Public Mobilization for a Nuclear-Free World

Foreign Policy in Focus l Lawrence S. Wittner  September 23, 2010


One of the ironies of the current international situation is that, although some government leaders now talk of building a nuclear weapons-free world, there has been limited public mobilization around that goal — at least compared to the action-packed 1980s.

However, global public opinion is strikingly antinuclear. In December 2008, an opinion poll conducted of more than 19,000 respondents in 21 nations found that, in 20 countries, large majorities — ranging from 62 to 93 percent — favored an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Even in Pakistan, the one holdout nation, 46 percent (a plurality) would support such an agreement. Among respondents in the nuclear powers, there was strong support for nuclear abolition. This included 62 percent of the respondents in India, 67 percent in Israel, 69 percent in Russia, 77 percent in the United States, 81 percent in Britain, 83 percent in China and 87 percent in France.   

But public resistance to the bomb is not as strong as these poll figures seem to suggest.

Supporting the Bomb           

For starters, a portion of society agrees with their governments that they're safer when they are militarily powerful. Some people, of course, are simply militarists, who look approvingly upon weapons and war. Others genuinely believe in "peace through strength," an idea championed by government officials, who play upon this theme.

Furthermore, popular resistance to nuclear weapons tends to wane when progress toward addressing nuclear dangers occurs. For example, the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 not only halted most contamination of the Earth's atmosphere by nuclear tests, but also convinced many people that the great powers were on the road to halting their nuclear arms race. As a result, the nuclear disarmament movement declined. A similar phenomenon occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty. U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation eased and the Cold War came to an end. Although public protest against nuclear weapons didn't disappear, it certainly dwindled.

Indeed, today, the public in many nations seems complacent about the menace of nuclear weapons. While opposition to nuclear weapons is widespread, it does not run deep. For example, those people who said in late 2008 that they "strongly" favored a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons constituted only 20 percent of respondents in Pakistan, 31 percent in India, 38 percent in Russia, 39 percent in the United States, and 42 percent in Israel — although, admittedly, majorities (ranging from 55 to 60 percent) took this position in Britain, France, and China. Another sign support for a nuclear-free world is weaker than implied by its favorability ratings is that an April 2010 poll among Americans found that, although a large majority said they favored nuclear abolition, 87 percent considered this goal unrealistic.

Yet another sign of the shallowness of popular support is that, despite widespread peace and disarmament movement efforts to mobilize supporters of nuclear abolition around the U.N.'s nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference this past May, the level of public protest fell far short of the antinuclear outpourings of the 1980s. Indeed, even with the encouragement of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the organizing efforts of numerous peace groups, the best turnout the worldwide nuclear abolition movement could manage was some 15,000 antinuclear demonstrators on May 2.

That the nuclear disarmament issue does not have the same salience today as in earlier periods can be attributed, in part, to people feeling less directly threatened by nuclear weapons preparations and nuclear war. After all, the present U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation seems far less dangerous than the U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation of the past. Today, nuclear war seems more likely to erupt in South Asia, between India and Pakistan. People living far from these nations find it easy to ignore this dangerous scenario.

Lack of Information

The public is also very poorly informed about what is happening with respect to nuclear weapons. Although the mass media devoted enormous air time and column space to Iraq's alleged nuclear weapons capability, they have devoted scant resources to educate the public on the nuclear weapons that do exist and on the dangers they pose to human survival. A 2010 survey of people from their teens through thirties in eight countries found that large majorities didn't know that Russia, China, Britain, France and other nations possessed nuclear weapons. In fact, only 59 percent of American respondents knew that their own country possessed nuclear weapons. Among British respondents, just 43 percent knew that Britain maintained a nuclear arsenal.

Public ignorance of nuclear issues occurs largely thanks to the commercial mass media's focus on trivia and sensationalism. This emphasis on lightweight entertainment often reflects the interests of the media's corporate owners and sponsors, who do their best to avoid fanning the flames of public discontent — or at least discontent with corporate and military elites. But the public is complicit with the blackout on nuclear matters, for many people prefer to avoid thinking about nuclear weapons and nuclear war.

Thus, although there is widespread opposition to nuclear weapons, it lacks intensity and the global publics are ill-informed about nuclear dangers and nuclear disarmament.

Lessons for Peace and Disarmament Groups

The first is that nuclear disarmament and nuclear abolition have majority public support. Second, this support must be strengthened if progress is to be made toward a nuclear-free world.

To strengthen public support, these organizations could emphasize the following themes...

Read full article here, including how:

Nuclear weapons are suicidal

There are no safe havens from a nuclear war

Nuclear weapons possession does not guarantee security

There is a significant possibility of accidental nuclear war

As long as nuclear weapons exist, there will be a temptation to use them

Lawrence Wittner is professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.


Share |
Nuclear Power is not the Answer