By Veronica Stewart-Frommer
If you’re a millennial or younger, as I am, chances are that the specter of nuclear war didn’t play a central role in shaping your worldview. (All right, children of national security experts, military history buffs, and tinfoil-hat-wearers, this one might not be for you.) Gone are the Cold War relics of “duck-and-cover” drills and fallout shelters in family homes. Life spent in fear of nuclear disaster is a foreign concept to over half of the U.S. population (the younger-than-boomers half). The issue of nuclear arms control has quietly faded from public discourse and into the hands of academics and national security policymakers. But it’s time for the folks with reusable straws and Instagram stories full of social justice graphics—and everyone else, for that matter—to dust off grandma’s anti-nuclear protest signs and re-claim the narrative. Because, though it may not seem like it, strengthening nuclear diplomacy is more critical than ever.
While the eyes of the world are glued to the unfolding events of the COVID-19 pandemic, nuclear arms control agreements between the United States and Russia—home to the world’s two largest nuclear stockpiles—are crumbling in plain sight. Like dominoes falling, Cold War nuclear safeguards such as the Strategic Arms Limitations treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty have expired without replacement. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was thankfully renewed just days before its February 2021 expiration date, is the last agreement standing to hold the two nuclear superpowers accountable.
That one treaty is not enough. While diplomacy becomes increasingly rudimentary, the technology underpinning these weapons systems gets more and more complex. And despite their fierce leadership on issues ranging from climate change and racial justice to gun control, young people internationally have not mobilized to advocate for nuclear arms control in meaningful numbers. A recent report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which surveyed over 16,200 millennials from sixteen countries, may help to explain why this is. The report reveals that the majority of millennials are opposed to the use of nuclear weapons in any context. And, shockingly, more than half of the participants stated that they believe that nuclear weapons will be used at some point over the next decade. But when asked which major issue out of a list of twelve was most pressing, they ranked nuclear weapons were dead last.
Gen Z (Zoomers) and Millennials have proved their worth as engaged citizens. Youth voter turnout in the United States was significantly higher in 2020 than it was in 2016, and young faces are on the front lines of protest movements around the globe. Young people possess the necessary organizing skills, agree that the use of nuclear weapons would be devastating beyond repair, and know that the need for disarmament is urgent. So, why aren’t they making it a priority? Two major misconceptions may be at play.
Nukes Are Old News (They’re Not)
It makes sense that public concern about nuclear weapons has waned since the Cold War. In the seventy-six years since their conception—despite the tragedies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and lasting health crises in communities near testing sites—we’ve gotten used to nuclear weapons. And, since the height of Cold War nuclear proliferation in 1986, the number of stockpiled nuclear warheads has decreased from approximately 70,300 to 13,100. Despite the numbers, however, technological advancements make the problem more futuristic than archaic.
The reality is that the world’s nuclear arsenals are being upgraded as rapidly as smartphones are. New military technologies such as cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence (AI), anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), and missile defense systems complicate diplomacy, creating a newly uncertain nuclear deterrence landscape. This is because these technologies blur the line between conventional (non-nuclear) and nuclear warfare. Consequently, it can be hard to distinguish a conventional attack from one intended to weaken an adversary’s nuclear arsenal.
Take satellites, for example. They play an essential role in military communication and surveillance, making them an obvious target in conventional warfare. This is why the United States, Russia, India, and China are developing and testing ASATs, which have yet to be deployed in conflict but could deal a serious blow to military satellite capabilities. Aside from their conventional uses, satellites also transmit orders for the deployment of nuclear weapons, and serve as ballistic missile early warning systems, which are crucial to a state’s ability to launch under attack and maintain an effective nuclear deterrent.
Here’s why this is dangerous: the most recent official nuclear policies of Russia (2020) and the United States (2018) both state that significantly threatening non-nuclear aggression could warrant the first use of nuclear weapons. In other words, if a military satellite were attacked during a conventional dispute, for nonnuclear reasons, the risk to the target’s nuclear arsenal (due to loss of early warning and communication systems) could be serious enough to prompt the deployment of nuclear weapons.
To make matter worse, new cyber and satellite capabilities are accident-prone. A computer malfunction that results in a false alarm, or a piece of space debris that collides with an early warning satellite, could send the world to the brink of nuclear war. It sounds absurd, I know, but an accident (of which there have been more than a few) may actually be the most likely path to nuclear war. At any given moment, the United States and Russia maintain about 900 nuclear warheads on high alert each, making a blunder or accident potentially disastrous.
You may have heard that nuclear weapons are agents of peace—the “ultimate deterrent.” Deterrence theory stands on the assumption that, because deploying nuclear weapons would mean total annihilation for both the target and the aggressor (mutually assured destruction), both parties will refrain from using them. Sadly, this principle can’t entirely prevent nuclear war. Sure, there are only 13,100 nuclear warheads left (reassuring, right?). But they’re significantly stronger than they were in the 80’s and guarded by fewer diplomatic agreements. They’re subject to accidents and could become entangled in conventional warfare due to dual-use technologies. Luck has played a larger role than we’d like to admit in keeping nuclear peace over the past seventy odd years. Unfortunately, nukes are not a problem of the past.
There’s Nothing We (Regular People) Can Do
Like brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger write, issues like climate change, police brutality, and racism “are daunting, but tangible.” The need for climate action grows more urgent with each California wildfire. Through social media, the world has witnessed the murders of Black and Brown Americans at the hands of police. These devestating events have led thousands of fed-up citizens to take to the streets to demand action. Furthermore, individuals can contribute to the solutions to both climate change and systemic racism by making changes to their own lives. We can call our representatives, make sure to turn off the lights when we leave the house, brainstorm community alternatives to policing, and vote for lawmakers who prioritize the changes that we want to see.
Nuclear proliferation is different. Only a small number of people still alive today witnessed the hundreds of thousands killed by the U.S. atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And even those who do remember cannot fathom the destruction that today’s nuclear weapons could cause. Nuclear disarmament, like the solutions to other pressing issues, will be no simple task. It will require innovative thinking, relentless organizing, and a fundamental restructuring of our social and political systems. But, unlike other generation defining issues, the solution must proactive rather than reactive. We can’t wait for the first bomb to explode.
Groundbreaking social movements (like climate justice and Black Lives Matter) convince individuals that they can make a measurable change. But the security world is gate-kept by highly educated, white baby boomers (in just two years, 40% of the National Nuclear Security Administration will qualify for retirement) who rarely directly address the public. And, when most high school curricula omit the history of nuclear weapons, no one can blame our generation for feeling powerless and ill equipped when it comes to solving the nuclear problem. But as Beyond the Bomb, a grassroots movement to prevent nuclear disaster, writes: “there’s no time for imposter syndrome.” The hour for nuclear disarmament is now.
The good news is that we do have the power to influence nuclear policy. We can advocate for better education on the issue and help debunk common misconceptions, like the ones addressed here. We can ask our representatives to back legislation like bills H.R.921, which calls for the adoption of a no first-use policy, and H.R.2850, which would require the dismantling of the United States’ nuclear weapons, and would redirect the nuclear budget towards supporting social needs. We can infuse the world of national security with a new generation of people who know that the status quo is unacceptable, and who can take a 21st century approach to finding creative solutions.
Millenials and Zoomers, it’s time to shake up the world of national security! The antidote to the threat of nuclear weapons is an intersectional coalition of problem-solvers: people who understand that nuclear disarmament is inextricably linked to the social justice issues we care about most. The power structures that permeate every corner of society—capitalism, systemic racism, gender discrimination—also plague the world of national security. And these inequities are directly exacerbated by the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which takes billions of dollars away from social infrastructure each year. At the intersection of nuclear nonproliferation and social justice is a better, more sensible world: one where time and resources are given to those who need it, rather than a piles of weapons whose highest purpose is never to be used.
Veronica Stewart-Frommer is a winner of Hemispheres’ Spring 2021 Blog Contest.
“2018 Nuclear Posture Review.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2018. https://media.defense.gov/2018/Feb/02/2001872886/-1/-1/1/2018-NUCLEAR-POSTURE-REVIEW-FINAL-REPORT.PDF.
Future of Life Institute. “Accidental Nuclear War: A Timeline of Close Calls,” n.d. https://futureoflife.org/background/nuclear-close-calls-a-timeline/.
Acton, James M. “Escalation through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War.” International Security 43, no. 1 (August 1, 2018): 56-99. https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00320.
Bidgood, Sarah. “Undergraduate Disarmament and Nonproliferation Education: Gaps, Opportunities, and New Approaches.” The Nonproliferation Review 26, no. 3–4 (May 4, 2019): 32-40. https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2019.1646470.
“Election Week 2020: Young People Increase Turnout, Lead Biden to Victory.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/election-week-2020.
Beyond the Bomb: A Grassroots Movement to Stop Nuclear War. “#FutureFirst Fellowship Summer 2021.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://beyondthebomb.org/futurefirst-fellowship-summer-2021/.
Kielburger, Craig, and Marc Kielburger. “Nuclear Disarmament: Why You Should Care And What You Can Do.” HuffPost Canada, February 5, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/craig-and-marc-kielburger/nuclear-disarmament-why-you-should-care-and-what-you-can-do_a_23350330/.
Korda, Matt. “Do Young People Care About Nuclear Weapons?” Inkstick, February 27, 2020. https://inkstickmedia.com/do-young-people-care-about-nuclear-weapons/.
Kristensen, Hans M., and Matt Korda. “Status of World Nuclear Forces.” Federation Of American Scientists (blog), n.d. https://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/.
“Millenials on War.” Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross, January 2020.
Norton, Eleanor Holmes. “H.R.2850 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): To Provide for Nuclear Weapons Abolition and Economic Conversion in Accordance with District of Columbia Initiative Measure Number 37 of 1992, While Ensuring Environmental Restoration and Clean-Energy Conversion.” Webpage, April 26, 2021. 2021/2022. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/2850.
Porras, Daniel. “Anti-Satellite Warfare and the Case for an Alternative Draft Treaty for Space Security.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 4 (July 4, 2019): 142–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2019.1628470.
Smith, Adam. “H.R.921 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): To Establish the Policy of the United States Regarding the No-First-Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Legislation, March 14, 2019. 2019/2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/921.
The President of the Russian Federation. “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence – Вопросы Международной Безопасности и Стратегической Стабильности.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 2020. https://www.mid.ru/en/web/guest/foreign_policy/international_safety/disarmament/-/asset_publisher/rp0fiUBmANaH/content/id/4152094.
Beyond the Bomb: A Grassroots Movement to Stop Nuclear War. “Today’s Nuclear Weapons Are Orders of Magnitude More Powerful,” August 2, 2019. https://beyondthebomb.org/hiroshima-nagasaki-todays-nuclear-weapons-are-orders-of-magnitude-more-powerful/.
Tomz, Michael, Jessica L.P. Weeks, and Keren Yarhi-Milo. “Public Opinion and Decisions About Military Force in Democracies.” International Organization 74, no. 1 (2020): 119–43. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020818319000341.
Statista. “U.S. Population Share by Generation 2019.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/296974/us-population-share-by-generation/.
“U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Agreements at a Glance | Arms Control Association.” Accessed March 24, 2021. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/USRussiaNuclearAgreements.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “What’s Missing from American Schools’ Curricula? Nuclear Weapons.,” September 3, 2020. https://thebulletin.org/2020/09/whats-missing-from-american-schools-curricula-nuclear-weapons/.
Wright, David, and Stephen Young. “Taking Nuclear Missiles Off Hair-Trigger Alert.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/05/Hair-Trigger-Alert-Policy-Brief.pdf.