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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:36 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:36 | SYDNEY

Why does no one care about nuclear weapons?



29 July 2014 10:40

Terrific segment here from British comic John Oliver's new HBO show Last Week Tonight on the terrifying but seldom discussed risk of nuclear weapons mishaps. There's some NSFW language:

At around the 13.45 mark, Oliver turns to the issue of public engagement in debates around nuclear weapons. As Oliver said, in the 1980s the issue generated enormous public concern and there was an active (and disruptive) abolition movement in various countries. Of course, the Cold War has since ended and as Oliver points out elsewhere in the segment, overall numbers of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian stockpiles have reduced substantially. So it makes some sense that the issue generates less public concern nowadays.

But it's also interesting to consider the fact that, while nuclear abolitionism was popular in the 1980s, it was not politically mainstream in countries that possessed nuclear weapons, or even among Western allies such as Australia, where both the major parties supported nuclear deterrence.

That is, until the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, during which Reagan and Gorbachev got this close to an agreement abolishing all nuclear weapons (any such deal probably would have foundered against opposition from domestic and allied consituencies anyway, but it's pretty remarkable that they even discussed it). As former US arms control supremo Ken Adelman points out in his new book about the summit, Reykjavik led to the first true Cold War arms reduction treaty and helped end the Cold War.  It also made nuclear abolitionism a mainstream position, championed in later years by  Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, along with the rest of the 'Four Horsemen', Kissinger, Perry and Nunn. President Obama is also (rhetorically, at least) committed to abolition.

It is remarkable that the embrace of this movement by the political mainstream has coincided with its marginalisation in the public debate. Here's a Carnegie Endowment essay collection from 2009 which includes a piece by Lawrence Freedman arguing that nuclear abolition, having evolved from popular movement to policy-elite project, needs to find its popular roots again.

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