By Francesca Giovannini

Francesca is currently the Program Director of the International Security and Energy Program of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an affiliate to the Belfer Center for Sciences and International Affairs of Harvard Kennedy School, and an associate to the Center for Internationals Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. She graduated from the Rotary Peace Center at the University of California Berkeley in 2007.

As a Rotary World Peace Fellow, I completed two Master’s Degrees at the University of California Berkeley (2005-2007) in Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies. Throughout my experience as a Rotary World Peace Fellow, I was constantly encouraged by many Rotarians to choose a career that would truly contribute to tackling the most pressing challenges to peace and global security. In pursuit of this goal, I went on to Oxford and received a Ph.D. in Politics and International Relations where I explored the complex world of nuclear weapons. I cannot think of a more difficult, controversial, and provocative topic than dealing with nuclear weapons today.

Although we live in the Post-Cold War era, we remain trapped in a nuclear weapons-reliant world order in which the maintenance of active nuclear arsenals provides ultimate assurance of both survivability and destruction. Today, we talk much less about nuclear weapons than we did during the bi-polar era and the public globally is generally unaware of the continuous existence of thousands of nuclear warheads targeting cities and populated neighborhoods across the globe.

At Oxford, I devoted my studies to understand how countries with very scarce resources cooperate to minimize nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism risks in their respective regions. At the end of my Ph.D. in September 2012, I was awarded a MacArthur Post-Doctoral Nuclear Fellowship and spent a year at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University where I engaged more systematically with debates related to the desirability and feasibility of nuclear disarmament. This experience at CISAC allowed me to fully appreciate how complicated the disarmament pursuit is, and how many experts are already thinking “hard” about this problem. It came as a personal relief to discover that many of us have simply not given up on the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons, no matter how difficult and challenging its achievement may be.

Since October of last year, I have been leading an initiative called “the Global Nuclear Future” at the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The program seeks to forge regional nuclear institutions in Southeast Asia and in the Middle East that would help countries cooperate in the face of nuclear risks. It also aims to strengthen global nuclear institutions, like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to advance a more fair and balanced global nuclear order, which also means working more deliberately towards nuclear disarmament.

Attaining a world free of nuclear weapons is extremely difficult because the process of disarmament is multi-dimensional and multi-layered. It is fundamentally connected with the quest for ethics and equality among countries in the international system but it also speaks to broader questions related to great-power politics and systemic competition. And ultimately it raises the hard question of whether global peace is truly attainable. Can nations really live in peace with one another without being forced to co-exist under the threat of extermination? Or are mistrust and opportunism so embedded in world politics that the only attainable goal is mere international stability enforced through nuclear weapons?

These are big and important questions that cannot be answered simply with a yes or a no. And it is certainly not my intention here to advocate for one specific solution to the enduring problems posed by nuclear weapons. Yet as members of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace seeks to engage more actively with this highly politicized issue, I feel compelled to share some of my thoughts on this important subject.

Personally, I believe that all states, and in particular nuclear weapons states, have political and moral obligations to seek to eliminate all nuclear arsenals. These obligations are embedded in the Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that entered into force in 1968. The Article specifies that all parties to the Treaty should pursue negotiations leading to complete and general disarmament, in “good faith”.

Nevertheless, I also believe that the nuclear disarmament campaigns that have been launched and promoted have frequently taken a fairly narrow and simplistic view of nuclear disarmament. In the common narrative among many “global zero” NGOS, nuclear disarmament is framed as the ultimate goal, the end of the road. Their rationale goes something like this: “If we only get to dismantle Russia’s arsenal or the American one… and we go to zero… the world would suddenly become a peaceful and better place.”

Yet this logic is gravely misleading and, above all, empirically untested. The reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons would not inevitably lead to world peace or to the creation of a community of nations with shared beliefs and values.

Nuclear disarmament campaigns should begin to more seriously address the key question: what is the end game of getting to nuclear zero? What would a world without nuclear weapons look like? Who would provide the necessary security for countries living in hostile environments? How do we address the security needs of these countries while providing the right incentives to eliminate nuclear weapons? And more broadly, what would the “ordering principle” of world politics be once nuclear weapons are removed and dismantled? After all, as many scholars have argued, nuclear weapons have provided a stabilizing effect between major great powers from 1945 onwards. The removal of nuclear weapons may incentivize countries to become more, not less, aggressive once the threat of nuclear annihilation has been removed.

Yet, a serious discussion around these topics has never occurred. Even at the end of WWII, despite the horrendous destruction and immense suffering caused by years of brutality and violence, the world order that was chosen to bring an end of fighting was an order reliant on the principle of mere stability, not cooperation and harmony. The creation of the United Nations Security Council signaled the idea that ultimately stability can only be provided as a public good by a handful of countries acting as the guardians of the international system. And not coincidentally, these five guardians all possess nuclear weapons.

So how do we think more ambitiously today about attaining and maintaining global peace without nuclear weapons? I believe an organization like Rotary can contribute to this effort in at least three ways:

  • By fostering intra and inter-regional discussions on nuclear disarmament and by ensuring that scholars from nuclear-weapons and non-nuclear weapons states come together to share knowledge and expertise;
  • By ensuring that the Rotary Peace Centers all offer at least one course on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament in their Peace Curriculum;
  • By facilitating national discussions on the topic among scholars, policy-makers but also people working in the nuclear industry. It is frequently the case that the corporate world remains at the margins of these discussions.

Rotary has a long-standing history of impressive global achievements. It has been one of the most active and influential NGOs in the establishment of the League of Nations and the United Nations. It has played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the creation of UNESCO. And most recently, it has led the world in a global campaign to eliminate polio.

I can’t think of a better goal for Rotary in the 21st century than to work towards the development of a new idea of global order and peace without nuclear weapons.