Nuclear-weapons states will never “sit around a table at the same time and dismantle the last” nuclear weapon, she acknowledged. “It’s just unrealistic to think that all states will feel so secure and have nothing on the horizon that worries them ever. The more likely scenario is just that [these weapons are] going to be put in storage, taken off alert, not be modernized—getting rid of them for financial reasons.”
Unlike climate change, Fihn told me, the challenge of nuclear weapons can be resolved without a drastic change to people’s way of life. She’s skeptical of the common argument that nuclear weapons are the reason why there has been no world war or major conflict between world powers since World War II. “It’s hard to say if deterrence works or not; the absence of something doesn’t prove it,” she said. “You could say I drink coffee every day and I haven’t gotten cancer, so coffee cures cancer.” The United Nations and international laws of war were also invented in the mid-20th century, she observed—maybe those institutions, not nuclear weapons, have prevented world war.
Deterrence, Fihn added, also doesn’t stop miscalculations or accidents from leading to the use of nuclear weapons. The escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea, she noted, are “a huge wake-up call … and a reminder for us that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, this could happen. And if they exist forever, it will happen.”
In the United States, Fihn observed, “Suddenly people are really uncomfortable with nuclear weapons under Donald Trump.” (Indeed, next week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold hearings about the president’s “authority to use nuclear weapons”—a discussion chairman Bob Corker has described as “the first time since 1976 that this committee or our House counterparts have looked specifically” at the issue.) But Fihn says “if you’re uncomfortable with nuclear weapons under Donald Trump, you’re probably uncomfortable with nuclear weapons, because it means you recognize that [deterrence] won’t always hold up and things can go wrong. … Once you start thinking ‘this person is appropriate for this weapon but not that person,’ then maybe it’s the weapon that’s the problem.”
“Perhaps one person shouldn’t be in charge of the fate of the world,” she said.
Trump says he hopes “to God” to never have to use the full range of American military capabilities, but Fihn wants people to stop thinking of nuclear-weapons like “a natural disaster”—that “it will just happen one day and we can’t do anything about it. Like an asteroid. The world would end. The thing is, if nuclear weapons were used, the world wouldn’t end. It didn’t end in Hiroshima. It didn’t end in Nagasaki. They are cities today.”
What the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did do is bring about enormous human suffering. Fihn mentioned Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima attack who will join Fihn next month in Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Thurlow recalls, as a 13-year-old girl, “floating in the air” and crawling in “total darkness” toward “ghost-like people” whose “hair was standing up,” whose “flesh was hanging from the bones,” who were missing body parts, who in some cases “were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands,” who, “as they collapsed, their stomach burst open, intestines stretching out.”
When nuclear weapons are unthinkable, or thinkable only as a prelude to the end of the world, people feel powerless to do anything about them, Fihn said: Either nuclear war will never happen, so why worry, or it will happen and be so devastating that it’s not worth worrying. But if nuclear weapons are used, “there will be survivors,” she noted. It would not play out like a computer game. It’s not “game over.”