Zia Mian on scientists, the nuclear threat, and a treaty to ban nuclear weapons

By John Mecklin | October 31, 2018

Zia Mian

A physicist and co-director of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, Zia Mian is widely known for his research and writing on nuclear weapons and energy, especially in regard to Pakistan and India. He is also co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a group of experts from 18 countries that works to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapon-usable material around the world, co-editor of Science & Global Security, an international journal of technical analysis for arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation policy, and a noted disarmament advocate. Last week, the American Physical Society, a major physics nonprofit organization, honored Mian with its Leo Szilard Lectureship Award. Established as a memorial to Szilard, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and worked to prevent military use of nuclear energy after World War II, the award cited Mian “[f]or promoting global peace and nuclear disarmament particularly in South Asia, through academic research, public speaking, technical and popular writing and organizing efforts to ban nuclear weapons.”

When I spoke with Mian last week, I asked him how the role of scientists concerned about the threat of nuclear weapons has changed, from the immediate aftermath of World War II until today.

Zia Mian: I think what we’ve seen in the years since the 1940s when this work started—and I’m thinking in particular of the efforts that Szilard was involved in directly, such as the Emergency Committee of the Atomic Scientists that he helped found with Albert Einstein in 1946, which was actually based here in Princeton, down the street from my office—they wrote I think one of the first-ever fundraising letters to physicists all over the world. [They asked] for what then, I’m sure, was considered an extravagant amount of money, a million dollars, to begin a campaign to educate fellow citizens around the world about the implications of nuclear weapons and atomic energy. They said in that letter that Einstein sent out as the chair of this emergency committee that there is no possibility of dealing with the challenge of nuclear weapons except through the aroused understanding and insistence of the peoples of the world. And they said that they believed that an informed citizenry will act for life, and not for death.

And so, it’s fundamentally a democratic project they had as nuclear scientists and experts, rather than just an elite project, that aroused an insistent public around the world to compel policymakers to do the right thing when it comes to nuclear weapons. And at the same time, Szilard was organizing the first [nongovernmental organizations] in Washington, DC, such as the Council for a Livable World, which is still active today, lobbying in Congress and trying to reach directly into the policymaking process in the United States. But he was also writing letters to leaders around the world and to the presidents of the United States and so on.

I think that in the years since then, we are still working on the same set of interventions, because public interest has risen and fallen over time rather than being constant. The fears and priorities of policymakers have changed over time, often driven by crisis or ambition of particular leaders. And so the need for scientists to continue to play this role has not changed, especially now, when 20 years after the Cold War, policy makers and the public and many scientists, including physicists, have taken nuclear weapons basically off their list of pressing concerns.

So in many ways, we are at one of those moments in history when the same challenges that were faced back when scientists started doing this work are with us again today—except for one key difference. And that is that there is now one very large, determined, organized community of people who are advocates of nuclear weapons and pushing in the other direction. When the scientists first started out talking about nuclear weapons in the 1940s, there was no organized opposition in the political and public and scientific space pushing for nuclear weapons. Now there is. And so, scientists and others wanting to do the kind of work that Szilard and Einstein started have a new problem that they didn’t.

John Mecklin: You make the prospects sound pretty grim. It sounds like the other side is winning. There are fewer scientists, fewer people making the case that there’s a real problem with nuclear weapons and a real political and economic force for them. How do you see the lay of the land here? Is there a way to change what appears to be just an inexorable push toward continued growth in some ways in nuclear weaponry?

Mian: I am actually quite hopeful. Szilard used to be accused of having too much faith in human reason. And in the letter from the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, you saw a lot of faith in the democratic process. But you have to remember that one of the other big things that changed between the 1940s/early 1950s and today is that we now have a much better-developed set of international institutions, much greater participation in international processes by a very large number of countries, many of which didn’t even exist as independent states at the time of the coming of nuclear weapons and their use by the United States in 1945 against Japan.

At the time that the atomic scientists started their work, the very first resolution of the United Nations, Resolution 1 of the General Assembly, called for a plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons. At that time, there were only a handful of countries in the United Nations, and it was overwhelmingly dominated by the United States and its allies. If you fast forward to where we are today, there are now over 190 countries in the United Nations. And as you know, last year they agreed to a treaty, not just a plan, as was asked for in 1946, but a treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons, despite the efforts of the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and the other nuclear weapons states—Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea—to prevent such a treaty being talked about or coming into effect. But we had 122 countries agree to a treaty through the UN system to prohibit nuclear weapons.

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I think this is a historic moment and it shows that the control that nuclear advocates, nuclear weapons states, have had over how to think about and talk about and act on the issue of nuclear weapons has now been challenged in a profound way. The vast majority of the world has said: “No. We won’t live in a world like this. We will not accept it. We can’t force you to disarm right now, but we are putting down a marker for the fact that decent countries in the world see no role for nuclear weapons. And we’re going to codify that in an international treaty.”

So I think in that sense, we’ve made a lot of progress. The question now is to find mechanisms to get scientists and publics and policymakers in the nuclear weapons states and in those countries that haven’t accepted this new perspective on how to think about the elimination of nuclear weapons to engage with the set of questions that have now been posed by the international community: “OK, how are you going to deal with the fact that the majority of the world thinks that the threatened use of nuclear weapons is illegal? I don’t care about your arguments about strategy and deterrents and so on. It’s illegal. Right? It’s considered to be a violation of humanitarian law, and it’s illegal in the eyes of the world. How are you going to deal with this?”

I think this is the beginning of where we can reorganize and begin again, but with a different landscape of the kinds of arguments and the kinds of perspectives that can be in play. And scientists have an important role to play in this.

Mecklin: Part of the citation for the award you’re getting is particular to South Asia. We’ve published a lot of writing you’ve done on South Asia, and pretty consistently I’ve noticed that the rest of the major media largely doesn’t pay any attention to it. How do you think that could change?

Mian: I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several decades working on nuclear dangers in South Asia and thinking—with colleagues in the US and Pakistan and India and elsewhere—about what kinds of change are necessary and what kinds of change are possible to try and reduce and eliminate these dangers. One of the things that’s important to keep in mind is that when India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in May 1998, very soon afterwards there was a unanimous resolution of the United Nation’s Security Council—Resolution 1172—that called on India and Pakistan to stop their nuclear weapons programs, to carry out no more tests, and to eliminate their nuclear weapons and their ballistic missiles, and called on every country in the world not to assist them in any way with their nuclear weapons programs.

What happened after that is I think part of the explanation of why we are in the situation that we are in in South Asia these days, where India and Pakistan between them have close now to 300 weapons and have nuclear weapons on land-based missiles, on airplanes, and soon will have nuclear weapons at sea. To the United States, the rise of China became such an important geostrategic imperative that recruiting India as an ally was more important than worrying about nuclear weapons in India and what that might mean. And some people in the US thought that having a stronger nuclear-armed India would actually be an asset for the US strategic plans.

At the same time, 9/11 happened and the US interest in dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism based in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda, and then the war against the Taliban and other forms of Islamic extremism, meant that that was more important than Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

And so, in both India and Pakistan, the United States and its allies actually helped to take the nuclear danger off the international agenda because it had more pressing political and strategic and, to be honest in the case of India, economic imperatives than nuclear danger. And in part, you can understand why the US didn’t think India and Pakistan were going to go to war against the United States and therefore, their nuclear weapons are not as much of a threat or a risk. Unlike, for example, North Korea, or the possibility of Iran getting nuclear weapons, because they seemed to be hostile to US interests.

This meant that it became very, very hard for peace activists and analysts and experts to make a compelling case that carried any kind of political weight in the larger international system to policymakers and publics in India and Pakistan about the dangers of nuclear weapons. Because if you went to Islamabad or to Delhi and said, “Look, nuclear weapons, they’re a real threat and the international community is really worried, and you should be worried, too, for reasons that we can explain to you,” the answer was, “Why do you keep talking about them? Nobody else does.”

In countries like India and Pakistan, where there are a huge number of other pressing, day-to-day political, socioeconomic, and security issues, it really made the task an uphill battle, compared to many other countries where one could imagine having conversations about the risks of nuclear weapons.

I worked with colleagues in Pakistan and India, and we’ve written books. We’ve made films. We’ve done talks. We’re written op-eds. We’ve helped organize demonstrations and protests and the whole repertoire of contentious action, taking on governments and making demands about what they should do in the public interest. I think we’ve tried everything that we know how to do. But the circumstances within which this political and technical work takes place have been very, very difficult.

In that sense, it’s a bit reminiscent of people who tried to do this work in the 1950s and so on in the United States where the aura of the Cold War meant that if, like Szilard, and Pauling, and Einstein, you spoke up against US nuclear weapons and about the need for abolition, people said you were a communist and therefore, an enemy of the state and didn’t have the best interests of the United States and of democracy at heart.

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So we face that dilemma in a slightly modified way in South Asia today. But times are changing, and there’s a new generation that has grown up in the shadow of nuclear weapons, and they may be able to see with new eyes the danger that nuclear weapons pose. Because the promises that nuclear weapons advocates offered in South Asia, in particular—that nuclear weapons were a sign of greatness, of technological achievement, of national success—it’s been 20 years, and you don’t see any great technological success, developmental success, political success, or social transformation. And so, the core selling points that were offered about nuclear weapons, other than the fact that they are weapons of mass destruction, none of them have actually proven to hold any weight in the experience of people.

As the myth of nuclear weapons fades and the realities of nuclear weapons become apparent to a new generation of people, it may be that this message about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the benefits of getting rid of them and focusing priorities and politics on more productive and useful and necessary issues of peace and justice and equity may actually find a new audience.

Mecklin: But let me ask you another question: Where is the signature process on the nuclear weapons ban treaty, and what do you see coming there? I mean, is it going to happen?

Mian: I think that the most recent count is, as of the last few weeks, there have been 69 signatories of the ban treaty and it’s reasonable to imagine that they will ratify and that the treaty will enter into force hopefully by the end of next year or by early in 2020. Which is not slow by the timescales of the entry into force of international treaties on arms control and these kinds of issues, especially nuclear weapons issues. I think that the concern and the skepticism that some people have about the ban treaty is largely misplaced. Many people would like to see it enter into force quickly. But the fact of the matter is that most countries have a domestic, legislative process to get a treaty to be signed and to get it ratified through their national legislature and to have it entered into force.

You have to get it through Parliament and so forth and that just takes time. In some countries, they actually need to pass new laws to allow that treaty to enter into force.

The second thing is that—and people don’t pay attention to this—is that this is perhaps one of the few arms control and disarmament treaties that the world has ever put in place that has been deliberately opposed by the great powers. It’s not enough that the United States will not sign this treaty, or Russia, or Britain, or France, or China, or the others. They are actually pushing and pressing governments of other countries also to not sign and to not ratify.

Now this kind of behavior is unconscionable, given that the treaty seeks to prohibit nuclear weapons, and it’s a great credit to all the countries that have signed and ratified so far that they have refused to submit to this kind of browbeating and bullying and coercion by the nuclear weapons states.

So I am hopeful that the treaty will gather increasing numbers of signatories; that it will enter into force; and once it enters into force, that [signatories] will take up their Article 12 obligations of the treaty, which require the treaty parties to go out and make the abolition of nuclear weapons part of their diplomacy with other countries. So then, they will be bound to reach out to the United States and others and say, “Look, we have to talk to you about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need for their abolition, because we are bound by treaty to do this. So you have to take it seriously when you are talking to us.”

So I’m hopeful. I think we’re on track in terms of getting signatures. And John, let me just add one sentence by closing if I can.

Mecklin: Sure.

Mian:  Back in 1945, before the first bomb had been used and before the United Nations system existed, Leo Szilard and the other scientists who wrote the Franck Report said that the only protection against nuclear weapons would come from what they called the political organization of the world. And I think we are reaching the point where the political organization of the world that they had imagined is now coming into fruition. We now have countries and international peace groups and civil society and nongovernmental organizations all over the world organizing together to take on the nuclear weapons establishments in the nine countries that feel that they are entitled to hold the world hostage.

And so, I think that Szilard and Einstein and all the other people who charted the path to get humanity out of the nuclear age would have been very pleased to see where we’ve reached in 2018.

Mecklin: But don’t you think that eventually for this to happen, the nuclear countries are going to have to come along in some fashion?

Mian: Yes. And it will take the political organization of the world to make them come along. But we’re building that political organization now with the ban treaty and with international campaigns and organizations and connecting it [all together], from grassroots groups in the United States to groups like ICAN [the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons] and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, to the many, many countries that have signed the treaty and the United Nations system. We are building that political organization from the grassroots up and from the international order downward, to the point where there will be pressure at all levels against the nuclear establishments in those states to finally do the right thing.

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

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