Contribution to GTI Roundtable How to Ban the Bomb

Richard Falk

It is a privilege to have this opportunity to comment on David Krieger’s fine essay that authoritatively highlights the dangers of the present reliance on nuclearism (the possession of nuclear capabilities with a declared willingness to threaten and use them for security and possibly other undisclosed purposes) and the possibility of achieving a world without nuclear weapons without minimizing the obstacles that have blocked such a path for more than seventy years. Krieger as much as anyone on the planet has devoted his professional life and personal engagement to achieving this transition, and his essay embodies both his lifelong commitment and his mastery of the subject-matter, a combination of vision of the necessary and desirable and knowledge of the scope and depth of the challenge. In essence, I share his outlook, but as explaining the extent of my agreement would be totally unenlightening, I will concentrate on our small differences that are both conceptual and tactical.

For one, I take issue with the contention that “progress toward nuclear abolition has been slow and uneven.” I regard any attribution of progress, given the argument of the essay, as misleading. For various reasons, I believe that, rather than progressing, the world is further from achieving nuclear disarmament than it was in the first decades after the end of World War II when both the United States and the Soviet Union were existentially frightened by their sense of the nuclear road ahead, and put forward proposals that were ambivalent to some degree, yet seemed to entertain the disarmament option with some seriousness. I think it is fundamentally misleading to consider arms control measures, such as treaties addressing nonproliferation or the nuclear arms race, as bringing the world closer to disarmament. I believe that such measures, which may or may not be desirable for other reasons such as risk of unintended use or cost, are neither calculated as steps toward disarmament nor do they have that effect. On the contrary, ever since arms control became a parallel track to either an unregulated arms race or disarmament, it has had the opposite effect of stabilizing the nuclear weapons environment, relaxing public worries that the nuclear arsenal and deterrence deployments were leading the world toward disaster.

To be clear, I think that the START agreement’s reducing the number of nuclear warheads possessed by the US and Russia is a good thing for practical reasons, but to suppose it brings us an inch close to nuclear disarmament is pure wishful thinking. It is only negotiable because it accords with the outlook of the governmental bureaucracy for what might be labeled prudent nuclearism, a means to oppose those wild-eyed militarists who think making greater uses of nuclear weapons is a credible way to throttle our enemies and free our friends.

My basic contention is that arms control, including the nonproliferation regime, is managerial and not transformative in Krieger’s sense, about which we are in full agreement. Of course, if we read the text of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), we could be easily misled into thinking that Article VI, with its apparent commitment by the nuclear weapons states to seek nuclear disarmament as an urgent priority and in good faith, was pointing the world in the right direction when negotiated in 1968. After these decades of manifest non-compliance, as confirmed by a strong majority in the International Court of Justice in 1996, it should be obvious that there is no political will on the part of these states to pursue disarmament except as a PR maneuver. As well, there are no capabilities on the part of the non-nuclear community of states, NGOs, and activists to implement the provision. The statement of the United States, France, and the UK repudiating the transformative intentions of the 2017 Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons should have removed the last shred of doubt that the treaty obligation of Article VI is a dead letter.

When it comes to the endorsement of the GTI agenda for systemic change, I feel Krieger strikes all the right notes. If this ambitious political agenda, of which denuclearization and nuclear disarmament are key features, is to be realized, it will depend on two developments: mobilization of a transnational popular movement committed to nonviolent militancy and synergistic collaboration with kindred groups that focus on peace, climate change, and environment, as well as NGOs’ giving priority to human rights and social and economic justice. It seems a fool’s errand for transformative constituencies to wait for the right leaders to come along in the nuclear weapons states. In my view, another fallacy of the arms control approach is to dump all its American eggs in the Washington basket. Where there is almost no resonance, it becomes politically suspect to devote continuing energy and scarce resources to an undertaking, making one wonder whether seeking a seat at the table is a comfortable way of hiding failure at the policy level.

While it is appropriate for David to mention the educational efforts of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), which has been promoting an abolitionist agenda for almost 30 years, it should be acknowledged that the political mood at present is not encouraging. Various forms of nationalist fervor have been dominating the political space in many of the leading governments of the world, including the United States. The transformative causes favored by GTI and NAPF seem temporarily, at least, out of favor. We seem to be living through a period where the main struggles are dedicated to avoiding a deeper slide into regressive behavior, with the crux of most liberal and even progressive efforts being of a decidedly defensive nature. Typical of the times are protests and initiatives directed at the abuses of state power, particularly directed at outsiders—migrants and asylum seekers—and social programs. We are struggling to stop a variety of normative retreats in the fields of education, health care, reproductive and transgender rights, and public broadcasting.

Despite the dismal outlook that prevails at this moment, it is not a time to lose faith in the practical—indeed, the urgent—relevance of transformative horizons, both on the somewhat limited question of nuclearism and on the encompassing GTI preoccupation with systemic change. These seemingly distant horizons are more deserving of support than ever before for a combination of normative and functional reasons. If we ever hope to meet the challenges now threatening humanity with extinction and envision a future that brings a better life to the peoples of the world, we will need somehow to navigate to these distant horizons.

In part, a more hopeful outlook can be grounded in a dialectical understanding of historical unfolding. As the darkening clouds of extreme statism, and its tribal nationalist ideologies, are making their weight felt around the world, contradictions are emerging: we cannot hope to escape the multiple harmful impacts of global warming or the secondary effects of migratory flows that undermine the stability of existing political communities without a politics that transcends the confines of feasibility, which leave us as a species and society with the challenges unmet, even intensifying.

It is in this spirit that Krieger calls our attention to what to expect if a nuclear war breaks out. The irresponsible blustering diplomacy of the Trump presidency has created a wider appreciation around the world of the consequences of unleashing forces that could by the logic of past wars produce a nuclear war with catastrophic consequences beyond our imagining, the sheer magnitude of which is conveyed by depicting its dire effects, but not the real time nightmare that would suddenly become human destiny.

In such a time, it is itself an act of will to keep the flames of hope and possibility from being snuffed out. Krieger’s essay, backed by a lifetime of commitment, anchors us in this complex reality of challenge, necessity, and desire. The challenge is spiritual as well as practical, the necessity is functional as well as transformative, and the desire is more than a wish list as its affirmation is itself an invitation to embark upon an empowering and emancipatory journey.

Richard Falk
Richard Falk Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Fellow of the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and author of Power Shift: On the New Global Order.

Cite as Richard Falk, contribution to GTI Roundtable "How to Ban the Bomb," Great Transition Initiative (August 2018),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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