When I started working on disarmament, nuclear weapons seemed like an antiquated curiosity. While I understood them as an ever-present existential threat, they didn’t exactly seem like an immediate one. There is an endless list of issues in need of attention if you care about ending suffering and injustice, are nuclear weapons really one of the most pressing?
But I came to see nuclear weapons as the beating heart of an unjust and outdated system. With "responsible" and "rogue" states, nuclear weapons reflect the colonial order, and its rampant racism and sexism. What’s more, the nuclear threat is indeed imminent, as many people today are suddenly realizing. It's harder to ignore the problem with nuclear agreements in tatters and false alerts sending Hawaiians running for cover.
The recent developments on the Korean Peninsula are a cause for cautious optimism. Though Trump’s acolytes claim this was due to a policy of "Maximum Pressure" (aka tweets threatening mass murder and arguing about button size) the reality is the one non-nuclear state in the equation, South Korea, deftly paved a path forward to peace through careful diplomacy. It's still unclear how far all parties will get down that path, especially now that the U.S. has squandered credibility by reneging on the Iran Deal.
It's hard to commend Kim Jong Un's actions when they were driven by nuclear weapon development and provocative missile tests. The nuclear-armed states have spent decades telling the world that nuclear weapons bestow power. It turns out North Korea was listening.
At worst, North Korea plans to keep their nuclear program and at best they developed it as a grand bargaining chip. The Norwegian Nobel Committee could reward North and South Korea for bringing their long conflict to an official close, but it is not likely to endow Kim Jong Un with the peace prize for building then abandoning his nuclear ambitions.
Other than quickly saying "Yes" to a summit with North Korea's Supreme Leader, Trump's contribution to prospective peace seems to be calling Kim names on Twitter and threatening nuclear war in the form of "fire and fury." Last week, he pulled out of a deal with Iran that everyone, including his own Defense Secretary, agreed was working and sufficiently "robust." Hardly the actions of a Nobel-worthy statesman.
But there is one way that both Trump and Kim could deserve the Nobel Peace Prize: they must reject nuclear weapons completely.
Realizing that leaders are not the problem, and security frameworks are not the problem, but the weapons themselves are the problem, was important to me understanding the centrality of nuclear disarmament to create a stable and nondiscriminatory world. These are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, created to target and murder civilians, contravening the rules of war and international norms.
Yet, we still treat them as special, mythical almost. Trump mocked the idea of a nuclear-free world during his State of the Union as "magical." But it is far more unrealistic to think we can “magically” live with nuclear weapons forever, threatening to use them forever, continuing to invest in them forever, without them actually being used again.
It's not enough to slow proliferation, all the while tacitly accepting that nuclear weapons are a force for good in the right hands; a necessary evil. This approach is irresponsible and steeped in a continuing prejudice that some countries should have weapons of mass destruction. In this model, we don't reject the weapons, just the particular nations or races or individuals controlling them.
Here's how that could change: North and South Korea could agree to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is the best mechanism to do that. Though it is unlikely the U.S. would join the Treaty any time soon, simply endorsing Kim and Moon Jae-in signing the Treaty would be a monumental shift in the world's view of nuclear weapons.
Rather than waiting for leadership from the nuclear-armed states, 122 nations adopted the nuclear ban treaty last July. Audacious leaders are swiftly moving to the moment when the Treaty enters into force, after ratification by 50 countries. At the very least, Trump could get out of the way of the efforts of people who are not ‘dreaming’ of a world without nuclear weapons but are actively working towards it.
Instead, the U.S. has sought to stop the Treaty at every step, trying to convince non-nuclear armed states to keep nuclear weapons legal and legitimate. Now is the time for a bold leader to support a new reality based in equality, respect for all lives and humanitarian law. It’s time to pull the beating heart out of the inequitable global security order and replace fear with cooperation.
Doing that would be a massive step forward towards Alfred Nobel’s original vision of a peaceful “fraternity between nations.” But as long as some governments base their security on the constant threat of civilian slaughter, then they are never truly at peace and their leaders are not truly peacemakers.
Beatrice Fihn is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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