A drunk was looking for his keys under a lamppost. A passerby came along and asked if he needed help. The drunk said, “I lost my keys.” The passerby asked, “Well, where do you think they could be?”  “I dunno,” he replied, pointing to the darkness behind him, “Back there probably.” “Then why are you looking here under the lamppost?” “Because there’s more light here.”

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) likes to stay in the light. It pursues a goal that almost everyone on the planet shares. However, it has so much right on its side that it tends to be somewhat blinded by its righteousness. A certain arrogance comes across when its members use such dismissive phrases as “get on the right side of history” in their admonishments aimed at nations that have not signed or ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This is the same phrase that has been used by US leaders against governments that resist the “rules-based international order,” a deceptive preferred phrase used these days to avoid making people think about international law, which is usually being violated in some way in order to uphold the “rules-based international order.” The phrase really means “our rules”; that is, US hegemony. The US has given up claiming that it upholds international law as it was established by the UN Charter because its own refusals be subject to international law have become too well known. Thus the preference now for the less precise “rules-based international order.”[i],[ii]

empire and the bomb

When I criticize ICAN, people may think I’ve abandoned the cause of nuclear disarmament and now support the notion of mutual nuclear deterrence, so I have to stress that I still support the goal of a complete and rapid nuclear disarmament. I simply think ICAN has pursued this goal in a self-defeating fashion, in a silo, unconcerned with related issues and oblivious to many aspects of history such as the struggles of weaker nations to defend their sovereignty against the economic order imposed over the last five centuries by European and American imperialism. The ICAN leadership is made up mostly of people from the US-NATO, and US-allied sphere. They may see themselves as oppositional and radical, but they appear to be more of a single-issue controlled opposition group that keeps attention off the root of the problem and engages in only restrained criticism of US power. A great deal of popular activism has melded into a hybrid network of NGOs that have ties to corporate and government sponsors, and ICAN appears to part of this trend. While the organization is comprised of many good people working for undeniably good objectives, as a whole the leadership evinces little awareness of the ways in which they further the interests of the “rules-based international order.” As Russia and China can easily perceive this bias, they will remain deaf to the voices of ICAN activists. Thus ICAN’s approach is thoroughly self-defeating. I add further points in list form:

  1. ICAN representatives have voiced mild, diplomatic criticism of the US government’s efforts to block the TPNW treaty, but they have held back from suggesting obvious forms of protest such as boycotts, sanctions, recall of diplomats, and withdrawal from military alliances with the United States and other nuclear powers. If this seems drastic, recall that Russian diplomats have recently been recalled for matters much less urgent than nuclear disarmament—this mortal danger to civilization that could be unleashed at any moment.
  2. The TPNW has no provisions on nuclear energy, even though every nuclear energy program is dual use technology that can produce fissile material for weapons. It is theoretically possible to operate nuclear energy without enabling nuclear weapons proliferation, but for all practical concerns it has been and always will be impossible.
  3. ICAN makes a false analogy between nuclear weapons and other types of weapons that have been banned such as land mines and biological and chemical weapons. These weapons do not have the capacity to instantly and thoroughly destroy nation states or the planet’s life-sustaining ecosystem, so they cannot be put into the same category. What needs to be considered is the different appeal that nuclear arsenals have as a deterrent, whether or not one accepts that they really do provide any such security.
  4. ICAN has voiced only muted criticism of the escalation of new cold war tensions between the NATO bloc and Russia, and between US-allied nations and China. Nuclear arsenals are not likely to be eliminated quickly, even if all the nations of the world agreed to start moving in that direction. It makes sense to keep the world safe in the meantime and focus on the de-escalation of hostilities between China, Russia and the United States, Israel and Iran, and Pakistan and India. This focus on maintaining peace would have to involve taking a stand on important matters of principle that are not directly related to nuclear weapons. It would include strong condemnation of the numerous violations of international law by the Israel, the US and NATO countries since the 1990s.
  5. ICAN could also condemn the United States as the country that brought nuclear weapons into the world and refused to put their development under international supervision and control.[iii] It would call on the US to engage in good faith disarmament talks with all nuclear powers and make unilateral cuts in its arsenal, which rival nuclear powers could then follow step by step down to zero. The US led the world into the nuclear age, so it should also lead the world out of it—lead by example—by taking the initiative of unilateral reductions for others to follow.
  6. ICAN needs to say much more about the enormous imbalance of conventional military power between the US and all other nations, an imbalance which is an obvious motivation for weaker states to want to retain their nuclear deterrence. It is absurd to expect North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for some sort of “security guarantee” from the United States. The United States abrogates treaties and changes foreign policy as administrations change with each election cycle. The US could withdraw some forces and move its nuclear weapons out of the region, but it would still have its enormous conventional and nuclear capabilities. The nuclear triad could still strike North Korea, or any part of the globe, on very short notice.
  7. ICAN self-righteously declares that the theory of deterrence is discredited, but does not acknowledge that this is a matter of faith, not established fact. A state of being deterred exists, as far as one can tell, until it fails. Meanwhile, a small nuclear power like North Korea looks at what has happened to nations like Iraq and Libya after they gave up their nuclear programs under pressure from the US. NATO countries planned and encouraged the breakup of Yugoslavia, and a disastrous civil war was the consequence. It was splintered into a number of smaller countries, and Serbia was bombed by NATO with radiological weapons—a type of “nuclear” weapon that disarmament activists speak about very little, even though they have actually been used repeatedly since 1945. Russians are quite sure that a similar balkanization would have come to Russia if they had not had a nuclear arsenal.

To cite some support for this critique of ICAN’s approach, I refer to a talk given by an ICAN spokesman, Dr. Tilman Ruff, in Seattle in December 2018.[iv] It is very difficult to point to faults in an organization that fights for such a just cause as nuclear weapons abolition, but I believe it’s important for nuclear disarmament activists to engage in rigorous self-criticism rather than self-congratulation and self-righteousness. It is frustrating to see them expending so much energy and getting so much attention while making no progress and failing to face the real nature of the problem.

Dr. Tilman, as a physician, spoke of the many well-known catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and the risks involved in the continued existence of nuclear arsenals. Though he stated the obvious, he didn’t address the issues raised above, and most glaringly, at the 35:30 mark in the talk, he put forward two very dubious notions that justify the criticisms I have made.

Dubious notion #1. North Korea could be the first nuclear-armed state to disarm

“What’s your sense of which of the nuclear-armed States might be the first to break from the pack?”

“This could change quickly and it really depends on leadership, electoral outcomes and popular pressure. I wouldn’t under-underestimate the value of leadership. I think looked at currently one would hope that North Korea might be the first, and I think the United Kingdom is an interesting prospect.”

For the reasons stated above, this is just an absurd expectation. North Korea is highly unlikely to disarm, and it would do so only if it were crushed under extreme duress. It has traditionally had a security guarantee of Chinese support, if it came under attack, but this guarantee is more uncertain than it used to be, so North Korea has all the more reason to depend on its own nuclear deterrent.

Dubious notion #2. Nations that host the nuclear weapons of allies could get those weapons off their territory but stay in their alliances

“Most of the thinking in ICAN has been that it may be more likely for one or more of the nuclear-dependent states to sort of break ranks. And a very important experience in relation to that I think bodes quite well for that potential. That is that membership of this treaty is entirely consistent with a military relationship with a nuclear-armed state, provided activities that justify or assist preparations for possible use of nuclear weapons are excluded. The US designates 17 states as major non-NATO allies. 11 of them voted for the treaty adoption, 3 have signed: Thailand, Philippines and New Zealand, and two have ratified: Thailand and New Zealand… it’s quite possible to continue military collaboration provided nuclear weapons are excluded. So I think that the reality of that should help states like my own, Australia, and Japan to take some leadership and get on the right side of history sooner rather than later.”

This suggestion that countries like Australia and Japan could keep their alliances with the US is an extreme avoidance of the main cause in the world that is increasing antagonisms between nuclear powers. The United States is a rogue state. It has abrogated important disarmament treaties. It has violated international law repeatedly and refuses to be subjected to judgment in international courts. Its defense budget is the highest in the world, greater than the sum of the defense spending of the next nine countries on the list of top spenders. It insists on the international hegemony of its rules-based order, and labels the rising economic power of China and Russia as threats to this order. Friends shouldn’t let friends maintain nuclear arsenals and antagonize nuclear-armed states. This rogue state needs to be isolated and sanctioned, not emboldened by the approval given by nations maintaining their military alliances with it.

In any case, these allied nations, even if they refused to allow nuclear weapons on their territory, would still be nuclear targets of China and Russia, so they would not decline an offer to be protected by a nuclear response from the United States, if they came under nuclear attack. They would still be nuclear hypocrites sheltering under a nuclear umbrella. Furthermore, this statement shows obliviousness to the fact that it is the large, global reach of the US alliance (NATO and its 17 major non-NATO allies such as Ukraine, Israel, Middle Eastern states, South Korean, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand) and its massive conventional forces that motivate US “adversaries” to want a nuclear deterrent.

One might counter that this view shows a bias against the United States, and denies the possibility of Russia and China being worthy of equal condemnation. Shouldn’t we be balanced and neutral in our approach to the delicate problem of nuclear disarmament? This argument falls apart when one looks at the historical record. As Jimmy Carter pointed out in a recent statement covered by Newsweek:

“Since 1979, do you know how many times China has been at war with anybody? None. And we have stayed at war.” The U.S., he noted, has only enjoyed 16 years of peace in its 242-year history, making the country “the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” Carter said. This is, he said, because of America’s tendency to force other nations to “adopt our American principles.”[v]

Similarly, Russia’s record of military adventurism since 1991 has been extremely restrained compared to US interventions. It took limited action in Georgia and Ukraine (countries that border Russia), to counter US interventions there, and defended Syria at the invitation of the Syrian head of state—again to counter the destructive intervention launched in that region by other nuclear-armed states. For a discussion of the Crimea issue, see Sergei Khrushchev’s article Crimea: Whose Land is This? where he “… argues that Crimea was never a part of Ukraine except for bureaucratic reasons. The land has actually been Russian for centuries and Washington is wrong to make it a major bone of contention with Moscow.”[vi]

It’s time for ICAN, if it wants to be taken seriously, to “get on the right side of history” and get serious in its awareness of how nuclear disarmament is connected more broadly to the exercise of economic power and conventional military power. But radical approaches will not be televised. ICAN prefers to keep searching in the light, rather than in the darkness where the key to the problem lies. Going radical would cause ICAN to lose its coverage in high-profile media, and would have left it ignored by the Nobel committee. It is ironic that an ahistorical, cautious and inoffensive approach is favored for what ICAN claims to be an urgent existential problem that could turn the world to ashes before the next sunset.


[i] James O’Neill, “Rules Based International Order: the Rhetoric and the Reality,” New Eastern Outlook, October 17, 2018.

[ii] Paul Carlene, “Goodbye ‘Freedom and Democracy’ – Hello ‘Rules-based International Order,’” Off-Guardian, February 2, 2019. Quoted in this article, the American Rand Corporation defines the rules-based international order as a product of American foreign policy, created for American interests, and makes no specific mention of the United Nations Charter as the foundation of the order: “Since 1945, the United States has pursued its global interests through creating and maintaining international economic institutions, bilateral and regional security organizations, and liberal political norms.”

[iii] Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, The Untold History of the United States (Ebury Publishing, 2012), 196-197. There is a common misunderstanding in some quarters that in the 1940s the US made a sincere effort in nuclear disarmament which was rejected by the Soviet Union. It is similar to the misconception that Stalin rejected Marshall Plan support. Everyone involved in formulating the terms of the proposal did so knowing they would be rejected and wanting them to be rejected. Kuznick and Stone describe the sordid, disingenuous process in detail over several pages in the chapter cited here: “Hopes for an international agreement were dashed when Truman and Byrnes appointed Byrnes’s fellow South Carolinian, seventy-five-year-old financier Bernard Baruch, to present the plan to the United Nations. Paying off another old political debt, Truman empowered him to revise it as he saw fit. Baruch had bankrolled Truman when he trailed in his 1940 Senate reelection bid and desperately needed funds. All involved, including Acheson, Lilienthal, and Oppenheimer, were furious, knowing that Baruch, an outspoken anti-Communist who viewed the bomb as the United States’ ‘winning weapon,’ would reformulate the plan so that the Soviets would reject it out of hand.”

[iv] Dr. Tilman Ruff, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, “Safeguarding Health and Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe” recorded November 8, 2018, University of Washington, Seattle, 35:30~.

[v] David Brennan, “Jimmy Carter Took Call About China from Concerned Donald Trump: ‘China Has Not Wasted a Single Penny on War.’” Newsweek, April 15, 2019.

[vi] Sergei Khrushchev, “Crimea: Whose Land is This?Voltaire Network, April 14, 2014.