, a Dutch company that also produces radar and sensor equipment and is currently developing border surveillance infrastructure for the European Border Surveillance System. The increasing militarisation of borders is a boon to the military-industrial complex in the United States, Israel, and across Europe, creating new markets for weapons and other technologies of violent repression, coercion, and control.
Companies in the United States that manage the nuclear-industrial complex are also invested in the militarisation of borders directly. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, for example, has been part of the system for building and managing the US nuclear weapon arsenal since 1945; it was also commissioned in the early 1990s to draw up plans to militarise the US-Mexico border. It recommended a militarised responses such as the construction of a triple-layer border wall, systematic checkpoints, and electronic surveillance, among others. Sandia was initially run by AT&T, then Lockheed Martin, and now by a subsidiary of Honeywell.
In addition to the corporate entanglement of border militarism and nuclear weapons, the policies and tactics of “border security” has also arguably been influenced by nuclear weapon policies, in spirit if not literally. Both rely on a theory of “deterrence” to justify their cruelty. The increasing global battlescape of “border security” is all part the effort of wealthy Western governments to work together make sure that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers have as difficult time as possible entering their countries or even making it to their shores. But much like the theory of nuclear deterrence, deterring migration simply does not work. People desperate to survive gang violence or armed conflict or climate change or economic despair will undertake dangerous actions to try to secure a better life—any life—for themselves and their families.
The border-related deterrence policies of the United States — such as shutting down border crossings near urban areas, for example — have driven people to cross instead through the desert, where many die of thirst, hunger, or exposure. The deterrence policies in Europe have driven many to making dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean Sea, at the bottom of which many bodies of refugees now lie. The deterrence policies of Australia have likewise drowned many migrants coming from Southeast Asia and have left the rest in perpetual internment in squalid conditions in “offshore” prisons. Over 75,000 migrants are known to have died since the mid-1990s. Many more have disappeared, or the deaths simply haven’t been recorded.
Nuclear weapons are about death, not deterrence; border imperialism is callous indifference to human life. Both nuclear weapons and borders are about maintaining power and privilege for some at the expense of the lives of others—in the case of nuclear weapons, potentially everyone. Both are about maintaining a political and economic world order built on, and reliant upon, extreme inequality and violence.
Nuclear weapons and war
Nuclear weapons are both embedded within and stand outside the war machine. After the first detonation in the desert of New Mexico, nuclear weapons were used twice as an act of war against Japan. Their use was justified as necessary to end World War II—though as an ever-growing mountain of this was not the case.
Since then, the primary justification for nuclear weapons has been that they prevent war. This, too, has been proven fallacious. Countless conflicts between nuclear-armed states, even if not fought on their own territories in a traditional land war, coupled with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional states, have shown that as deterrents, nuclear weapons do not live up to the hype.
But it’s interesting how a weapon designed for use in conflict has since taken on the mythology of a weapon meant never to be used. A weapon by its very nature is meant to be used. Weapons are tools of violence, the very purpose of which are to kill, injure, and destroy. Yet the dogma of deterrence has been so engrained in politics and popular culture alike that many people have been trained to believe that this weapon will never be used. Nuclear weapons are not the droids you’re looking for.
Of course, nuclear weapons are used, every day, in an exercise of power. They have been used thousands of times through nuclear weapon tests. They are deployed and targeted every second of the day. And they have cost the world billions of dollars in their development, testing, use, deployment, maintenance, and modernisation—and will cost billions more if not abolished. In this sense, they are firmly embedded in the war machine—they are part of the ever-increasing investments in militarism made globally.
Overcoming the nuclear nightmare
The nuclear-industrial complex is largely responsible for the feat of magical realism surrounding mainstream nuclear weapon discourse and theory. It has actively worked to make sure its narratives about “strategic stability” and “mutually assured destruction” have held sway over nuclear weapon policies and investments all these years. Meanwhile, the cost of living for people everywhere has continued to rise—poverty, war, climate change; all have worked against a popular resistance to something as seemingly esoteric as the nuclear bomb.
But these weapons must not be considered “out of sight, out of mind” anymore. They are a living nightmare, to which those who have experienced them can attest. And they are critically bound up with so many of the other aspects of our societies we need to change in order to survive, and in order to thrive. They are embedded within the US political, economic, and cultural landscape, and seeing them as such could help us find new or innovative locations and strategies for our resistance and our efforts to build the structures of collective care we so desperately need.
In addition to the global work at the United Nations with governments of the world, antinuclear activists are also already working locally with city or municipal council members to divest public funds from nuclear-weapons production. ICAN’s Don’t Bank on the Bomb initiative provides information about financial institutions around the world that invest in the companies contributing to the manufacture of nuclear-weapons systems. Local efforts in cities and towns across the United States and in other countries are helping to divest personal funds, as well as government pension funds and other public money, from these companies.
Activists are also encouraging their cities to comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and to call on their federal governments to join the Treaty.
Some activists situate their struggle at the sites of nuclear violence—sites of their use and testing, as well as their sites of production and manufacture, sites of uranium mining and waste dumping, sites of their assembly or their deployment. This work includes interrupting the daily work at the sites, distributing information about the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and about the prohibition treaty, speaking with local communities and workers, and building connections among people.
But more work is needed to integrate our movement with others, and to support movements for broader social, economic, and environmental justice.
Seeking a continuum of activism to challenge the continuum of violence
Given the continuum of violence between and among various structures of violence in our societies, there are plenty of ways in which to connect, reinforce, and amplify social movements that stand against them. While the single-issue antinuclear organising of the past may not be feasible or even desirable, the time is riper than ever for activism based on the fundamental redirection of security concepts and funding priorities, of which nuclear weapons issues are an important aspect.
The threat of nuclear war, the waste of resources on nuclear weapon modernisation, maintenance, and deployment, the risks to health and environment of nuclear weapon production, are all very real, tangible costs of the atomic bomb that need to be considered within social movements looking to change how we can achieve safety, solidarity, and security as well as peace and justice. To address these concerns, it is imperative to incorporate feminist, queer, racial, and Indigenous justice, and environmental perspectives in the actions we undertake.
Right now, there are calls in many countries to defund the police and prison industries and build alternative structures for preventing harm and for transformative justice. This incredible work is crucial toward building the type of communities in which we can all live and thrive. This work is about, among other things, disarming and demilitarising; it is about divesting from weapons and violence and investing in peace and equality instead. Abolishing nuclear weapons is part of this work. Similarly, nuclear abolition is part of the work to prevent or mitigate the impacts of climate change. The environmental impacts of nuclear weapons, even in a single detonation, can be devastating; a nuclear war would lead to catastrophic impacts on the atmosphere, land, and water, leading to global famine and even mass extinction.
The bottom line is, as Audre Lorde says, our activism can’t be single-issue, because we don’t live single-issue lives. Integrating work against nuclear weapons into other movements, and effectively supporting the work of movements for social justice and environmental preservation within the work against nuclear weapons, means recentring different perspectives and approaches in our work, as described above.
Queer theory and politics offer useful lessons here. As Gem Romuld of ICAN Australia notes, the nuclear ban treaty can be considered “queering nuclear disarmament,” because it undermines the dominant patriarchal discourse around nuclear weapons and “prioritises, or at least amplifies, marginalised voices (countries and people impacted by nuclear testing).” This is helping change “security frameworks worldwide, putting nuclear-armed states and their allies on the defensive.”
Queer approaches to organising and activism tend to push back against traditional power structures, methodologies, and spaces. For example, for some queer activists it is not sufficient for LGBT rights to be “recognised” or “tolerated” by heterosexist societies when queer lives are being destroyed and diminished in multifaceted ways. LGBT activists who do focus on “petitioning for rights and recognition before the law” have been accused by some others of collaborating with mainstream nationalist politics of identity, entitlement, inclusion, and personal responsibility. Queer politics, in contrast, may offer an approach based not on integrating into dominant structures but on transforming“the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently.”
This may be why the fight against nuclear weapons tends to draw in queer activists, as Emma (Crunch) highlights. She points out that the nuclear-industrial complex is “a necessarily highly regulated, undemocratic industry with concentrated power,” and queer-identified people “tend to try and break down some of these power structures in our lives and relationships, as well as power sources.”
The same can be said for much Indigenous activism, were it challenges the legitimacy of settler colonial institutions rather than applying to them for fulfillment of “rights and responsibilities”. Some Indigenous organisers work for environmental protections and rights as citizens of First Nations, not of the states that continue to steal, rape, murder, and destroy their bodies, land, and water with which they live.
Refusing to engage in what Tim Pollo describes as “a supplicant politics, where we beg or demand of governments that they act,” many Indigenous and queer activists instead organise and build within their spaces and with methods they have established within their own communities. For many First Nations, this is an existential imperative. “The genocidal intentions of settler states lie not only in the wide range of measures used to diminish, contain and destroy First Nations people, but in the suppression of Indigenous knowledge, ontologies and ways of living that are carried through and in the land,” note Brenna Bhandar and Rafeef Ziadah.
Nuclear weapons are part of settler states’ quest for suppression and destruction of First Nations. In Australia and the United States, the colonial governments bombed the land, covering it with the black mist and white rain of radioactive fallout, and burying nuclear waste within it. They have rejected efforts of local communities to secure acknowledgement or compensation for these harms; they continue to reject the perspectives of survivors as relevant to policymaking.
Decolonisation is inherent to nuclear disarmament. The elimination of nuclear weapons is part of the process of acknowledging the radioactive racism of the nuclear age and repairing this damage. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recognises this. Its negotiators listened to First Nations appeals to include language on the disproportionate harms caused by nuclear weapon activities to Indigenous communities and to include victim assistance and environmental remediation in the Treaty’s provisions. While the damage can never be undone, naming it and working to address it are imperative to healing the wounds of nuclear colonialism and to preventing such acts from ever occurring again.
Moving away from “supplicant politics” was also inherent in the negotiation of the nuclear weapon ban treaty. After decades of appealing to the nuclear-armed states to comply with their legal and moral obligations to disarm, the majority of the world’s governments finally rejected the structure of oppression imposed upon them through the established forums for discussion and negotiation, and forged a new path outside of “credible” channels. Utilising the UN General Assembly, which gives each member state an equal vote, allowed the voices and interests of those not in control of massive world destroying arsenals to not only be heard, but to hold court.
Consciously or not, the decision to turn to an alternative forum for action on nuclear weapons placed in the foreground a politics where the nonnormative and marginal position became the basis for progressive change. This is arguably a queering of process, in which those marginalised do not “search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships, but instead pursue a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws which make these institutions and relationships oppressive.” Learning from Indigenous knowledge, this type of shift also was a process that allowed participants to connect to the land, water, and sky, through the renewed focus on the humanitarian impacts on nuclear weapons.
That said, the UN General Assembly is still an established forum. Of all of the UN machinery, it may best maintain the spirit of the UN Charter’s question for international equality and cooperation, but at the end of the day it still part of a broader architecture in which “power” rules. While the United Nations was founded to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, its most militarised member states have used the system to prevent action that impede their interests of capital accumulation through war, imperialism, and oppression.
“Power both inhabits and determines the structures of the system,” writes Tim Pollo. “Only by changing power can we change the system.” If have some sense of what this means nationally or locally, in terms of building community resilience, mutual aid, and solidarity, what could this look like in relation to nuclear weapons? As we build alternatives to the other structures of violence and power we seek to undo—the carceral state, border imperialism, etc.—what are the lessons we can draw to effectively undermine the power structures that sustain nuclear weapons?
Transformative justice for nuclearism
For example, what would transformative justice look like in relation to nuclear weapons? Transformative justice processes are often used within communities to achieve accountability and healing without recourse to police and imprisonment. Such processes are about accountability, acknowledgement of harm, and apology for that harm. They are about reparations for the survivor and the survivor feeling heard and cared for by their community. They are about changing the behaviour of the perpetrator, as well as preventing others from committing such harms and building the systems of care and accountability necessary for the future.
What does this mean in relation to nuclear weapons, in a way that is not supplicant to power? Perhaps it means transnational solidarity of activists to listen to, acknowledge, and amplify experiences and perspectives of those harmed. Perhaps it means, as it did in the case of the nuclear ban, state actors also doing the same—diplomats of non-nuclear countries working to create more inclusive spaces and methods of work—but it must go beyond this, to the creation of entirely new spaces and methodologies that do not mirror the structures of power we are working to circumvent and dismantle. Rather than embedding in the negotiations the idea that only states can make treaty law, there should be more experimentation with activists, survivors, and other members of civil society becoming directly engaged with negotiations in ways that are usually exclusively reserved for states. This has implications for transparency, access, and the diffusion of power to more levels of society and people, beyond our usual, tried and tired methods of work.
Taking a transformative justice approach to nuclear weapons also might mean building community-type structures to help hold the experience of survivors but also to seek accountability from those who have perpetuated nuclear harm. This includes those within nuclear-armed governments, the nuclear-industrial complex, and the academia and think tank personnel who have built careers justifying nuclear violence. Creating space for them to own their participation in this system of extreme violence may be an important act to help transform and bring an end to nuclearism. In the case of sexual violence, for example, the very act of communities supporting survivors and calling out the violence for what it is, help shift the power dynamics within systems of abuse. While what we’re talking about in relation to nuclear weapons may seem completely different, recognising and naming the structures of violence that enable nuclear weapon possession and use can be a first step toward those engaged in that structure to becoming increasingly uncomfortable and aware of their participation and complicity in what is ultimately the preparation for genocidal and ecocidal acts.
These ideas are not meant to be presented as answers but as the beginning of a conversation about how antinuclearism—as a movement and a goal—can be more effective in strategy, more reflective and inclusive, and more supportive of other social justice work. Emerging from the (missile) silo of single-issue antinuclear activism is imperative. While the work to bring into force, implement, and universalise the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons must continue, we must simultaneously work to deconstruct and transform the structures that enable a select handful of governments and corporations to possess these weapons. It is here, at the intersection of many abolitionist projects, that we can find hope and inspiration for dismantling both the bomb and the political, economic, and cultural scaffolding that have facilitated its existence for seventy-five years.
It feels, most days, like we are reaching a crossroads. As the pandemic continues to devastate economies and exacerbate inequalities within and among countries; as people try to flee their homelands due to the ravages of climate change, colonialism, capitalism, and conflict, only to be met with border violence, walls, and weapons of detention and deportation; as we see white supremacists taking up their long-stockpiled arms against those standing up for Black lives; as we feel the surging pulse of fascism spread like a virus—as we face all this, we can either succumb to the violence, or we can stand to abolish the systems and structures that enable it.
Within this work, we need to remember the nuclear bomb—what it can do to all of us and all that we love, seeing it as both a metaphor and a grotesque physical manifestation of all the hate, fear, and violence in our world. We must place it within the spectrum of violence of which it is a blinding hot, radioactive part—and we must abolish it.