Making Another World Possible with the Nuclear Ban Treaty

Peace Advocate November 2021

January 21, 2021 TPNW rally and march, Photo: ICAN

As planetary dynamics interact with the COVID-19 pandemic, social, political, economic, internal, and relational dynamics have been laid bare and found wanting. We have collectively witnessed and experienced glaring inequities and precarities in the institutions and structures that govern, shape, and claim authority over our lives. Astrologer Nadiya Shah describes “the great immersion,” which calls us to adapt on numerous interrelated fronts. Given the severity of unnecessary crises and suffering, to adapt well requires creating alternative forms of authority that are ethically and practically sufficient for the needs and realities of the moment. 

“Another world is possible,” as the saying (famously the slogan of the World Social Forum) goes, which pairs nicely with Albert Einstein’s observation that “You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” Along with many efforts and practices that challenge dominant and exploitative policies, hegemonic structures, regressive modes of thinking, and violent ways of doing, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) represents a significant incremental step towards another world—one in which  nuclear weapons have been eliminated and alternative authorities have been created. For community members involved with Mass Peace Action’s Nuclear Disarmament Working Group (NDWG), the TPNW provides a powerful response, vision, and effort confronting the cruel and terrifying forms of power that produce immediate and inevitable harm. As the horror of nuclear weapons intersects with immense challenges and threats facing our communities, humanity, and all beings, MAPA organizers are working to strengthen interconnected approaches for a more peaceful, just, and livable future through creatively building support for the TPNW.

Dominant discourse justifies the technology – euphemistically described as “tools of security and stability” –  that serves the development of nuclear weapons intended by the military industrial complex to ensure that huge amounts of power can be wielded by certain countries and entities in relation to others. This dominant discourse ignores the existential threat inherent in nuclear weapons, while imposing political, financial, and ideological constraints – including the theory of deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction – on the world. 

The United States has a stockpile of roughly 3,800 nuclear warheads (second to Russia’s). Yet, conversations regarding nuclear weapons by politicians and mainstream media rarely address the extreme violence and harm these weapons can cause, as is so often the case when human survival, force-based power-over relationships of domination, and foundational ethical questions are concerned. If a fraction of the nuclear weapons that exist explode, Earth would become largely uninhabitable. As we saw in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and so many sites of nuclear tests and accidents, any nuclear explosion (by its nature) kills indiscriminately – from the fireball as hot as the center of the Sun to the longer-term impact of ionizing radiation. The discriminatory system that affords certain nation-states extremely high access to violence also goes unaddressed and unquestioned in dominant, mainstream discourse. This imbalance in power and rightful authority is not unique to the realm of nuclear weapons, but a familiar situation whereby dominant institutions and powerful entities violently shape our shared and collective existence. Meanwhile, massive profiteering drives nuclear weapons modernization, with Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung describing President Biden’s “first budget [as] a major win for key players in the nuclear-industrial complex.”

The United Nation’s TPNW, which entered into force on January 22, 2021, is a welcome arrival. Within the ten-page document, the TPNW (often called the Ban Treaty) describes “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons, and recogniz[es] the consequent need to completely eliminate such weapons, which remains the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons are never used again under any circumstance.” While the dominant authority under which we are governed in the U.S. makes life ever more precarious through its possession of weapons of mass destruction, the TPNW builds on the legacy of generations of peace and justice activists who demand a higher standard in international, political, and social relations. In rejecting the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, the TPNW contributes to alternative authority based on clear ethical principles and practical material realities. The TPNW solidifies and forwards – at the highest diplomatic level – frameworks based on the undeniable and unacceptable consequences of nuclear weapons and the oppressive power dynamics that they represent. The TPNW, now signed by 86 countries (and largely ignored by nuclear weapons states and their partnering organizations), thus forwards a paradigm based on right relationship rather than domination, and strengthens local work for political transformation. 

MAPA members in the TPNW working committee focus on building support for the U.S. (and the other 8 nuclear-armed nations) to sign, ratify, and implement the TPNW.. This committee has undertaken a three-part, introductory virtual teach-in series aimed at deepening understanding of the TPNW. The first teach-in, which was associated with Hiroshima and Nagasaki Day, engaged hearts and minds on behalf of the TPNW through guided conversations and artistic and analytical contributions. The second program presented the 56-minute documentary film The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons and an actionar presented by The third teach-in will explore issues of interconnectedness. 

Through collaboration with campaigns like the ICAN pledge, legislation increasingly supported by progressive policy-makers, the Back from the Brink and No First Use campaigns, and personal and institutional divestment, MAPA members work at the city, state, and federal level to strengthen support for the abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons. In our efforts, we center our deepest values, in both our most grand and hopeful goal-setting and our small ways of working and being together.

Hegemonic institutions tempt us to accept the lack of adequate, effective, and ethical responses to the problems in our society passively. The TPNW affirms and strengthens  our capacity to imagine and engage with our world based on deeply ethical and practical forms of authority that attend to the realities we face. When she accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Hiroshima a-bomb survivor Setsuko Thurlow proclaimed, “We hibakusha have been waiting for the ban for 72 years. Let this be the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons” and the strengthening of our commitment to facing crises by cultivating peace, justice, well-being, and right relationship.