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Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

Posted: June 9, 2010 03:41 PM

What's Next for the Nuclear Disarmament Movement?

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The last 19 months have been a tumultuous time for the nuclear disarmament movement, placing it, today, on the cusp of some important decisions about its future direction.

Many advocates of nuclear disarmament felt considerable elation at the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In the previous years, the Bush administration had scrapped the ABM treaty, refused to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, championed the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons, and abandoned arms control and disarmament negotiations. Obama, by contrast, not only promised to reverse these priorities, but -- during and after his campaign -- stated his commitment to building a nuclear weapons-free world.

To be sure, there was a sense of letdown among disarmament activists in April 2010, when the Obama administration's long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review showed no significant departures from previous U.S. nuclear doctrine. Furthermore -- in an apparent attempt to secure Republican support for Senate ratification of nuclear disarmament treaties -- the administration began championing a ten-year, $180 billion plan to "modernize" the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Nevertheless, the successful negotiation of the New START Treaty with Russia and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, scheduled for May 2010 at the United Nations, raised expectations for substantial progress on banning the Bomb.

The NPT review conference, particularly, provided a focal point for nuclear disarmament movement energies. About a year before, recognizing the opportunities for publicity and change provided by the conference, peace and disarmament organizations began to draw together around plans for it. In the United States, these organizations included the American Friends Service Committee, the disarmament group of United for Peace & Justice, Peace Action, and the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom. Abroad, their ranks included Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Japan Council against Atomic & Hydrogen Bombs.

Meanwhile, mainstream organizations proclaimed their support for nuclear abolition, including the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the International Trade Union Confederation.

The result was an impressive mobilization of civil society. From April 30 to May 1, 2010, the organizers convened, at New York's Riverside Church, an International Conference for a Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World. Attended by more than 800 people from 30 nations, this standing-room-only gathering featured speeches by numerous movement leaders, including Tadatoshi Akiba (Mayor of Hiroshima) and Tomas Magnusson (president of the International Peace Bureau). In a keynote address to the assemblage, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that "what I see on the horizon is a world free of nuclear weapons. What I see before me are the people who will make this happen."

On May 2, a mass nuclear abolition rally and march swept through New York City, from Times Square to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations. Among the 15,000 participants were several thousand Japanese and other demonstrators from overseas. Two days later, event organizers delivered nuclear abolition petitions, signed by some seven million people, to the chair of the NPT review conference.

These important and colorful events were met with an almost total news blackout by the mass communications media. None of the major newspapers or commercial television networks in the United States gave any coverage to this outpouring of civil society. The usual silly chatter about movie stars, athletes, and terrorist threats flooded the TV news networks ad nauseum. But the rising public demand for nuclear disarmament -- the largest since the 1980s -- went unmentioned.

The outcome of the NPT review conference was certainly more encouraging. By the end of May, the U.N. conferees had come up with a consensus document that urged nations with the largest nuclear arsenals to lead efforts toward disarmament, called on all nations to agree to more thorough inspections of their facilities, and announced plans for convening a conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons."

Against the backdrop of the disastrous NPT review conference of 2005, some arms control and disarmament organizations expressed guarded praise for what had been accomplished in 2010.

But, from the standpoint of the activist groups that had pulled together the popular mobilization for nuclear abolition, the NPT conference resolution was a serious disappointment. Highlighting the fact that the resolution largely re-stated past commitments, many leading activists emphasized its failure to break new ground. "This is an action plan for treading water," observed Jackie Cabasso, a key figure in the UFPJ disarmament group. Similarly, the Abolition Caucus of NGOs argued that "the gap between reassuring rhetoric about nuclear disarmament and real programs to rid the world of nuclear weapons" remained "unacceptably wide."

What, in these new circumstances, will nuclear disarmament activists do? Reflecting on the contrast between the Obama administration's nuclear abolition rhetoric and its record, Kevin Martin, executive director of America's largest peace organization, Peace Action, concluded that supporters of a nuclear-free world needed to wake up to the reality that, without very substantial movement pressure, the administration's nuclear disarmament activities were going to be quite limited. In this context, peace and disarmament groups would have to endorse incremental measures while, at the same time, keeping the idea of nuclear abolition at the forefront of public discussion.

In specific terms, this approach will probably mean that the nuclear disarmament movement will back U.S. Senate ratification of the New START Treaty and of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and oppose Congressional funding of the administration's nuclear "modernization" plan, while steadfastly championing the opening of negotiations for a nuclear abolition treaty.

Can this mixture of incremental steps and of a dazzling long-range vision -- the vision of a nuclear-free world -- be sustained? It will not be easy. But with wise leadership and a committed following, the nuclear disarmament movement might be able meet this challenge.

[This is an abbreviated version of an article published in Foreign Policy in Focus.]

Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).