With Donald Trump set to ascend to the presidency, many in the disarmament and nonproliferation community are deeply concerned and searching for a path forward. The comparisons to the election of Ronald Reagan are not perfect, but they do contain at least one kernel of truth. Just as in the early 1980s, those who seek to eliminate nuclear risk today feel left out in the cold—and they are understandably frightened. Much like Reagan’s loose talk about nuclear war, the thought of Trump’s finger on the button sends chills down the spines of experts and laypeople alike.
It is not surprising then that some are floating the possibility of a revived disarmament movement as a counterbalance to the incoming Trump administration, which seems primed to continue and perhaps even accelerate the modernization of the US nuclear arsenal. Here in the Bulletin, Frank von Hippel recently wondered whether a millennial-led “general citizen uprising” against Trump’s policies might include a disarmament component. This is certainly a possibility. But if the “new generation of nuclear disarmament activists” he foresees actually emerges, what might it look like when compared to, say, the nuclear freeze movement of the Reagan era?
In my view, a 21st century disarmament movement will be–and should be–distinct from the freeze in three main ways. It will be intersectional, it will be digital, and it will be confrontational.
The nuclear freeze movement accomplished a great deal in its brief existence. It challenged the Reagan administration to temper its rhetoric and engage with the Soviets. Along with other peace movements around the globe, it helped bring the world back from the brink of nuclear war. These achievements made the joint weapons reductions of the late Cold War possible, and for that we owe the freeze movement a debt of gratitude. But the movement was not without its faults. It presented the freeze policy as a common denominator around which everyone from dissident Republicans to radical leftists could rally and consciously cultivated a public image that was politically moderate and middle class. In theory the freeze movement was a big tent that welcomed all comers, but in practice it tended to be white, affluent, and strangely cordoned off from other activist causes.
A contemporary movement will not be nearly as exclusionary and single-issue oriented. While there are clearly targeted forms of activism today—against police violence, economic inequality, and climate change, to name just a few—no sharp line exists between them, and they are constantly making connections with one another. Black Lives Matter activists point out the links between economic inequality and over-policing, while environmental advocates discuss the disproportionate impact of climate upheavals on people of color and the poor.
Social movements today are foundationally intersectional, and a new disarmament movement will be too. It may emphasize the trade-off between social spending and defense spending, or criticize the orientalist quality of much nonproliferation discourse. It may note the racist and environmentally destructive history of nuclear testing, or draw attention to male domination of the national security sphere. A new movement will face the exclusionary qualities of disarmament activism head-on and replace them with a firm emphasis on diversity and cross-issue collaboration. A revived disarmament movement will acknowledge that its goal cannot take primacy over other struggles but can come to fruition in and through them. Much like the other new social movements, it will see itself as one element in an overarching global push for democracy, civil rights, and economic justice.
Media forms have historically played a significant role in promoting the disarmament cause. In the Reagan era, films about nuclear war proliferated, and activists seized upon them as a way of galvanizing the public against the arms race. These texts were “mass media” in the truest sense of the term. They were delivered instantaneously to huge audiences, who experienced them collectively, whether in the movie theater or the family living room. On one evening in 1983, a stunning 100 million people watched the TV movie The Day After, which portrayed the impact of a nuclear war on a Midwestern community in the United States. In the weeks before and after the film was broadcast, it spurred a nationwide discussion on the dangers of nuclear weapons. The film kept the freeze issue in the public eye and presented an enormous organizing opportunity, which activists were more than happy to exploit.
Mass media are still with us, of course, but a 21st century disarmament movement will likely take a more decentralized, digital approach to media engagement and popular mobilization. Social media has already played an enormous role in organizing new social movements (particularly Black Lives Matter), and a new disarmament movement would no doubt follow suit. Indeed, organizations like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) are already using digital media forms as a cornerstone of their activism. During the recent UN First Committee session, ICAN and its coalition used Twitter to engage in instantaneous critiques of the nuclear-armed states, calling them out for their hypocrisy and underhandedness in trying to scuttle the ban treaty. They did this not only through expert analysis, but also through appropriately biting humor—sometimes delivered via internet memes. Mainstream US media have been remarkably uninterested in the UN ban treaty discussions, but through digital platforms like Twitter, groups like ICAN are disseminating the latest news, pushing back against the claims of the nuclear-armed states and encouraging newcomers to get involved in the issue. Their success at the international level may provide a model media strategy for a new US movement.
The third and most distinctive quality of a 21st century disarmament movement is that it will be confrontational, a major departure from the freeze in both tactics and strategy. From its inception, the freeze movement defined itself in opposition to radical politics and unilateral disarmament, hence its emphasis on bilateralism, verifiability, and traditional civic participation. It’s true that the freeze engaged in public demonstrations and protest marches (most notably the June 1982 Central Park rally of 750,000 people), but its primary form of political engagement was the ballot box. It eschewed most forms of direct action in favor of state and local ballot initiatives calling for the institution of a bilateral freeze on the testing, deployment, and production for nuclear weapons. These initiatives clearly expressed opposition to the status quo but were non-binding; the hope was that Congress would take up the issue, which it eventually did, with mixed results. The point here is that the freeze movement sought a kind of accommodation with the powers-that-be. This was evident in the policy itself, designed to be non-threatening and bipartisan, and in the freeze’s inoffensive, even patriotic model of political participation: localized voting, public education, grassroots legislative pressure.
Today’s social movements, while not antagonistic to voting and, say, writing your congressperson, do not regard these activities as the end-all-be-all of political participation. They place a much stronger emphasis on protest in its varying forms: rowdy demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience, the reclamation of public space.
The 21st century is the time of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and Fight for $15, and it seems likely that a renewed disarmament activism will take a cue from these movements’ confrontational tactics. Today, the dominant style of protest does not passively ask to be heard, but demands it, by actively challenging an injustice at its source. There is of course a long history of peaceful direct action in the disarmament movement, and activists may revive this tradition in the coming years. The US nuclear weapons complex, spread out over multiple sites across the country, certainly provides ample opportunity for disruptive—but peaceful—protest. Thinking intersectionally, though, activists may focus their ire on the defense corporations of the “nuclear enterprise,” who receive billions from the federal government at a time when many Americans feel economically left behind. So far, inequality activists have not stressed the trade-off between defense spending and social spending. But with the US set to spend $1 trillion modernizing its nuclear arsenal, and Trump adding numerous critics of social welfare programs to his administration, there is significant potential for cross-issue mobilization.
The freeze movement was reluctant to make broader political connections and engage in direct action for fear of being tarred as unserious and left wing. Whether this choice was correct in the early 1980s is open for debate. But today, a raucous intersectionality–digitally savvy but materially focused–seems absolutely essential for preventing a new arms race. This 21st century movement will look radically different from the freeze. Its form will pose a challenge not only to Donald Trump and nuclear modernization but to those of us in the arms control community who sometimes value subdued professionalism over committed action. Still, we should welcome it. A renewed movement will give a much-needed injection of youthful excitement to the issue of nuclear arms control and will help turn the slow drip of progress over the past 30 years into a flood of momentous change. It happened before, and it can happen again.
The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent, nonprofit media organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.