Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, joins us to discuss the current risks of nuclear war, policies that can reduce the risks of nuclear conflict, and how to move towards a nuclear weapons free world.
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- The current nuclear weapons geopolitical situation
- The risks and mechanics of accidental and intentional nuclear war
- Policy proposals for reducing the risks of nuclear war
- Deterrence theory
- The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
- Working towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons
4:28 Overview of the current nuclear weapons situation
6:47 The 9 nuclear weapons states, and accidental and intentional nuclear war
9:27 Accidental nuclear war and human systems
12:08 The risks of nuclear war in 2021 and nuclear stability
17:49 Toxic personalities and the human component of nuclear weapons
23:23 Policy proposals for reducing the risk of nuclear war
23:55 New START Treaty
25:42 What does it mean to maintain credible deterrence
26:45 ICAN and working on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
28:00 Deterrence theoretic arguments for nuclear weapons
32:36 Reduction of nuclear weapons, no first use, removing ground based missile systems, removing hair-trigger alert, removing presidential authority to use nuclear weapons
39:13 Arguments for and against nuclear risk reduction policy proposals
46:02 Moving all of the United State’s nuclear weapons to bombers and nuclear submarines
48:27 Working towards and the theory of the total elimination of nuclear weapons
1:11:40 The value of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
1:14:26 Elevating activism around nuclear weapons and messaging more skillfully
1:15:40 What the public needs to understand about nuclear weapons
1:16:35 World leaders’ views of the treaty
1:17:15 How to get involved
We hope that you will continue to join in the conversations by following us or subscribing to our podcasts on Youtube, Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, or your preferred podcast site/application. You can find all the AI Alignment Podcasts here.
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today’s podcast is with Beatrice Fihn. Beatrice is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. That’s ICAN for short. ICAN is a broad, inclusive campaign, focused on mobilizing civil society around the world to support the specific objective of prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. ICAN played a key role in advancing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the UN, which goes into force on January 22nd, 2021. The treaty completely outlaws nuclear weapons under international law for nations that are party to it. It specifically prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as the assistance or encouragement of the prohibited activities. For ICAN’s work on the ban, and together with Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, Beatrice accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN for their work on the treaty. Beatrice has over a decade of experience in disarmament diplomacy and civil society mobilisation, through her work with ICAN, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. She has written extensively on weapons law, humanitarian law, civil society engagement in diplomacy and multilateral institutions, and gender perspective on disarmament work.
This conversation focuses on the modern nuclear weapons strategic landscape, and specific policy proposals that may help to reduce the risks of accidental and intentional nuclear war, such as renewing the New START Treaty, removing presidential authority for the use of nuclear weapons, removing hair-trigger alert, retiring the ground based missile leg of the nuclear triad, and adopting a no first use policy. We also discuss the theory of mutually assured destruction, the theory of deterrence, and the possibility of the treaty and related efforts succeeding and leading to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.
When we get into considering the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, I invite you to keep in mind the distinction between how we use protective force in life and the world, and the various shapes and forms that power takes. Power in the case of nuclear weapons can be viewed as the raw physical destructive power they hold, but also the political, interpersonal, experiential, and social power we collectively participate in imbuing them with through our perceptions about them. It may not always simply be that the social and political power that we give something is solely, rationally, wisely, and objectively related to the physical power of the thing. We can consider the following quote by James P. Carse who says, “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” An example of this might be that we can be physically bullied by someone with more physical power than us and through our own beliefs and perceptions allow ourselves to experience the physical violence from the perspective of victimization and also bestow social and even political power upon the bully through our unwitting choice to experience the world as and play the role of a victim who suffers the actions of the other. Rather, strength would be knowing one’s truth in relation to the bully, and being free from suffering the bully’s actions by being capable of allowing them to do what they wish without playing the role of a victim or bestowing any social or political power to them that is not in accordance with your truth.
We have a choice with nuclear weapons to take away various forms of power and prestige that we bestow upon them, like we have a choice with the role we play in relation to and powers we bestow upon bullies. So, I invite you to consider what you think about the paradox of power, in its various forms, and the role of protective force in relation to the physical power of nuclear weapons as we explore deterrence theory and the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
And with that, let’s get into our conversation with Beatrice Fihn.
Thanks again for doing this. I’m excited and pretty eager to know more about the current landscape of nuclear weapons dynamics and the political and strategic elements that are going on today. What kind of policy proposals are being suggested for minimizing the risk of accidental nuclear war or intentional nuclear war? So to start things off here, I’m curious to know if you could give an overview of and details about the most dangerous aspects of the current global nuclear weapons, strategic and geopolitical situations.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, I think, that many experts such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, and many others have concluded this past year that the risk of nuclear use is as high as it has ever been, equally high or higher than incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. What makes it different this time where we might not have that kind of very tense standoff that we can sort of see and watch in real time, and what makes it, for me, even more scary is that we have more nuclear armed states than ever. We have nine now. We have a difficult security situation in the world globally, a lot of authoritarian leaders, these macho leaders that feed off of threats, and violence, and things of that.
We also have things like a huge revolution in the militaries, things like artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, and all these things can accidentally trigger certain decision making. The risk of stumbling into nuclear war by accident is growing. We’ve seen all these flare-ups in relationships as well. We saw over a year ago between India and Pakistan, between India and China. We’ve seen very tense these last years between the US and North Korea. An increased tense situation between the United States and Russia and NATO and Russia.
There’s just all these kind of hotspots in the world, and eventually something will go wrong. I’m actually really, really worried. Then, of course, we have situations like right now in the United States with an outgoing president, that from the outside seems like he’s about to lose his mind, behaving in an irrational way, and has the absolute authority to launch the US nuclear weapons if he wants to, and he doesn’t seem to care about what he leaves after himself, really, at this point. I think it’s actually a very dangerous situation right now.
Lucas Perry: Could you talk a little bit more about the nine nuclear weapon states and the relative risks of accidental versus intentional nuclear war?
Beatrice Fihn: You have the nine, of course, the United States, Russia, China, UK, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. These are the countries that have nuclear weapons.
And as I said, we’ve seen some quite tense moments in recent years. For example, I think, it’s three years now since the false alarm in Hawaii, where Hawaii’s citizens woke up one morning with a text message saying, “incoming ballistic missile”. What we forget now today is that that week, Trump and Kim Jong-un were exchanging threats on Twitter. It wasn’t after the meetings. It was before their meeting and stuff, and so, it was an incredibly tense situation. Had I been in Hawaii, I would have taken it seriously.
We’ve also seen, of course, an armed conflict flare-up between India and Pakistan, in Kashmir, where you also saw that both leaders of those countries consulted with their generals about nuclear weapons options. That was part of the conversations on how to respond, obviously, in ways to kind of intimidate the other side. Still, at some point, things can very quickly tip over, and they have to follow through on their threats. Then, of course, India and China as well, I can’t really remember when it was, because this past year is kind of like time warped. Again, there was a very tense situation. I think we’ve seen those kinds of things happening.
In addition to that, you also see things like cyber-attacks, for example, on the US Nuclear Security Administration very recently. You’ve seen also huge reasoning and disinformation campaign, sharing information that’s not true, kind of feverish nationalism in Russia, in the United States, in India, in Pakistan. I think that we are seeing all of these potential things. It’s very hard to say, “This is the one that will go wrong.” I don’t think we know that until it happens, and by then, it will be too late.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I have some kind of understanding that the risks of accidental nuclear war were higher than intentional. But yeah, when you put together all those kinds of possible tensions together, it makes more of a country’s narrative around intentional nuclear war being….
Beatrice Fihn: It can also be a mix, it can be an accident that triggers responses, or there can be disinformation that puts countries on very high alert status, very nervous, very jumpy. I think that all of those things can escalate together, but of course, we’ve seen many throughout history, and the more nuclear states we have, the more likely this will happen in the future as well. Pure accidents where something has gone wrong, something has broken, something has fallen off that triggers really near case scenarios.
Lucas Perry: Okay. At the Future of Life Institute, we have a close call timeline of more than 30 times that accidental nuclear war was almost started. A lot of this has to do with the fallibility of human and machine systems working in tandem about threats. Could you speak more specifically about this kind of accidental nuclear war that involves instrumentation and early warning systems?
Because one might expect that given more time that we would update the computer systems, which would become more reliable and become more secure, and then the risk of accidental nuclear war would decrease. Is this the case? Is it not the case? What is your perspective on instrumentation and accidental nuclear war?
Beatrice Fihn: I think that what we’re seeing is not just a more advanced technology, we’re also seeing more complex systems, and things that are very closely linked with other things, which means that you also have a lot of vulnerabilities that you might not even think about first, you might not test for, that only will be evident given certain things happening on this side, and then that triggered something there, and that triggered something there.
So I think it’s really important to also stay a bit humble in terms of technology and the power that they have. In particular, when we’re talking about a weapon that could literally kill the whole world, it’s not just, “Listen to the tech guys, they got this covered.” I think we have to have a very critical view of this and try to minimize risk. For us, of course, the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons will not be used is to eliminate them.
I think that we’ve seen in historic examples also in the past where systems have failed, such as Stanislav Petrov, the man who saved the world, the Soviet missileer, who had these incoming warning systems that detected that incoming US missiles. His orders were really to put that decision to launch nuclear weapons up to their President, which he didn’t do, because he decided that the systems seemed to be wrong, and he just used his judgment. He had no facts to base that on. He just didn’t feel right.
Of course, that saved us, it could have been a huge crisis. We know scenarios like this, but there’s also a lot of things that we don’t know. And some of the nuclear armed states are very non-transparent about accidents. We have for example, Eric Schlosser, American author who wrote a really great book about American accidents, and he also compares the statistics for industrial accidents between the United States and these other countries and how they have a higher rate of accidents in their industries, but no transparency.
So we just don’t know. We don’t know what is happening in India and Pakistan. We don’t even know what happens in France. France is really bad at transparency. And the people in power that have these weapons are telling us, “Trust us, it’s all fine.” I don’t know, should we?
Lucas Perry: Can you add any more clarity about the current risk going into 2021 relative to other decades? There is the general zeitgeist of humanity around nuclear weapons issues, and it’s pretty in part defeatist, and there seems to be a lot of feeling like we can’t do anything about it, one, and also some mix of views about the relative risks of it.
Some people think that it is very risky, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Then, other people are not even really sure that they still exist. It seems that some people view the current nuclear arms dynamics as being inherently stable, that mutually assured destruction is leading to a sufficiently stable system, that there’s nothing that we should focus on, or be doing anything about it. How would you address or what would you say to this kind of general mindset that exists on nuclear weapons issues today?
Beatrice Fihn: The risks are really real. The risks will go up and down depending on what some governments say, and do, and how they act. But the risk will always be greater than zero, which means that given enough time, eventually will happen.
It’s really important to remember that this is not something that people are warning about just for fun. I find that we have that in our society, right? If it doesn’t happen, it was all very unnecessary to think about it. Even the Millennium bug, for example, it was not a big thing, but it was also because people took action to prevent it. I think that that gets very underestimated in the public mindset because if we can’t see it, you don’t think it’s a real threat.
For decades, I work here in Geneva, next door to the WHO, have a lot of friends who work in health, WHO, and also in my previous work in bio weapons, we had a lot of conversations with them. They’ve known that a pandemic is coming for decades. They’ve said it many, many times. I’ve heard so many presentations and doctors saying, experts, scientists, “The pandemic is going to come. We don’t know when. We don’t know how deadly it will be, but it’s going to come.” Yet, we’re quite shocked and unprepared when it happens.
Same thing with climate change. Scientists have warned about this for a very, very long time, but it wasn’t until people actually felt it themselves. For me, I’ve always been very active on climate change, but it was really, when was it, summer of 2018, when it was so hot in Europe, and there were fires, and you see all these kinds of consequences. When you start feeling it, that’s when you change it. The problem with nuclear weapons is that when we feel it, it’s too late.
Thinking about what could happen this year, I don’t think that we should feel that, “Oh great, Trump is out of power. We’re now good.” Because you have other people like Putin, like Netanyahu, like Modi, like Johnson. These are not the kind of people that I trust they have the best intentions for the rest of the world.
I think that that’s also one of the points here is that what a lot of people in the nuclear armed states don’t think about is that whatever decisions the United States do on nuclear weapons, or North Korea does, that impacts me here in Switzerland. It’s literally also my future and security at stake. All these countries are gambling with the whole world, not just their own country.
We’ve had these conversations with governments. There’s been international conferences that have discussed this. They’ve really tried to estimate the risk, which is obviously very difficult to do, but they keep saying that the risk is real and there is no preparedness for handling a nuclear war. Even one nuclear detonation would overwhelm healthcare, emergency services. It would be so devastating that we have no capacity to respond effectively.
For me, that’s just an unacceptable risk in the long term. We might survive today. We might survive tomorrow. At some point, it’s going to go off if we keep them forever. The question is, are you comfortable waiting, just hoping that you’ll avoid it, or leave it to your kids to fix, but someone has to fix this, right? At some point, someone has to get rid of the nuclear weapons, and who’s going to do that?
Lucas Perry: Yeah, so two things are essentially coming to my mind. The first is that at the Future of Life Institute, this bias that you’re talking about, I think we feel that it’s particularly pernicious, the bias of low risk but high impact events are not things that we prepare for, for one.
If we do something about them, and they don’t occur, then it’s sometimes very hard to tell that our efforts are what mitigated the risk. Humanity, collectively, is falling asleep to these risks. If we go extinct in the 21st century, then this bias probably has a large role to play in it. It might be a mixture of different kinds of biases. What is the bias when there are collective issues, and then people don’t care about them because they think someone else will take care of them? Like maybe there’s an adult in some room who will take care of this, and there’s enough adults in rooms that’ll be like, “It’ll be fine” or something like that.
First of all, there’s that, and I have no idea how to address that, besides, I think, Anthony Aguirre at the Future of Life Institute is behind and pushing this idea of spreading expected value calculations as part of our reasoning in decision making, because I think his view is something like, often what is going on is that we assume the event is most likely to happen, and then we just plan for that, rather than taking our probability distributions across all of the events, and then multiplying the probability by the value it obtains if that event occurs, and then allocating resources across the possible futures with relation to the distribution of expected value.
That would mean allocating much more money to low probability high risk events. That might be something for correcting it. I think that’s important for thinking in terms of nuclear weapons. The value is almost infinite if we go extinct and lose out on billions of years of life because of nuclear weapons. Then, the second one, is you bring up all these leaders and it’s making me think of just toxic personality traits. The way that humanity props up, and not all these people have been selected by their populations, but there’s this way that these really toxic personalities make their way to the heads of states. I see it almost as a kind of self-work, or almost spiritual problem.
Beatrice Fihn: For me, the pandemic has really showcased the flaws in that kind of leader style. We have this outdated view that strength is about threats, it’s about weapons, and that’s power, the very kind of toxic masculinity thing that, “I’m the toughest one, don’t you dare come here and tell me what to do.”
In our culture where we undervalue compromise and negotiations and soft power in that way, even though the academic studies show that that is much more effective in terms of protecting people. I think that we see that from everything from guns in your society, for example, that communities with less guns have less people being shot. And communities with much, much more guns have the higher risk of being injured by a gun, if you have a gun, of course. But somehow, we think it’s weak to give up our weapons.
I think that’s also one of the things that we have to think about as a society and really looking at these, I think, we have a very unique moment right now. Almost all of the nuclear armed states’ leaders are that kind of personality, and to see how they handle a real security crisis, like the pandemic, for example, where in the United States, for example, 400,000 people have died. It’s huge. It’s more than any war. To see how they are incapable of actually protecting people in that situation, where people are actually dying, and people are needing leadership, needing health care, needing all these resources, they are abandoned by the government. And to prioritize those things are still seen by people as weak.
We need to kind of unpack what we think leaders should be like, what is strength. I see a lot of conversations around gender equality, racial equality, hopefully being able to support that the more women, the more people of color, the more people with other perspectives that have perhaps other values and have been trained by society to value different things, the more we can open up to that view that perhaps diplomacy is a strength, negotiation is power.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, that’s right. I see the importance here of the humanities being integrated in. In terms of the personality traits, this is both clearly a technical strategic and geopolitical issue. It’s also an issue of human beings and gender to some extent, there are versions of, you can call it say, sacred femininity or sacred masculinity that are just simply not being embodied by the world leaders.
And so it seems to some extent, we clearly have various versions of toxic masculinity controlling the most powerful weapons on Earth. With a lack of women, you miss out on the wisdom of the feminine, which is important, because it goes about dealing with issues in a way that is different than how men traditionally deal with issues. There are sacred versions of both. By sacred I simply mean, a wholesome, holistic, and aligned and enlightened version, and that seems to clearly be lacking.
There’s this deep interdependency, I think, we’re ignoring where it’s also about self-work, a collective self-worth issue, collective conversations about social issues and what are the kinds of values and personality traits that we’d like to have our leaders most embody.
Beatrice Fihn: I think that we kind of ignore, these threats and kind of boasting and being aggressive, always gets a lot more attention as well, instead of the peaceful solutions from ourselves and the way we react to them. Also media, there’s so much more being written about the ripping up of treaties, than it is about the making of the treaties, and the kind of diplomacy part. You don’t write the success stories of these kind of initiatives that have worked peacefully, they just are taken for granted once they’ve happened.
I think that for the nuclear weapons field, had it not been such a strong movement against nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War, with huge demonstration, masses of people organizing, we might have not been here today. Obviously, you can’t really prove that in a way, but I think that there’s a natural instinct to look at the threats and the violence and take that as facts and all the other things that are happening, it just kind of swooped away because they’re not so visible and they’re not getting so much attention.
We constantly undervalue those things, then. I think so many times when I talk to people, people say, “Oh, the UN doesn’t work, nobody cares about it,” because they have one example of when it didn’t work. And the 2500 examples that I can provide that when it did work, when it has changed things, they’re just like, “Whatever.” It’s a narrative we tell ourselves about the world that we need to kind of break and challenge.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I mean, this is also in part why I view self-understanding as so important in the 21st century. I mean, if you’re saying things like that, I think, it comes from a place of lacking self-understanding. I’d be interested in talking about this a lot more, but I think we could spend the whole time talking about this, in particular.
I want to pivot now into actual policy proposals, especially given the change in the seats in government in the United States. Given the current risks of nuclear devastation and intentional or accidental nuclear war, what do you see is the highest priority policy proposals and global efforts that ought to be made, both internally inside of nuclear weapons states and also internationally for reducing the risks of both accidental and intentional nuclear war?
Beatrice Fihn: We still have, of course, the United States and Russia with, I think, 90% of the nuclear arsenals. I mean, they are unmatched in their nuclear arsenals. I mean, the other ones are still dangerous, are still a big problem but the enormous stockpile of the US and Russia have is the biggest problem out of them all, I think. What we hope to see from the Biden administration is, of course, immediately an extension of New START – which is not a step forward, it’s just maintaining the current situation.
A lot of people will portray it as the biggest victory of the decade if it happens, but it’s basically just continuing the way that we have.
Lucas Perry: Can you explain New START?
Beatrice Fihn: The New START, it’s a treaty that was negotiated by Medvedev and Obama in 2010, that caps the US and the Russian nuclear arsenals and verifies that. It’s the limit on their arsenals. They can’t legally go above the threshold. That was part of a whole negotiating process in 2010, where they set that and they disarmed a lot of nuclear weapons and they met those levels. That treaty expires in February. The US administration under Trump have not been interested in renegotiating it. They’ve argued that we have to have China at the table. China with their 300 nuclear weapons, compared to the US and Russia’s 12,000, whatever they have together, is very dishonest.
It’s like “look at China,” they have 300 and our caps are several thousand. Obviously, that failed. If it expires in February, there is no legal limits to the US and Russian nuclear arsenal. What we know is, of course, the Biden administration is very supportive of New START and I think wants to extend it. Of course, that’s not enough, you need to have further reductions. I mean, these current arsenals are really, really high. In New START, there’s also provisions for extending it and then continuing to negotiate further reductions.
Lucas Perry: Why do they feel the need to have so many? If we accept mutually assured destruction as a way of maintaining global stability, then you want some number that will maintain reasonable deterrence, like credible deterrence. Why is it thousands and not hundreds?
Beatrice Fihn: I think it’s a very difficult conversation. Because if you accept deterrence, right, and say, “These weapons protect us,” then you have to protect so they don’t get knocked out. Then, you need more for that and you need to have them mobile, you need to have submarines, you need to have missile silos, you need to have the airplanes and it kind of never stops for the people who very much believed in nuclear weapons. That’s why, for us, I mean, we are very convinced that reductions are very necessary as an intermediate step like something that’s done now.
But we also have to work on policies that kind of question the whole reasoning for having them. Maybe it’s not true that we’re safer with these weapons. Maybe we’re actually more unsafe, because they make us a target and we engage in this kind of behavior where we actually put our own cities up as a human shield for our leadership. Really, what we need to do on the international level, and what ICAN has been working on is a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons, that don’t distinguish between how we treat biological and chemical weapons and nuclear weapons.
They’re not special or magic. They don’t have any sprinkle of peace dust over the world and nuclear weapons and everything is fine. I mean, if you believe that nuclear weapons stops all wars and stops conflict, then why are we having a problem with everyone having them? There’s a very flawed logic behind nuclear weapons. So what we’ve been doing is to work on this new treaty, Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that will enter into force just two days after the Biden administration comes into power.
It’s modeled after the bans of chemical weapons and the bans of biological weapons and landmines and cluster munitions. Weapons that indiscriminately target civilians as a part of their function should be illegal under international law, because we have all agreed to the laws of war that civilians are not targets, that’s already something that even the nuclear armed states have agreed to. Of course, that kind of follows on and then it can’t be legal to use nuclear weapons, it has to be illegal.
That’s what we’re working on now to also shift this idea that nuclear weapons are a benefit, and make it much more of a stigmatized weapon in the same way as chemical weapons and biological weapons are.
Lucas Perry: If the United States and Russia, for example, ever get into a nuclear war, it’s basically going to end civilization, either permanently or at least for 100 years or more, killing most people on the planet, and then maybe we’ll slowly crawl our way out of that hole over hundreds of years, maybe. A limited exchange between, say, India and Pakistan would still kill hundreds of millions, if not billions, by inducing a small nuclear winter that would destroy crops and create a global food shortage.
In those ways, we can reflect on how actually having nuclear weapons just makes everyone less safe. We talked about toxic personalities a little bit earlier. Who knows how toxic of a personality will be the next person who comes to power in some state? If we’ve abided by a treaty where we give up nuclear weapons, then we won’t have anything to stop such a person if they have control of nuclear weapons from taking the entire planet hostage.
The view is also that they protect the existential security of smaller countries. For example, part of I think the policy of when we will use nuclear weapons is when the existential status of, say, Russia or the United States is under threat via a ground based army. So it helps to preserve the existence of the country itself and the leadership, which is why it seems like Kim Jong-un, for example, really wants them. The Korean War was particularly vicious to North Korea, I believe that the United States created a lot of civilian casualties in bombings.
Again, this is like the smaller person being able to defend themselves against someone much larger by investing in this technology. What is your perspective on these kinds of views?
Beatrice Fihn: I think that that’s the sort of mainstream view, right, from the people in the defense community, maybe. This is rational. I mean, it’s very similar to the gun debate. “I’m a good guy, I need the weapon because the bad guys otherwise will bomb things.” What happens is that you end up shot yourself. I think that by having nuclear weapons, you are a target of nuclear weapons. Even though of course, because of the environmental impact and the devastating nuclear winters that would be as a consequence, they’re not targeting Geneva, that’s not where the coordinates of nuclear weapons are programmed for. They are targeted for, maybe San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Mumbai, Beijing.
These are weapons that also create that kind of threat. North Korea has been very close to war for a long time, and being invaded, and they are seen as a pariah state and they’re seen as a threat. There are lots of military plans on how to invade them. Without nuclear weapons, it probably wouldn’t have been the case. So they also create conflict and they create tension and they create this kind of scenario where you are pushing the line towards conflict as much as you can, hoping that you will go over, and one day you will go over.
I think that also, we have to remember that nuclear weapons are really bad weapons. They are extremely clumsy. They don’t serve much military purpose. They are meant to wipe out whole cities and burn and maim people and poison people, civilians. They are not precision guidance weapons that takes out a specific military target in a war quickly or to achieve that. When you use nuclear weapons, you are also left with addressing the aftermath. I honestly feel like a country like the United States should be the country who’s leading disarmament efforts on nuclear weapons because it is the one that has the most other better weapons if I can say so.
Even if North Korea would nuke an American city, I am not sure that the most effective way to respond, ending the war quickest and saving American lives quickest, would be to use nuclear weapons back. This idea that you want to have the ability to inflict all that maximum pain, for what, an existential threat. I mean, it’s not always clear, and intentionally vague on how they would use them and in which case scenario.
Lucas Perry: So for example, they violate international humanitarian law because they indiscriminately are intended to and used for targeting civilians. I think I’d like to table for the moment this argument about the total elimination of nuclear weapons because I think that there’s a lot of ground that is much easier to agree upon around reducing the risks of accidental and unintentional nuclear war. As we get through that argument of reducing and cooperating, I think, then we can step back into the arguments around the total elimination of them.
We were talking a little bit earlier about the New START treaty and re-implementing that. That will cap the number of nuclear weapons which we possess. Then, there’s also this unilateral or multilateral reduction in nuclear weapons, which helps to begin to develop rapport and trust around this de-escalation of the situation. International parties or teams, which are being sent to each other’s countries to verify disarmament and facilities, perhaps to aid in reducing the risks of early warning detection systems malfunctioning.
This all seems good. Then, there are other things which we can talk about, like adopting a policy of no first use, removing the ground based missile systems from the nuclear triad. Removing hair-trigger alert. I think that those are the central three ones, I think I want to start with.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, there’s also the presidential authority to use nuclear weapons, removing that.
Lucas Perry: Removing that. Okay.
Beatrice Fihn: I think that that is how we’re going to get to reducing the risk and eliminating nuclear weapons, but the main problem that stands between us and these steps is this ingrained belief that these weapons protect us. There’s this kind of sense in this conversation that all governments have agreed that nuclear weapons are really bad. That’s why we need to reduce the risk, right? That’s why we take these steps and we need to cut the arsenals and do reductions.
But they also say nuclear weapons are really good. If they’re so good, then why are we reducing it? If they protect us, why would we reduce nuclear weapons arsenals? I think it’s really hard to decouple it from the idea of challenging the existence of nuclear weapons. I see very much how Republican senators, for example, are refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This is the treaty that banned testing of nuclear weapons because it’s really dangerous to people and poisons environments and things like that.
The US signed it in ’96, I think, and then the US Senate hasn’t ratified it because it has this ingrained view, right, to a lot of people, that actually nuclear weapons are good. Why would we agree to even cap it if they’re so good? So I really do think that we need to make progress on challenging the whole reason around nuclear weapons and kind of dismantling that in order to get these steps. Those things have to happen a little bit in parallel. It’s a little bit like trying to do non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, stopping other countries from having nuclear weapons while refusing to talk about your nuclear weapons.
It doesn’t actually work like that, because a country like North Korea is looking very much like, “well, you’re doing it, so why am I not allowed to do it? If you’re telling me the United States, France, Russia, China are telling me that the only way to be safe, even the biggest military power in the world cannot feel safe without these weapons of mass destruction, then, I won’t.” It’s one of those issues where you have to be able to think of simultaneous tracks.
I think that’s also how we change the world. It’s a constant approaching it from different angles and trying different things, so I see very much for example the treaty banning nuclear weapons as a way to generate more public pressure on the political context in a country like the United States to agree to these reductions and risk reducing measures. But I think that if we only focus on them and make them the big battle, we are kind of losing the underlying reason for having them.
Lucas Perry: I don’t seem to share the view that the implementing no first use, getting rid of the ground based missiles, removing hair-trigger alert, removing presidential authority, I don’t see these things as ultimately or fundamentally undermining mutually assured destruction or the real or imagined benefits of nuclear weapons.
Beatrice Fihn: There is a reason why these measures haven’t been taken. There’s a reason why they don’t want to agree to remove the presidential authority, because it would slow down decision making progress in a crisis. Then, maybe your enemy will know, that will take you a bit longer to respond, and then they won’t be so scared of you anymore. Same thing with no first use, if we know that the United States will never use nuclear weapons, then we can push them to the limits of conventional so they can do as much damage as we can, they will not use nuclear weapons, so then deterrence get rattled.
Lucas Perry: The point of usability is an interesting one, in the trillion dollar nuclear upgrade, they also talked about miniaturizing nuclear weapons to make them more usable. That sounds to me insane.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. It’s extremely concerning and scary.
Lucas Perry: I understand what you’re saying. The question then is about how much firepower and speed do you need in order to maintain credible deterrence? Beyond the question of whether we even need any deterrence at all, it seems to me that, and I’m not a nuclear expert, that implementing these things still maintains a credible degree of deterrence. You could have a few hundred nuclear weapons. Maybe you can have 600, you can have 300 deployed and 300 of them stored around the world or wherever you like. You’ve got them all on nuclear submarines, you’ve got them on bombers, you’ve gotten rid of the hair-trigger alert, the ground based nuclear weapons systems, because they’re very susceptible to accidental nuclear war.
We’ve adopted a no first use policy. Then, we’re very clear about the conditions under which we would use nuclear weapons. So, doing all that to me seems like I can’t see how that would change the current nuclear weapons and the global stability situation very much at all, except improve the risks of accidental and intentional nuclear war.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, that definitely would be one of those things that would drastically reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use. Very important. To me, of course, I feel very much that, yeah, you could do that today in the United States. It wouldn’t change much in terms of your military ability or power, or things like that. Probably improve it. It’s a huge waste of money as well. It takes away resources from other ways. I mean, we’re not fighting with ICBMs in Russia, we are fighting on Facebook.
The new type of armed conflicts are very, very different and clinging on to these weapons from 1945 that was developed in a whole another context, where you behave in a different way and the military plans were very different, it’s still extremely outdated, right? I think that you could do those measures extremely quickly and meet these arguments where they make very detailed arguments about why no first use would be difficult to do. We can’t do that because of this. We can’t do that, because of that. There will always be reasons why. I think that that’s why it’s so important with strengthening the public pressure on this issue as well.
Lucas Perry: I’m not as familiar with the arguments against these policy proposals. Can you present the DoD, the military, government military strategist arguments for why we can’t get rid of the ground based nuclear weapons, adopt no first use, remove hair-trigger alert and reduce stockpiles to hundreds of weapons and not thousands?
Beatrice Fihn: I struggle a little bit because they don’t really make a lot of sense to me. It’s a lot of inconsistent arguments. I think the things like no first use, what we’ve heard, for example, is that we need to be able to use it in case there’s a chemical weapons attack, for example, or biological weapons attack or if one of our allies… In the end of the Obama administration, he was considering doing a no first use policy for the US and got a lot of pushback from allies, for example, Japan and Poland who said that, “No, we don’t want that. We want you to threaten the countries next to us.”
Lucas Perry: Wouldn’t you just want to be clear about the conditions under which you would use them or with some fuzziness there?
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, I mean, I think that there’s also this kind of ambiguity that there’s an incentive to have ambiguity in order for it to work. I think that this is also one of the weaknesses around deterrence theory, in general, this idea that you will behave rationally all the time, that countries would not know if you’re bluffing or not. The only way for deterrence to work is if you’re really serious about using it, and you’re actually able, willing and prepared to use it. Otherwise, other governments know. So you have to mean it. And if you mean it, it can happen.
That’s the whole problem as well. To say that we’re not going to have these operational weapons, we’re just having them as deterrence. But if you admit that, then you also lose the threat of the weapon. There’s a lot of concerns, especially in neighboring countries, where you really wonder, would the United States start a nuclear war? Would they actually follow through on these things? If Russia invades Estonia, would the current president start nuclear war with Russia to protect Estonia?
Lucas Perry: Why couldn’t that be a condition in a no first use policy proposal? We are never going to, say, nuke your 100 biggest cities out of nowhere, because we want to conquer the world. We might do it if you begin threatening the existential security of sovereign nations. Why can’t we just be clear like that?
Beatrice Fihn: I think these are the kind of inherent built in incentives for the military not to be clear on these things. There are countries of course, China has no first use policy, India has one as well, where they are clear that they will never be the first ones to use nuclear weapons. There’s definitely countries doing that.
Lucas Perry: I see. I mean, there could be limited no first use policies adopted. No first use in terms of nuclear weapons in particular, but first use conditioned upon other things, like people care about chemical weapons or protecting the global stability of the planet by not allowing large countries to annex smaller countries. Is that not part of the conversation?
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. But I think that it’s also important to remember that as long as you have them, it doesn’t matter what the policy is, you can make a decision to do it anyway. That’s just the policy. It’s not law. It would still be up to the judgment of the people in power. I do think that going in the direction of having a no first use policy, for example, is the right way. But I do think that there needs to be a stronger push that makes that happen, right? Because currently, we’re still in this belief that these weapons protect us and then you have all these arguments, and then you have all these things that even if they do it, they might undo it as soon as there’s a conflict.
I think that in many ways, what needs to happen is that the bar for using nuclear weapons needs to just kind of be pushed up constantly through norms, through behavior, through public pressure, through laws, and other things.
Lucas Perry: Okay. Adopting a no first use policy can be a softer, more squishy tool and a set of policies, which begin to de-escalate the risks of intentional nuclear war. We also talked about removing hair-trigger alert, the ground based missile portion of the nuclear triad. You also mentioned presidential first use. These seem to be needed because they helped to maintain a very threatening stance, which maintains a stronger version of credible deterrence. If they were removed, their credibility would diminish in ways which would threaten global stability, is the view?
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, I think that that’s the balance. The risk of use and the credible threat of use, right. If you do risk reduction measures, to actually reduce the likelihood of use of nuclear weapons would also diminish the threat of use of nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of actors at the moment who don’t want to do that. That’s where these policy proposals have gotten stuck and need more of a push in terms of questioning those things.
Lucas Perry: Just briefly, if listeners aren’t familiar with the nuclear triad, it involves the nuclear bombers that we have positioned around the world, that we have on nuclear submarines which also contain nuclear weapons. Then, we have ground based missiles. The ground based missiles are all on hair-trigger alert, because Russia knows, for example, where they all are. We know where Russia’s ground based missiles are. They need to be fired within 40 minutes in order to ensure that they get off the ground to connect with enemy targets so that mutually assured destruction is ensured and thus there’s credible deterrence.
There are proposals to remove the ground based missile silos because, one, the question is why do we need to destroy the top 300 cities of Russia? Or to hit cities multiple times? I’m just going to Google this right now. What is the 100th biggest city in Russia? It’s Abakan, sorry for butchering that Russians, which has 186,000 people. It gets pretty small pretty quickly. Why do you need to be hitting more than the top 100 biggest cities in a country to maintain credible deterrence?
Beatrice Fihn: And they’re obviously not military targets.
Lucas Perry: Yes, and they’re not military targets. If you have all of your nuclear weapons in submarines and bombers, you could retaliate in days, rather than within 40 minutes. That would maintain credible deterrence. The views against this, that I’m aware of, are concerns around the ocean becoming more transparent, given the proliferation of more advanced radar technology and drone technology. If we had all of our nukes on submarines and on bombers, then it would create a vulnerability in the nuclear weapons systems where those places could get attacked.
Then, we wouldn’t be able to maintain credible deterrence if Russia, for example, was able to take out enough submarines or bombers that we couldn’t retaliate. Then, there’s the need to be more risky and aggressive, because that maintains a stronger version of credible deterrence. How do you see the kind of technological arguments against the feasibility of moving to just submarines and bombers without hair-trigger alert?
Beatrice Fihn: I think this is also really what I mentioned earlier in the beginning, the kind of technological developments that are changing the kind of security calculations in a lot of these things. Putting the old notions that we had around deterrence and what protects and how to defend ourselves and how to have the strategic balance and calculations are changing very rapidly. We can actually see, we’ve had in our conversation with different experts and investigators a little bit.
You can make the argument that all these technologies makes it more attractive to use nuclear weapons first and early. Because there’s such a high level of uncertainty what the other party can do to your nuclear weapons, so that you better use it now, quickly. You will always be able to create hypothetical arguments, right? If x does this then y does that, and we need this if they do this. That will never go away, there will always be people making those arguments. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people arguing that you can actually use nuclear weapons without any civilian casualties and without environmental impact, but that’s not what the 13,000 nuclear weapons are for.
I think, to dwell too much like x does this and y does this and then we have to do this, and then we have to do that. I think that’s the way that the military thinks, is they think about all these things. It’s up to the civilian population to set limits on that. If the military could choose, they would have any weapons in the world, they will be able to do whatever they want, they will have maximum flexibility, no rules, no guidelines. I think that it’s our job to look at the risks as well and to rein in that and say, actually, this space of maneuvering is good enough for you. That’s how we’re going to be fine.
I think that that has already happened. I mean, there was a lot of arguments from Margaret Thatcher, for example, that they didn’t want to ban chemical weapons, because what if they needed a credible chemical deterrent? There was lots of arguments about landmines, for example, or even biological weapons that we shouldn’t be doing this, this will undermine this, they will result in that. But then, it happens, right? Then, it gets restricted and then you just adjust as well. I think that that’s also how it will happen to nuclear weapons.
Civilian leaders and politicians need to kind of need those conversations based on the enormous risk that nuclear weapons have and the fact that they have no plans for responding to it. I mean, the United States has, what, 5,800 nuclear weapons or something.
Lucas Perry: I think the argument here that we’re arriving at now, that you’re interested in is the total elimination of nuclear weapons, which is a more difficult opinion to defend in relation to the more gradual approach. It’s a lot more different than the current world. Whereas implementing some of these changes are closer to the world that we have today. Can you explain to us what your view and argument is around the total elimination of nuclear weapons and what your work at the UN has been with regards to developing and having the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons be ratified?
Beatrice Fihn: I think that these weapons are real bombs, right, there’s real airplanes and submarines, but they’re also so symbolic. So much of its power is not actual physical power, but also kind of the mental power, like how we view them and how we characterize them and what we wish that they will do and what we hope that they will do or what we fear that they will do. But at the end of the day, it’s just a bomb. It’s bigger but it’s not really that much different than a chemical weapon or a biological weapon. Of course, I know there’s differences but I mean, it’s a weapon. It’s a weapon that will be used or not used, depending on what people decide to do.
I think we’re never going to get nuclear disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons, unless we make it unattractive to have these weapons, unless the value of nuclear weapons is reduced. I think that that needs to happen in the same way as the value of chemical weapons was reduced and the value of biological weapons were reduced and the value of other behavior in the international arena has changed drastically, right, like things that were acceptable is no longer acceptable.
We’ve stopped doing certain things that we thought was completely fine and legal and now we don’t do it. We used to smoke inside. Now we don’t do it, because that will be weird. But it was perfectly normal at some point. I think that the arguments around nuclear weapons assumes that nuclear weapons are somehow fixed, when there are constant decisions to take every day to maintain them, and to keep them and to upgrade them and modernize them and fund them and all those things.
I don’t believe that there will be a moment when the nine nuclear armed states all sit around a table and they hold hands and they sign a document and they will get rid of them. I think nuclear weapons will be irrelevant at some point. That’s when we’re really going to see the serious disarmament happening when they are not usable, signs of shame and stigma, clumsy, costly, and it’s really just an inconvenience. I think that we can get to that when we constantly raise the cost of having them.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. I’ve heard you use the language elsewhere, that you’d like to remove the power and prestige of having nuclear weapons. How do you remove the power of a technology, which intrinsically gives you the power to destroy cities and thus deter certain kinds of action?
Beatrice Fihn: There is no question that the United States has the military power to destroy almost all cities with conventional weapons. The question is more like is that power? Is a terrorist with the suicide vest, is that a powerful person just because they have explosive power and can cause harm? Was Asad one of the most powerful people in the world because he had chemical weapons. If you don’t recognize its power and if you don’t see it as power, but more like as a terrorist, if you don’t respect these weapons, they lose power.
Their power is in the awe and the fear that they create in other people. Because why would they use it? Why would you mass murder a million people that has nothing to do with the conflict, right?
Lucas Perry: Historically, people have mass murdered people, genocides happen, right? Clearly, human beings are capable of genociding each other.
Beatrice Fihn: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Lucas Perry: So beyond transcending my own, and perhaps our own collective fear of annihilation, I understand what you’re saying. Things only have as much power as we give them. In the realm of our attachment to even existing in the first place, it’s hard not to give power to technologies, which if someone came up to me and put a gun to my head, I could totally just not care if I have meditated for the last 50 years.
Beyond that, I think, the argument against the total removal of them is again, we just don’t know who will be in power, we don’t know what their intentions will be. Human beings are capable of doing extremely horrible things. And so it seems that only way of deterring someone like that is to have the same kind of power.
Beatrice Fihn: Then, we don’t know who’s going to be in power. Should I have a nuke? Should I dig down landmines in my garden? Because I don’t know what’s going to happen, right?
Lucas Perry: I mean, that’s all the reasons why people want guns. Yeah.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, but I mean, disassemble that, right? If I’m scared of being burglarized or something like that. I have a house, I want to dig a big line of landmines in my garden in case someone comes, right. That would probably deter a burglar but your kids will also step on it, right?
Lucas Perry: Your kids will also step on it.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. Or the mailman, or me when I’m a little bit tipsy coming home one night. At some point, just the explosiveness of it doesn’t make sense based on the risk and the consequences of that. I could have a suicide vest constantly on me and say, “if you try to pickpocket me, I would blow us all up.” It could probably work but it wouldn’t be a great idea, right?
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I mean, it’s like we’re standing in rooms of gasoline and our rooms are not connected. We both have Molotov cocktails and I will throw mine into your room if you throw yours into my room. The difference is if I get rid of my Molotov cocktail, you can still throw yours into my room. You said that your children may step on a landmine, or you may step on the landmine — there’s this difference between the safety and assurance of the technology, which is a different argument that I don’t think is being made here about let’s maintain credible deterrence, but let’s make the systems more reliable.
That would mean, I don’t know, marking or doing something with the landmines in your garden so that you wouldn’t step on them, or that accidents wouldn’t happen. I don’t feel like I completely understand the way that deterrence is fundamentally transcended. Couldn’t the same argument be used for our military? We should just not have a military at all?
Beatrice Fihn: That’s one of the points, like deterrence doesn’t have to be nuclear. I mean, the military is deterrence, right. As long as we have a military, there’s a certain amount of threat.
Lucas Perry: Right. Nuclear weapons deter any ground based military.
Beatrice Fihn: Well we hope it does, we don’t know.
Lucas Perry: Okay. Yeah. I guess we don’t know. I can’t imagine a military being able to set up a base of operations without it getting destroyed or wiped out or having most of the people killed by nuclear weapons. That’s how, for example, North Korea could defend itself against an invasion by the United States and South Korea.
Beatrice Fihn: I think again, North Korea would be obliterated, so it would actually be an option to use them? It might be an option, right, for a leader who has no regard for their people. I’m not saying that they all have regard for their people. There’s no way that North Korea can use nuclear weapons and remain unharmed.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. If their existence is being threatened then having a toxic personality at the head of it, they might not care and if you target it appropriately, you can just make kind of a nuclear wasteland that makes conventional army movement impossible.
Beatrice Fihn: But you also, then, of course, kill South Koreans and Chinese. You have this kind of argument about how North Korea use nuclear weapons, would the United States respond with nuclear weapons, we don’t know, maybe not. Because then they would nuke South Korea and impact China, for example. That would trigger a response in China. One of the weaknesses with nuclear weapons is, of course, also this idea that there’s somehow this magic that’s governing everything, which is not really the case.
There is so much that you can do in the world, but you don’t do it. State could occupy smaller neighbors or steal resources, but they don’t, because we also have certain rules and we have certain regulations. I think that that shows also that we are able to control behavior, not flawlessly, but in a way that has shifted the world over the last 100 years.
Lucas Perry: Right. Those rules and regulations that smaller countries abide by are enforced through certain mechanisms that begin at going to court, or being sued, or rise to conventional armies enforcing them, then rises to nuclear weapons enforcing those laws and rules and regulations.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. There’s exceptions, right? When someone violates it, they will or will not be consequences. I mean, there are sometimes when there are no consequences for violating the laws, but most countries follow them anyway. In the same way as domestic laws. Most things that we do is just behavior that’s shaped through norms and laws, and they might not be a consequence, butI don’t do that anyway, because it’s frowned upon. We don’t behave like that.
Lucas Perry: It’s stigmatized to behave like that.
Beatrice Fihn: Exactly. I think we also have to see this in a longer perspective in terms of going back 100, 120 years ago, where the ways they behaved towards each other was very different than right now. And we’ve seen a drastic change in terms of how we respect borders, sovereign nations, how we avoid occupation, how we don’t occupy countries. I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptions, obviously, but if you compare to 1890, in the way that states behaved, and what they felt that they had the right to do, the world is drastically different in terms of how we have shaped these rules that we kind of abide with.
There’s no one who forces governments to do that. It’s just the way it is.
Lucas Perry: Aren’t they forced by the global community which enforces that stigma by doing sanctions or stopping trade or taking actual military action? I mean, the United Nations has an international military to some extent, which will use the second highest form of force, guns and conventional weapons, to enforce international law?
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, of course. That’s the normative and the kind of stigmatizing processes that all these changes in behavior comes from. They’ve decided that certain things are unacceptable or certain things are acceptable. You cannot control everything. You cannot stop every murder in the world. But that’s still not a reason not to have the laws. There’s a lot of arguments on international law, for example, saying, well, Syria used chemical weapons so the Chemical Weapons Convention was completely useless. But had chemical weapons being legal and normal and totally fine, we would have seen a lot more than Syria.
These kind of things were pushing governments into a direction. They will stray off and they will come back and they will go in and out. They will be in compliance. Then, someone will violate. It’s about a process of herding governments.
Lucas Perry: That’s what you see the prohibition of nuclear weapons is doing?
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. The people who deeply, deeply believe in the structure of nuclear weapons, in deterrence theory, it’s not about convincing them, right? It’s about convincing people around them. Building the pressure from the outside and shepherding them towards having to adjust to the rest of the world.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I really don’t want to live in a world with nuclear weapons. I feel quite compelled by the arguments around adopting no first use and removing hair-trigger alert and the lack of need for the ground based missiles. I think that will go a great way to de-escalating the issues while also maintaining credible deterrence. Even though I want to live in a world without nuclear weapons, perhaps I need to be exorcised of the view that they still seem necessary to some extent.
To give up that level of power ceases to constrain the worst that humanity has to offer. Just less than 100 years ago, we had World War Two, we had the fascist imperialist component of human nature come out in full force. And the only thing that could constrain it at that point in time was basically most of the world sending all of its like hundreds of thousands of people to go fight a war about this problem.
I don’t see that kind of toxic personality, that problem of fascism and imperialism and narcissism and egoism as having gone away. I don’t know how to constrain it without maintaining some control over the most powerful weapons which exist.
Beatrice Fihn: But we don’t control them, the narcissistic toxic people control them. Literally in the United States, Donald Trump has the authority to decide today that he wants to nuke everyone.
Lucas Perry: I know it’s not a great situation, but having our own toxic personality to fight even more toxic personalities is maybe better than the alternative. I mean, the United States has such a system that is more impervious than others to having, hopefully, someone like Hitler come about, or someone who’s more inclined to genocide. Other countries don’t have institutions which are that strong.
Beatrice Fihn: I mean, from Switzerland right now, the US is looking pretty shaky and the government pretty fascist.
Lucas Perry: I understand. I understand.
Beatrice Fihn: I wouldn’t lie, in a different context with four more years in a worse scenario where there could be ethnic cleansing, or there could … I mean, these things don’t happen to others just by accident. These things happen to people. And what happens in Rwanda or in Myanmar can happen here, too.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. If we turned into that, wouldn’t Switzerland want nuclear weapons to stop the fascist version of the United States from invading Switzerland and making concentration camps?
Beatrice Fihn: I guess we would really, really regret that we’d let them have nuclear weapons for so long. We should have gotten rid of them already. As we talked about earlier, I do not have faith in these people, or that we’ll always, under all circumstances, forever and ever make the right decision, that there will not be mistakes, that there will not be accidents. There will always be violence, there will always be conflict. I don’t think we always have to have armed conflict and big wars in that way. But conflict between people and between … this is human nature, there will always be.
I mean, we have some better times we have some worse times. This has been a bad time. We might have some better times ahead of us but there will be bad times again. At some point, they’re going to push the button, someone. It’s statistically impossible that it will never happen if we keep them forever.
Lucas Perry: Right. I have some optimism that the fundamental human condition will change in a way that would make them irrelevant. You say this is like fundamental human nature and so we’ll be like that forever, though human nature is evolving constantly and will evolve alongside technology. So with the promotion of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence coming in the 21st century, I think, the most benevolent and cooperative parts of ourselves can be more deeply expressed.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. I don’t say that there’s this situation, it’s also recognizing that conflict will continue to happen. What we have to do and what we have been doing in the past is to slowly chip away at the weapons available and we have rules in conflicts and laws in conflict, and we have legal measures to address it. We have banned chemical weapons. They could have been seen just as nuclear weapons. We have biological weapons. You can make the same argument as you make with nuclear weapons today with these weapons.
We’ve had weapons that the military thought were essential that we stopped using, right, because actually, the consequences of using them outweighs the perceived benefits.
Lucas Perry: Right. My feeling around the arguments around things like chemical and biological weapons and laser blinding weapons, is that it’s like a spectrum of power, they’re somewhere in the middle between small arms and larger ammunitions, and they have particular strategic roles that are not completely necessary and are satisfied by other kinds of munitions. Like, you don’t need biological and chemical weapons if you have artillery and people on the ground and other kinds of explosives. They’re easier to let go of because they don’t necessarily maintain a certain kind of deterrence.
Beatrice Fihn: I would argue that that’s just something that people decided to believe. You could also make and people have made the argument that they were absolutely essential. In certain cases, this is the only option and that’s what we have to have. And you can make that argument with any weapon. We have three weapons of mass destruction and they have these kind of indiscriminate impact on civilians, which makes them useless in actual military operations.
Lucas Perry: Isn’t that useful in military operations, if you don’t care about civilians, and also as a way of deterring people that do care about civilians?
Beatrice Fihn: I mean, obviously, there’s an enormous amount of civilian casualties in warfare. But since 1945, I think that we’ve seen the idea of wiping out a whole city, for example, has decreased very much since World War Two, as a military objective.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I think that it’s true that there is this increasing standards due to stigmatization about how conflict is engaged in. There’s more mindfulness about casualties, right? I agree that that exists.
Beatrice Fihn: Again, just because it happens doesn’t mean that it’s okay. We also see, of course, how governments consistently lie about it. They call them terrorists. They say they were actually fighters because it is very shameful and frowned upon to mass murder civilians. So even when drown strikes take out whole weddings, no, it was actually terrorists. Same thing with chemical weapons in Syria, for example, that it also is a recognition, right, that it is very uncomfortable for them to admit it.
One of the things that we have to know is that we never know how the future will be. I’ve heard a lot like, we will keep nuclear weapons until there’s a better, more dangerous weapon. And I honestly think that those weapons are already here. I mean, we have artificial intelligence, we have cyber warfare, we have this kind of disinformation things that are happening, which is being used in warfare, to carry out military operations and to destabilize countries.
The future in warfare is already happening, right. Nuclear weapons is kind of a relic from the past that we keep dragging with us into this very volatile and unpredictable and extremely complex situation.
Lucas Perry: It’s really not safe. It’s hard to be exorcised from me the feeling that for example, yes, warfare is evolving. We have AI, we have cyber warfare, yet nuclear weapons still occupy a particular strategic role that is deeply important, it would seem. For example, a sufficiently sophisticated cyber attack and disinformation attack could be seen as an existential threat. Then nuclear weapons become your option, right?
Like, would we nuke in Russia if they took down our entire power grid, which would kill a huge fraction of people in the United States? If you took down all of our electricity? Maybe, our military people would say …
Beatrice Fihn: I think it’s important to remember also that 180 countries do not have nuclear weapons.
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
Beatrice Fihn: And out of those, around 150 countries do not believe that nuclear weapons are a legitimate way of protecting yourself. And it is not because these countries do not have security threats.
Lucas Perry: Yeah, they have security threats.
Beatrice Fihn: Probably more so than maybe the United States in many cases. Who do we listen to in this question? Who gets paid what? Who gets to create the norm? Who gets to represent the world?
Lucas Perry: Yeah, I mean, the question is, how do you maintain security once you’ve given up your biggest physical power, your biggest means of destruction?
Beatrice Fihn: Ask South Africa, for example, they gave up nuclear weapons. Or a country like Brazil, who had a long advanced nuclear weapons program in the ’50s and ’60s. Sweden and Switzerland were both considering developing nuclear weapons and were far along in that process, and decided that, no, actually, there’s other ways to maintain security than to threaten to mass murder civilians. Otherwise, why would these countries not have nuclear weapons?
It’s not a barrier that these countries really want nuclear weapons. Any government who wants nuclear weapons can have them. North Korea showed that very clearly. If the poorest least developed country can get them, it’s not a question of ability. It’s an analysis, right? It’s not actually in our security interest.
Lucas Perry: I mean, Iran, seems to think it’s very much in its security interest, because it gives it a lot of leverage and power in international politics and for creating treaties, although, it hurts it very much by creating a lot of sanctions. I mean, Iran and North Korea share sort of the same existential issues when you have powers as big as Russia and the United States, which like to become involved in the affairs of other countries. It just comes back down to power, like do you have enough power?
Beatrice Fihn: Nuclear weapons, also, it comes with the added sort of disadvantage is that anyone can take that power, right? Kim Jung-un is suddenly from being in a completely irrelevant country, no economic power, no influence on international arena, no one listens to what they say, no one cares, to having this welcome party with Trump in Singapore. So we also, by allowing nuclear weapons, for a country like the United States, right, who doesn’t actually need them, because they have pretty much every other weapon at their disposal. They are completely unmatched, the United States, in military power. The fact that North Korea can manage to be equal with just this dirty bomb is pretty bizarre, right? It’s a huge weakness in the structure.
Lucas Perry: I see what you mean. There’s two facets to this though, there is the actual just literal physical power of the bomb, and then there is the social and the political power which we give to people which possess them. When you say that you want to take away the power and the prestige of nukes, it sounds like what you mean is taking away the social and the political power of them, by ceasing to respect countries which generate them, because this incentivizes the creation and proliferation of further nuclear weapons.
There’s a real way in which you can do that. Yet, it seems seemingly difficult when one is also reflecting on the mere physical power of the nuclear weapon.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a challenge. But again, I think that pure physics behind it and the power there doesn’t have to kind of translate into actual power, like you can have the power to destroy but can you have the power to get people to do what you want? I mean, this is like dictatorship, right? The person in power can force the population to do what they want. You can threaten the people, like if you speak out of me, if you try to form organizations, or do anything politically, like I will put you in prison, I will murder you, we will do all those horrible things. And it works, but it doesn’t work forever.
That’s also against human nature. The threats don’t always work. People will somehow try to get around it, which must be true for nuclear weapons as well, like at some point, it will not work.
Lucas Perry: It will not maintain critical deterrence.
Beatrice Fihn: Yeah. Or it will fail. Or someone will use them, and mutually assured destruction, meaning that we don’t use nuclear weapons, because we know the consequences will fail.
Lucas Perry: All right. We’re coming up to about the end here. I’d like to do a little bit of rapid fire questions here if that’s possible. If we haven’t completely covered it here, in a minute or two, can you describe or explain the significance of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons? It seems like there’s this aspect of generating stigma. There is creating and setting a new norm around nuclear weapons. You use the phrase of kind of like shepherding or herding nuclear weapons states into a particular policy or strategic landscape, given what other countries are doing. Are there any other aspects to this treaty that you find are very valuable or that people should know about?
Beatrice Fihn: It’s the first treaty that bans nuclear weapons, setting the standard on international law. We’re also really kind of eager to work with it to utilize the financial pressure, which we haven’t really got into today. It’s also a whole aspect, right? These arguments against no first use and removing the land based missiles, there’s financial interest behind all this. The companies that get these contracts are enormous, right. It’s just blank checks, $1 trillion over the next 20 years or something like that. It’s a huge amount of money for a weapon that you can’t use.
There’s only that kind of financial incentive. We’re going to use the treaty to stop putting pressure on banks and pension funds to pull out their investments of nuclear weapons producers. We’ve seen that be very effective in other treaties banning weapons, such as landmines and cluster munitions, for example. Another thing that we want to do as well is it has provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation. So states parties to this treaty have to address and support the rights of victims of nuclear detonations and tests. That’s for example a lot of indigenous communities in Nevada, Kazakhstan, Algeria, Marshall Islands, Pacific Islands, very colonial racism, where we’ve tested nuclear weapons.
That is very concrete work that can actually help people with or without the nuclear armed states ever joining this treaty, this treaty can be the platform where we can start addressing some of the health challenges and community challenges in these communities. For me, this treaty is also about supporting the people that are suffering from this weapon. That’s also something that we’re missing a lot in these conversations about strategic stability and deterrence, is that there’s ongoing harm from these weapons. In that way, I feel it’s very similar to the kind of conversations we’ve had this past year about Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. This institution that is supposed to protect, but it harms.
It protects the leaders and it harms the indigenous communities where they test these weapons. That’s also something we want to work with the treaty. Then, using it to move forward oppositions, to stigmatize, to kind of create a conversation a new norm, use culture, use scientists, use all of these to stop thinking that this is normal behavior and make it abnormal, right, and make it like the smoking ban. I can’t make you stop smoking, but I can make you go outside.
Lucas Perry: All right. How do we elevate activism and excitement around nuclear weapons topics? How do we involve more of the younger generation? Basically, how do we better message on nuclear weapons?
Beatrice Fihn: To be completely honest, I don’t think we’re going to see the kind of million people marches that we had in the ’80s on nuclear weapons, unless there’s nuclear war and a nuclear accident or something like that. Hopefully, that won’t happen. So what I do think is we need to connect it to other issues, like we talked about in the beginning about the sort of toxic masculinity, connect it to gender equality, connect it to anti-racism, connect it to redistribution of resources. I mean, the military budget is enormous, that should go to actually saving people’s lives. If it’s about protecting Americans, why not putting it into healthcare and actually saving American lives?
Consistently in polling, we see quite strong support for nuclear disarmament but people feel that it’s too difficult, too overwhelming, too technical, so I think we need to connect it to other movements, rather than having it be completely on its own. It’s a part of climate change. It’s a part of social justice. It’s a part of anti-racism. It’s a part of gender equality. It’s connected to all those things. I think that that’s how we’ll get through to people better.
Lucas Perry: What are some of the main ideas that you think the public needs to understand in order to help establish new norms about nuclear weapons?
Beatrice Fihn: I think people need to understand that there’s a lot of actors involved. I think that one of the paralysis is that we’re focusing so much on the leaders of the nuclear states, these nine men. I feel completely powerless to change their opinions, right? I’m not going to be able to do that. But it’s all part of the government. It’s in the budget negotiations. It’s in the banks and pension funds. It’s the universities, for example, we have University of California has been involved in building every single nuclear weapon of the United States, John Hopkins, and Texas A&M and these other universities… To understand that it’s everywhere. It’s structures that uphold this and there’s constant decisions being made to keep these weapons, and ways to engage on small pieces of it that will contribute to the whole thing.
Lucas Perry: All right. Do you have any last minute things that you’d like to share with the audience or with me that you feel like you haven’t said that you feel is really important and crucial to this issue that you wish more people understood and connected with?
Beatrice Fihn: One of the things we know is that nuclear armed states and the people who want to keep nuclear weapons, hate this treaty with a vengeance, and they hate it because they know it’s working. And it can be quite daunting to go up against the very, very powerful actors. But you know that when the people in power are reacting, it’s because they know that it’s threatening something. So changing things always have to be challenging, and challenging the people in power.
Lucas Perry: If listeners are interested in participating or doing anything about nuclear weapons issues, what do you suggest that they do?
Beatrice Fihn: They can go to icanw.org, our website and read more about the facts about nuclear weapons and ways to get engaged.
Lucas Perry: All right, Bea. Thank you so much for coming on. It’s really been a pleasure.
Beatrice Fihn: Thank you.