Will there be a next generation in the fight for nuclear nonproliferation?

Activists involved in nuclear disarmament have observed an increasingly perilous trend over the last few years. The euphoric mood and lofty ideals of the late 2000s, when world leaders made bold commitments to a world without nuclear weapons and promised steps toward historic arms reductions, has waned. As the Bulletin observed in January when it moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight, efforts to reduce arsenals have stalled and the tendency is now towards global nuclear weapons modernizations. The two superpowers, the United States and Russia, are farther apart then ever. Except for the refreshing but still fragile progress in Iranian nuclear negotiations, tensions are escalating around the world, and more nations possess or aspire to possess nuclear weapons than ever before. 

That may sound like things are as bad as they can get, but against the backdrop of such potentially catastrophic developments, there may be an even more worrisome danger. The nonproliferation community is lagging in its efforts to mobilize youth and build the future of anti-nuclear activism. Without a lasting movement, none of today’s daunting trends stands a chance of being reversed, and the hard-earned gains of decades of nonproliferation activism since the 1955 Russell-Einstein manifesto will fade.

We, the authors of this article, belong to a rapidly shrinking cohort of twenty-somethings actively engaged in the grassroots fight for nuclear disarmament. We started as campus volunteers, organizing students, mobilizing campaigns, and holding public-awareness events, first at our universities and then beyond. We met as members of the student leadership program at Global Zero, an organization led by an international non-partisan group of 300 world leaders dedicated to achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons. Later we worked as professionals for Global Zero and the Pugwash Conferences, which were recognized for their work to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict with the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize.

In many ways the opportunities we found at these organizations testifies to senior nonproliferation leaders’ commitment to encouraging youth. Pugwash has sponsored International Student/Young Pugwash, one of the field’s longest-running youth engagement programs, since the late 1970s, and Global Zero has since 2010 invested tremendous effort in developing its global student network, which now includes more than 150 campus chapters around the world. Leaders like Pugwash Secretary-General Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, and Global Zero co-founders Matt Brown and Bruce Blair continue to invest in young people, even with limited resources.

We nevertheless face an alarming deficit when it comes to organizing and mobilizing for tomorrow. The first major challenge is that we lack the resources to build the future infrastructure of the nonproliferation community. Even the best and brightest organizations are chronically underfunded and understaffed. In the competition among non-profits of all kinds for donors, resources, and attention, the nonproliferation cause is increasingly muscled out. A large majority of the nonproliferation community, including the organizations the authors were involved in, do their work on resources that barely cover their survival. Engaging young people calls for an entirely different set of methods than were required to reach earlier generations, from electronic outreach to online fundraising, yet today’s organizations largely lack these tools and skills and do not have the resources to acquire them. For most organizations, youth engagement is not a priority, and when faced with cutbacks, programs targeting students and younger adults have often been among the first jettisoned. Even the few ongoing youth engagement efforts are made possible only by the stewardship of a handful of individuals and the generosity of a few exceptional donors like Jennifer Allen Simons and Jeffrey Skoll.

A second important challenge is coordination. The nonproliferation community is large and highly fragmented with a panoply of organizations from research institutes and think-tanks to professional societies and issue advocacy groups. While some of these organizations have larger budgets and an international reach, most focus on limited geographical areas and are run on shoestring budgets by small staffs. When they enter new regions, they tend to treat the territory as terra nullius, competing with existing operations for valuable time, energy, and funds and building redundant capacities, instead of combining forces to move towards shared objectives. In most cases this is not a leadership choice but the result of a dearth of resources to invest in coordination and the absence of a comprehensive strategy. The nonproliferation community does not have internal communication channels, a shared game plan, or the capacity to develop either on its own.                   

To be sure, nonproliferation activists are discovering new, inventive ways to make the most of what they have. But the world is changing, and the talented leaders keeping the community afloat are aging. To ensure the future of the cause, we have to embark on a concerted effort to start investing. As young members of this community who share a concern for what is to come, we believe that it is time for all stakeholders in the nonproliferation cause—governments and international organizations, think-tanks and nonprofits, activists and advocates, the young and the old—to engage in a forward-looking conversation on how to cultivate the next generation.

The United Nations, which is already one of the most important stakeholders in the nonproliferation dialogue, is uniquely qualified to facilitate such a conversation. Its General Assembly, Security Council, and Conference on Disarmament are shaping nonproliferation and disarmament policies worldwide, while the UN secretary-general’s advisory board, the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and the UN Institute for Disarmament Research play a critical role in developing and promoting the practical, innovative thinking required to tackle these issues. The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs has vast experience, not only in catalyzing the development and promotion of a global disarmament norm, but also in coordinating with UN member states and civil society in the global effort to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

A truly global conversation needs a truly global setting. With the United Nations as the venue, discussions should begin with a focus on getting nonproliferation organizations to join forces to maximize limited resources. They should also look to ways the nonproliferation community can invest in the future. The battle against nuclear proliferation will take more than a few decades to win, and if no one is left to carry on the fight, it won’t be won at all.

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