Erin Connolly is associate program director of Girl Security, an organization that works to educate girls on U.S. national security issues and cultivate the next generation through mentorship. She is also Paul Castleman Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Connolly is a master's candidate at the University of Notre Dame Keough School of Global Affairs.
Recent efforts to highlight the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons around the seventy-fifth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered an alternative perspective to the traditional narrative that nuclear weapons ended World War Two, saved countless lives, and created a stable deterrence system. The divergent perspectives expose the tension between disarmament and deterrence in nuclear policy.
The nuclear narrative defaults to deterrence, which creates a system predicated on the existence of nuclear weapons for peace; this leaves little room for weapons reduction. The deterrence narrative is deeply engrained in policy, dialogue, and the public perception of how to maintain security. Governments, like that of the United States, actively work to cement the theory of deterrence as it conveniently supports power projection and defense spending. U.S. Strategic Command even started “Myth Monday” on Twitter to corroborate the theory, much to the chagrin of many arms control experts.
The sanitized deterrence narrative enables nine countries to possess nuclear weapons, over 90% of which belong to the United States and Russia. This narrative undermines arms control efforts as deterrence advocates often caution against reductions. Now, the largest nuclear weapons states seem to be losing interest in arms control and focusing on new capabilities. The commitment to “never again” use nuclear weapons appears to be waning as deterrence tightens its grip on policymakers across the world.
The nuclear priesthood often presents arms control and disarmament as idealistic and unrealistic policy options. As nuclear tensions continue to rise, disarmament is increasingly dismissed as a naïve—even irresponsible—pursuit that undermines the stability of deterrence.
Regardless of what the nuclear priesthood says, it is still just a theory. Even Pope Francis countered the nuclear priesthood, warning against the “false sense of security” created by nuclear weapons. The narrative is powerful, but not impermeable.
Moving Away from Deterrence
Changing the narrative is a long and challenging process that begins at the local level. However, the next generation is one step ahead, already questioning deterrence and the utility of nuclear weapons. Generation Z, in particular, has proven their ability to mobilize in order to transform their community. The support for Black Lives Matter, gun control, and climate change action indicate a familiarity with existential risk and an unwillingness to accept the status quo. These qualities are also critical to reshaping the deterrence narrative.
Generation Z asks the hard questions. My experience with high school students has forced me to reexamine my own assumptions as students inquire why we would ever have or use such a destructive weapon and why do we think that deterrence really works if there are so many proxy wars? There is also a palpable dissatisfaction with the power imbalances created by the haves and have-nots.
These perspectives indicate a shift in the understanding of power, risk, and the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy. It is critical that we create the space for these new ideas and emerging leaders in national security and empower them to pursue creative solutions that are not predicated on the sanctity of deterrence. Alternative solutions are increasingly important as experts assert the need to move from quantitative to qualitative arms control and as the United States seeks to engage China, a country with no previous experience in traditional arms control. The shift towards qualitative arms control will require new verification acumen and technology. Generations Y and Z are the first to grow up surrounded by artificial intelligence, which creates a unique ability to apply the technology in new ways. This perspective should be supported and then applied to arms control efforts.
The traditional approach to arms control is atrophying, and instead of constantly trying to resuscitate it, we must find new ways to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and their role in national security narratives. Generation Z understands this, and we must engage with them in schools, community centers, faith centers, and other fora to actively connect nuclear policy to other issues. Taking nuclear weapons out of their silos and connecting them to health care, education, and climate change activism provides critical nuance to the deterrence narrative.
Making this connection is simple given that the $1.2 trillion modernization price tag will affect all Americans. $1.2 trillion could go a long way if used for public goods like education or health care, immediate COVID-19 relief, or even ending world hunger.
The deterrence narrative has created a nuclear silo that hinders engagement, but Gen Z is cracking it open. The silo is no longer inviolable; many historians now argue that nuclear weapons were not necessary to end World War Two and find that deterrence has kept us on the brink of nuclear catastrophe instead of yielding a more stable world. The nuclear narrative must reflect the whole story, and from there we can transform the next chapter.