The World

The “Toxic Masculinity” of Nuclear Weapons

An interview with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Beatrice Fihn
Beatrice Fihn
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival.

So far, 69 countries have signed, and 19 have ratified, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an agreement approved by the U.N.
General Assembly in 2017. The formal ban on the use of nuclear arms could come into force as early as next year, once 50 countries ratify. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its efforts to promote the treaty.

However, none of the nine states that already possess nukes have signed the treaty, and several, including the U.S., have explicitly stated they won’t abide by it. Meanwhile, a new country, North Korea, recently joined the nuclear weapons club, and several existing nuclear states, including the U.S., are planning upgrades for their arsenals.

Over the weekend, I spoke with ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, about the state of the global anti-nuclear movement. The 36-year-old Swedish attorney and activist, who was in France attending the Paris Peace Forum organized by President Emmanuel Macron, talked about the latest developments in North Korea, Donald Trump’s nuclear ambitions, and what the anti-nuclear movement has in common with #MeToo. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Slate: Since you won the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s been growing support for your prohibition treaty, but there have also been major setbacks for important arms-control agreements like the Iran deal and the INF Treaty, between Russia and the United States banning shorter-range nuclear missiles. How do you assess the recent progress toward nuclear disarmament?

Beatrice Fihn: Like many issues—anti-racism work, anti-poverty work—it’s all very polarized. Many people, maybe the majority, are moving toward progress, but there is a very loud group of people and leaders with anti-democratic tendencies who are going the other direction.

It’s hugely important that so many have taken the step of supporting prohibition. I think the impact of that is going to become much more obvious in the coming years. But at the same time, we can’t deny that the nuclear-armed states themselves are going in the wrong direction, and taking us back to a very dangerous path toward a nuclear arms race.

Right, that direction may be more obvious when it comes to the U.S. and Russia, but even the French government, which is hosting this peace forum you’re attending, has rejected the idea of nuclear prohibition. What do you think could be the tipping point where actual nuclear-armed states might consider this?

I think we have some work to do to delegitimize nuclear weapons. A country like France, which sees itself as this humanitarian human rights champion, is still threatening to mass-murder civilians. We need to delegitimize nuclear weapons the same way we have with chemical and biological weapons.

As this forum shows, there are any number of serious, even existential, threats on the global agenda: climate change, conflict in the Middle East, famine in Yemen, genocide in Asia. How do you make the case that nuclear weapons are the one that should take precedence on this very crowded agenda?

Well, if there’s nuclear war, there’s no other agenda to talk about. We talk about sustainable development and climate change, but we don’t stand a chance if there’s nuclear war. And the risk that we use these weapons has actually increased. People may think that deterrence has worked in the past, but the risks are changing. We have fully autonomous systems. We’re cutting decision times much shorter, making it much more likely that we’ll use nuclear weapons. We have more nuclear-armed states than ever, and more regional conflicts that could quickly escalate into global conflicts. We’re not going to continue to be as lucky as we’ve been to not see the use of nuclear weapons. It’s not a hypothetical issue.

There’s a popular idea that the reason the world has seen less traditional, interstate war in recent decades is because the risk of nuclear war makes states less likely to use force against each other. What do you think of that notion?

We’ve seen in the past that countries have attacked nuclear-armed states. We’ve also seen nuclear weapons used as an excuse to go to war—in Iraq, for example. We were so close to war with North Korea earlier this year, because of nuclear weapons. They cause conflict and huge uncertainty. And if we don’t do something about this now, we’re going to see a lot more countries feeling that they need to have nuclear weapons and that the only way to protect themselves is to have them ready to launch within minutes. That’s going to be extremely dangerous.

Sticking with North Korea, we seem to have pulled back from the brink a bit since the tensions of early this year. But at the same time, North Korea shows no indication that it plans to actually give up its weapons. Do you worry that the improvement in diplomatic relations could normalize North Korea’s weapons and encourage others to acquire them?

Absolutely. The improved relations are because they’re part of the club now. They’re one of the nine nuclear weapons states and they were welcomed into the club by President Trump. This is the problem with a limited bilateral process. We have tools and implements to disarm countries. We have the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, we have the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and we have the International Atomic Energy Agency to assess that things are going well. We have all these tools, but we have to use them. We have to anchor this process in international law and multilateral institutions. We can’t just let this be between Trump and Kim Jong-un because we know how quickly that can end in battle.

In the same region, to what do you attribute Japan’s reluctance to sign on to the prohibition treaty, given that it’s the only country that’s actually been a victim of a nuclear attack?

Japan is very split on this issue and is in a very difficult position. They recognize the humanitarian consequences, but they are part of a nuclear alliance, which means that they would be prepared to have nuclear weapons used on their behalf. So the government is ready to do to other cities what was done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki! That needs to change, and we’re working to convince Japanese politicians that this isn’t about breaking the alliance with the United States—it’s about saying that nuclear weapons not be used on their behalf.

Here in the U.S., we elected a new Congress this week, and Democrats have put out some signals about wanting to rein in Trump’s nuclear-modernization plans. What to you hope to see from these new legislators?

It’s really great to see a much more diverse Congress. I think that’s extremely helpful. For a long time, you’ve had this toxic masculinity around nuclear weapons—giving them up is seen as weakness; negotiating is weakness; forcing and threatening is strength. So I think that having people from different perspectives in leadership will change then. For instance, you have Native American women who know what nuclear weapons have done to their communities. We have to have a conversation not just about partial measures like “no first use,” which is welcome of course, but we have to talk about the legitimacy of these weapons. When is it legitimate to massacre a whole city of civilians? Why is that in our interest? Are we, in fact, weakening our defense by relying on these clumsy outdated weapons rather then thinking about smart defenses for the 21st century? I’m hoping the new Congress could actually have these conversations.

Yeah, I’ve heard you talk before about this connection between nuclear weapons and masculinity. I wonder to what degree you see your own campaign as connected to the #MeToo movement and the larger conversation around sexual violence.

I think they’re very connected. There’s this idea of threatening to get what you want and to feel power. That’s the whole basis for nuclear weapons—the idea that if you make other people scared enough, you feel safe. And it’s not just about adding women. It’s also about questioning what’s power and what’s security, and whose security are you talking about. Those in power aren’t supposed to be unchallenged, and they’re not going to change anything by themselves. We can’t let them dictate the norms around this.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize—which went to Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege—deals specifically with the topic of sexual violence. I was wondering if you’ve been in touch with them at all.

Yeah, we sent them very warm congratulations when they won. They’re going to be at the Peace Forum and I’m hoping to meet them there. But I want to give them a little bit of space. That first month is overwhelming.

Any advice for them on how to handle it?

Just go with it. The attention quickly passes. Media works so fast today, so do whatever you can to take advantage of it immediately.

You’ve made your views on President Trump pretty clear, but I wonder if having a president like him has almost helped your campaign, drawing attention to risks that were already there before his erratic behavior drew attention to them.

He has highlighted the fact that this weapon is very connected to nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-democratic tendencies. It’s not a problem of a leader. Leaders come and go. The problem is the weapon.