Winning anti-nuclear weapon arguments

By Kate Hudson, November 28, 2007

How do we get our arguments out and win? That’s the million-dollar question, and a question that
we’re right to continually strategize around. But in this regard, I’ve noticed two mistaken
notions: (1) Believing that if we make a sufficiently clear moral and legal case against nuclear
weapons, people will automatically flock to our banner; and (2) assuming that if we don’t achieve
our goals, then it’s our failure.

Consider the first: We can talk about the immorality of killing and suffering
ad infinitum, and people will generally agree. But as far as nuclear weapons go, this is
rather abstract. Nuclear weapons haven’t been used in war since 1945, while people see the horrors
of conventional weapons daily. In legal terms, there’s no doubt that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty and other instruments of international law indicate that disarmament must occur and that
using nuclear weapons is illegal under every conceivable circumstance. But unfortunately, people
are accustomed to the law being broken and to powerful states trampling on international
regulations. As for politicians, save for some notable exceptions, I’d say that they’re mostly
immune to legal and moral arguments.

So we need to make other arguments as well. This may seem obvious, but on occasion I’ve been
chastised by Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament members for too often engaging in “realism” and
insufficiently making the “moral” argument. As far as I’m concerned, the moral argument is the true
heart of the disarmament movement, sustaining it and its dedicated activists through lean times.
But in my experience, it’s not the tipping point for very large numbers of people to change their
minds and oppose nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, at most, 30 percent of the British public favored unilateral disarmament.
Today, 59 percent of the British public opposes Trident replacement. So which arguments have helped
forge this increase?

For starters, highlighting the staggering cost of nuclear weapons. The economic argument works
particularly well with trade unions, on street stalls, in local newspapers, and with
parliamentarians. We calculated that Trident replacement (both procurement and lifetime costs) is
approximately $156 billion. Outlining the ways in which this money could be better spent both
nationally and locally (keeping hospitals open, supporting other local services) played a big part
in winning support.

The other key argument concerned security. The pro-nuclear weapons lobby was unable to
effectively claim that they stand for security and we do not. We have argued that irrespective of
what people thought during the Cold War, it’s now evident that retaining and replacing nuclear
weapons will provoke proliferation and increase insecurity globally. This argument won over many

In terms of the second notion: Is the continued existence of nuclear weapons–or even the lack
of awareness of nuclear issues–our failing? Clearly, we need the right policies and strategies,
nuanced and suitable for the moment in which we’re operating. But we don’t operate in a vacuum. We
must consider the balance of forces and specificity of conditions in our own countries. In Britain,
for example, we’ve benefited enormously from a major shift in public consciousness against being
tied to U.S. foreign and military policy; a greater skepticism about government assertions
following the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; a widespread rejection of the nuclear
hypocrisy of our government; much greater access to wide-ranging information thanks to the
internet; some military opposition to spending money on nuclear weapons instead of on body armor
and army housing; former Prime Minister Tony Blair admitting that nuclear weapons won’t meet
Britain’s current security challenges–terrorism and climate change; and a greater number of people
working to oppose poverty and therefore understanding the need for foreign policies based on peace
and justice.

There’s no single key to success in any campaign. There are only steady and well-reasoned
strategies based on a continual assessment of the possibilities and impossibilities. A campaign
must also seize every opportunity with both hands, have the courage to do things differently,
always be guided by principle, and stay open and inclusive. Most of all, however, it must keep in
mind that human progress has been made in many areas where the odds against success seemed
enormous. So despite the challenges we face, we, too, can achieve our goal.


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