Right now, we are as close to the risk of nuclear war as we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And while many security specialists are aware of these dangers, most people generally are not. Since 1945, a fascinating process of ‘nuclearism’ has meant that everyday planning for nuclear war has continued, at the same time that populations have been conditioned to resign themselves to annihilation – or better still, to be blissfully unaware of these ongoing dangers.
Right now, we are as close to the risk of nuclear war as we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In Challenging Nuclearism, I have sought to raise awareness of these dangers, but at the same time encourage readers that ‘it doesn’t have to be this way’, and that in fact, dedicated states and individuals around the world have come together to achieve a UN treaty which classifies nuclear weapons as illegal and inhumane, regardless of which state has them. Blending a picture of the stark realities of contemporary nuclear politics with a celebration of this new treaty as an important step towards a nuclear-free world, has not been easy. But I’ve always believed it’s better to face existing realities; that way, we can look at how we might address and even overcome existential problems like nuclear annihilation.
In this book I show how novel trends in diplomacy and the work of civil society activists have managed to challenge the traditional casting of the highest of ‘high politics’ – international security – and frame this within a humanitarian perspective.
In this book I show how novel trends in diplomacy and the work of civil society activists have managed to challenge the traditional casting of the highest of ‘high politics’ – international security – and frame this within a humanitarian perspective. The book doesn’t argue that nuclear disarmament is imminent or easily achievable, but it does suggest that this re-casting can put new pressure on all nuclear weapon states to take their disarmament obligations seriously. The nine states that have these weapons have promised to give them up – via a process of closely monitored, phased, and fully verified reductions – but they still cling to these weapons and the entrenched but deeply problematic notion of nuclear deterrence.
Most of the book was prepared before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but that war has only reinforced a view that one day nuclear weapons might well be used, if not deliberately, then perhaps inadvertently. We have been lucky so far that we have not seen them used in war since 1945, but our luck will not hold forever. Some argue that the war might have been averted had Ukraine ‘kept’ the nuclear weapons it had on its soil in 1991. I disagree strongly. For a variety of technical, political, and strategic reasons, Ukraine could not have kept these weapons; if it had tried to do this, it is likely that Russia would have invaded Ukraine in the 1990s. For me, Ukraine has shown us that Russia, the US (and its NATO allies) all having nuclear weapons did not prevent the invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the ongoing presence of these weapons has raised the stakes in this war immensely and led us to a point where their use is all too possible.
Challenging Nuclearism does not argue that we will be able to avert nuclear catastrophe. But it does suggest that humans can take important actions to shape their future, even if this means resisting established views of nuclear orthodoxy held by the nine states which do have these weapons. This is exactly what non-nuclear states and civil society believed: that they had the agency to work for a nuclear-free world, to create a prohibitionary regime which will provide a serious challenge to those who argue that nuclear weapons can or should ever be used.
Marianne Hanson is Associate Professor of International Relations at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, and author of Challenging nuclearism: A humanitarian approach to reshape the global nuclear order (Manchester University Press, 2022).