Making the Unthinkable Thinkable

Tate Krasner is a junior at Boston College majoring in International Studies with minors in Chinese and Russian.

In a recent conference on nuclear disarmament at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Father Kenneth Himes of Boston College spoke of the importance of conventional wisdom. How is that we shift the issue of disarmament from an unimaginable possibility to a potential achievement? How do we make the unthinkable thinkable?

The colloquium included a remarkable list of ethicists, policymakers, specialists, and theologians. Many, like former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Ambassador James Goodby, and former Senator Sam Nunn, played integral roles in shaping nuclear strategy, while others, such as Reverend Bryan Hehir, shaped the way that the world viewed nuclear weapons and the policies surrounding them. A common link between the majority of the participants, however, was the context in which they formed both policy and thought. They had grown up in a world in which nuclear bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a world in which nuclear devices were continuously tested in deserts and oceans, a world in which bipolar geopolitical and ideological tension threatened the very existence of civilization. Such an environment fostered a line of thought that a world free of nuclear weapons was indeed unthinkable.

Today, that context has changed. Today’s generation of students and young people have grown up in a world in which a nuclear weapon has not been used, a world in which the United States does not test nuclear devices, a world in which an existential threat no longer exists. As a result, the issue of nuclear disarmament simply is not prominent in the minds of young people. These worries have been replaced with ever-changing concerns over terrorism, the economy, inequality, and education. These are the threats that loom large in the heads of our generation.

However, this seeming apathy toward the issue of nuclear weapons should not be misinterpreted as a defeat for those who pursue disarmament. While a certain amount of indifference can certainly be attributed a lack of knowledge over the subject or even ignorance, it can be argued that this difference actually reflects a significant normative shift toward arms reduction and nuclear weapons. Because of this shift, the unthinkable is no longer the prohibition, abolition, or even the elimination of nuclear weapons; rather, the unthinkable is simply their use in any capacity.

For our generation, the issue of disarmament is so logical, so obvious, so commonsensical, that as a result, it has somewhat fallen off of the policy radar. Philip Yun of the Ploughshares Fund has stated that, in the recent years, the majority of the organization’s donations have come from a population over the age of 65 and that support from those under 35 is virtually nonexistent. This statistic is a source of concern, as the normative shift described above is clearly not enough to lead to the disarmament of superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. Yet this shift should not be a reason for panic. In light of my statements above, it is possible to view this lack of support ironically as an affirmation of Ploughshares Fund’s goal, disarmament, not as a rejection of it.

Today’s policymakers would be wise to take advantage of our generation’s shifted views on disarmament. A post-Cold War world requires a post-Cold War framing of the issue. Scholars like Dr. Scott Sagan have already been successful in the area of refocusing the nuclear issue around concerns over loose fissile materials, terrorism, and rogue nations. Similarly, it is important that disarmament is no longer framed as an insolvable dilemma, but rather as an achievable goal in the grasp of soon-to-be leaders in politics, ethics, and science. In other words, it is becoming clear that a growing number of people believe Global Zero to be a positive and worthwhile goal; they now need to be made aware that it can be reached. Yet moving forward, two issues remain. First, our generation lacks the intimate understanding of the dangers of nuclear weapons that was ingrained in the heads of the Baby Boomers through Dr. Strangelove, duck and cover drills, and Cold War rhetoric. Second, our generation lacks the understanding of current nuclear policy and the avenues of access to alter that policy. By addressing these two issues and combining them with the shared understanding that nuclear weapons should not exist, there suddenly exists a platform from which to genuinely and substantially pursue disarmament.

At the risk of oversimplifying, as the world begins to agree on the ends—in this case Global Zero—the means ought to fall into place. The political and strategic barriers may remain, but the lack of a coherent vision on the future of nuclear weapons has been overcome. If the rising generation of world leaders realizes that they have the tools to reach what seems to them to be such an obvious and logical goal, then suddenly the formerly unthinkable goal of disarmament becomes quite thinkable, even achievable. And the unthinkable use of nuclear weapons will remain just that—unthinkable.

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