My guest today, Beatrice Fihn, is a powerful force in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons. In 2017 at the tender age of 35, she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize after her organization, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, also known as ICAN, spearheaded the effort that led 122 countries to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
FIHN: It follows the models of the bans on chemical weapons, biological weapons, landmines, the cluster bombs ban. But somehow, we forgot about nuclear weapons.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nuclear war has suddenly become front of mind for many people. These nuclear questions are particularly interesting to me because much of the early work in game theory — an important branch of economics — was motivated by the concept of nuclear deterrence. I’ve always taken for granted the logic behind those arguments, but the more I’ve thought about it and the more I’ve watched real world events unfold, the less confident I’ve become.
LEVITT: I’d love to just start with some basic facts on nuclear weapons to make sure we’re all on the same page. What countries currently have nuclear capabilities?
FIHN: Right now, we have nine countries with nuclear weapons. The United States, Russia, China, U.K., France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. It’s really a minority.
LEVITT: Okay, so approaching this problem thinking like an economist, it’s surprising to me that so few countries have nuclear capabilities. It’s easy to make a case that a world with no nuclear weapons would be much better than the one we’re in. But I think maybe most countries would say, “Well, if North Korea has nuclear weapons, or Israel or Pakistan or France, then we should, too.” Doesn’t that sound like human nature?
FIHN: Yeah, a lot of people think this work is very, “Oh, it’s impossible. It’s never going to happen.” But if you look at it that way, we’ve actually made a massive achievement. I think it was in the ‘60s where they predicted that within 20, 30 years, around 30 countries will have nuclear weapons and that didn’t happen. It’s important to understand that not every country in the world thinks that it’s associated with power and prestige. And that it’s somehow advantage to have a weapon of mass destruction that would wreak havoc and kill huge amounts of civilians.
LEVITT: Don’t you think right now that Ukraine wishes they had a few nuclear weapons, that maybe Russian aggression would be different if Ukraine was sitting on weapons that were pointed at Moscow?
FIHN: If you get attacked, you would rather have anything, right, to fight back. But is that the logical thing to allow in the world? Probably not. If Ukraine had nuclear weapons, we might’ve seen nuclear war a long time ago.
LEVITT: Yeah, it’s interesting because game theory, the arm of economics that is about strategic interactions, all came up out of nuclear deterrence and whatnot. But the situation we’re in now, it doesn’t seem like those simple game theoretic models, that were being built at the time, work.
FIHN: People believe in nuclear deterrence theory as religion, almost. Logic and reason don’t apply. The whole idea behind nuclear deterrence theory is that everyone behaves rationally; there’s no mistakes; and the other one behaves just as we predict them to behave. And I don’t think that’s human nature. Look at what Putin is doing right now.
LEVITT: Yeah, you said it perfectly that the premise of game theory and deterrence theory is everybody does the right thing all the time, and you know what your opponent’s going to do, and they know what you’re going to do. And that is, I think, very shaky grounds for trying to protect the future of humanity. Is there another reason — other than a basic failure of the game theory — why countries don’t have nuclear weapons? I doubt that it’s the technology’s too difficult for advanced nations. Too expensive — or maybe fear of international condemnation?
FIHN: I think it’s a mix. Definitely things like international law, for example. We have agreed, the Geneva Convention says we should not target civilians. And also the more countries that have nuclear weapons, the risk is that something goes wrong.
LEVITT: I’m curious — so, India and Pakistan, they were pretty late to the game with nuclear weapons. Were they punished internationally when they did it?
FIHN: So, when countries like India, Pakistan developed nuclear weapons, there was a lot of noise. Of course, we were very concerned about it. There’s this idea that there’s five — and I’m doing air quotation marks now, “legitimate nuclear weapon states” — and it’s Russia, U.S., U.K., France, and China. The P-5. They are the permanent members of the security council in the United Nations; they are the ones who are tasked with keeping peace and stability, which is of course obviously now nonsense. It was basically these five countries who decide themselves that they were the world’s special ones that were allowed to have this weapon. And then the countries that develop nuclear weapons after the non-proliferation treaty — this international treaty that recognize the five can have this weapon, but the rest of the world can’t — India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, as well. They were seen as violators of this law, even though they hadn’t joined the treaty. People would try and protest, but it’s really hard even for the five nuclear weapon states to condemn it. And we see that even now with Russia’s nuclear threats. There’s an outrage. People are terrified. Russia is threatening to use nuclear weapons, and they are doing it by using deterrence in an aggressive way. So, it’s not to protect Russia. They are using the deterrence to say, “If you interfere in Ukraine, I will use nuclear weapons.” And it just really means that it’s even hard for a country like the United States to say, “That’s unacceptable,” because the U.S. is also prepared to use these weapons. So, the inconsistency puts pressure on the treaty. And why it’s so hard to condemn other countries, and why the current system is going to fail at some point. Either we get rid of them or more countries will have them.
LEVITT: It’s easy for people to not think about nuclear weapons, especially if you remain abstract. So, let’s talk very specifically. Take a typical single nuclear warhead. Okay? And there are something like 13,000 of these — but at least focus on one of them. What would be the damage if one of those hit Chicago or New York City or Geneva, where you are?
FIHN: Massive. It’s the flash, which comes first and then the fireball. For 10 seconds that fireball will expand. So, much heat, it’s meant to be hotter than the surface of the sun. And it would just instantly vaporize ground zero. Then, the blast will knock down buildings. Turn any kind of objects, like cars for example, into sort of projectiles, like flying around. Glass will explode, completely. And then the firestorms will start. Everything flammable in a big sort of range outwards will start burning — people of course, but also material. And that kind of firestorms will be so enormous that it will start sucking the oxygen out of the surrounding areas, meaning that it will be even more kind of debris and chaos with sort of hurricane winds sweeping through. And then the radioactive fallout will hit. And it will poison people in the area very quickly, but also continue to impact people over decades. We still see survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki develop the specific types of cancers — even, like, decades later — that is traced to nuclear weapon’s radiation. And it’s really macabre just to talk about these things. And we’ve been warning about it a long time, and I feel like especially now during these circumstances, really uncomfortable to talk about it. But I think we have to be aware that this is a weapon like no other. Its destructive capacities are enormous. The impacts that will make it impossible for any emergency relief services, humanitarian organizations, firefighters, nurses, and doctors to help. They’re going to have to leave everyone who actually survives and just leave the area.
LEVITT: So, it’s interesting to hear you talk about it in this very visceral way, because I’m old enough that when I was a young child, we used to do drills in grade school. And the drills involved climbing under your desk and putting your head between your knees, as if that was somehow going to protect you from any of the things you just described. But I think in some ways it was probably an intentional abstraction from the reality of what was going on. Even as a five-year-old, it seemed absurd to me that we were doing those drills, but especially now.
FIHN: I mean, there will be survivors. I think sometimes people think of if one nuclear weapon is really detonated, the whole world ends. Like, an asteroid will hit earth, and everything is game over and we just end it. And that’s, of course, not the case either. There will be survivors. There were survivors in Hiroshima. There were survivors in Nagasaki. You can survive. Maybe not in the middle of the fireball, of course, but the further out you are, the higher the chance is that you survive. But the thing is that with all these different consequences, it’s really impossible to prepare for it. Someone is going to have to deal with the consequences and experience the consequences. So, you might be lucky, but of course, you won’t know if you survive, for decades.
LEVITT: Yeah, I was surprised reading recently that the estimates vary, but in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that something like 60 percent of the people survived those blasts in those two cities. Obviously, the weapons today are bigger and would cause more damage, but judging from what you said, if a nuclear warhead hit, say Chicago, you might expect the death toll to be something on the order of 500,000 to a million people. Why does the U.S.A. need 3,000 nuclear warheads? Because there can’t be anything like 3,000 reasonable targets for the U.S. to try to blast.
FIHN: Yeah. For people who believe in this as a credible way of defending a country, it will never be enough. And we see that with military spending — like, it will never be enough. The U.S. is unmatched in military capabilities. Yet, we need more.
LEVITT: Yeah, so the U.S. has 3,000, but the U.K. has 225. It’s just a lot of weapons out there. And the crazy thing is these numbers are down something like 80 percent from the peak in 1980. So, as a planet, we had something like 70,000 nuclear warheads, and it just seems like whatever thought process the people who were building those weapons were following, it certainly was not logic. We already talked about how game theory is predicated on everyone being logical and rational. Once you’ve discovered that people have built 70,000 nuclear weapons, that pretty much tells you that people who are in charge of this are not acting very logically, I think.
FIHN: Absolutely. And we can’t forget that there’s also an industry behind this. It’s massive contracts to companies that build the missiles, that build the systems around these weapons, to build the warheads. And it’s a very big power symbol. I think the symbolism around this weapon is the issue that we need to tackle head-on. That this is symbolizing power and prestige, and, like, “We’re the tough ones.”
LEVITT: One of the arguments you’ve made that I found incredibly compelling is that nuclear weapons are just like really destructive conventional weapons. And that changed the frame through which I thought about nuclear weapons. Look, the U.S. has no shortage of conventional weapons for hurting people. So, the incremental benefit of having nuclear weapons, at least for the U.S., is essentially zero. Literally, almost on a dime, I switched my view from thinking, “Well, it’s preposterous for the U.S. to unilaterally give up nuclear weapons,” to thinking, “Actually it kind of makes sense.”
FIHN: They’re just weapons. They’re just bombs. Regular people build them. They’re not magic. Taking it down into practical reality: “And here’s a giant bomb.” It’s not particularly advanced. It’s 1940s technology. It’s just a massive radioactive bomb that is really impractical to use, creates a lot of havoc and radiation that is a mess afterwards.
LEVITT: Once you get into the mindset that nuclear weapons are just incredibly powerful variants on conventional weapons, then at least in conflicts between equals, I think I’m right to think that the deterrent value of nuclear weapons starts to fade. So, by that, I mean, if the U.S. and China fight an all-out conventional war, there will be massive destruction and loss of life, including civilian life, on both sides. And that’s an incredibly strong deterrent. Nuclear weapons might add to the deterrence, but it’s not likely to be the thing that prevents war because you already have this conventional threat that is credible. I really think I’m just following your logic in saying that the deterrence story behind nuclear weapons — it doesn’t really work in a war between equals. The only place I can really see a deterrence effect of nuclear weapons is when a country has no credible conventional weapons to serve as a threat. And in fact, I think it’s really particularly scary in the current setting because the Russian military seems to be being shown to be incredibly weak. And that’s exactly when nuclear weapons become important — is when your regular military is so weak. What do you think of that line of argument? Does it make sense to you?
FIHN: Yeah, absolutely. I won’t say that the deterrence works and it’s a good strategy, but threatening horrible consequences can, of course, impact behavior. If I threaten you with something awful, if you don’t do what I say, then likely you will do it. Is it a good strategy? No.
LEVITT: That’s how I parent. I used the nuclear alternative to parent my toddlers.
FIHN: So, I think that of course, deterrence can intimidate other countries, but the question is what consequences there can be and what happens if there’s a mistake or an accident, or just someone who decides to fire them anyway, the consequences will be so massive. The Russian invasion of Ukraine really exposes our vulnerability to nuclear weapons. Because I always argued the U.S. should be the country that drives nuclear disarmament processes, because they have the most to benefit from all other countries not having nuclear weapons. It is unmatched in conventional power. We are so paralyzed now because we can’t start nuclear war, of course, with Russia. But at the same time, are we just going to watch him mass murder civilians in Ukraine? And this is another part, of course, that other countries that are part of the U.S. nuclear protection, like NATO countries, for example. So, countries like Poland, for example, if Russia would invade Poland, the U.S. would use nuclear weapons on its behalf. And this is — for some countries in Europe, feels very reassuring. “The U.S. will use nuclear weapons to protect us.” The problem is that if the U.S. use nuclear weapons, Russia will use nuclear weapons on the U.S. So, I talked about the consequences of one nuclear bomb before, but if we have massive amounts of nuclear war, we also have nuclear winter. And the environmental impact that will drastically kill off food supplies — rice production, corn production — all over the world. Meaning that the consequences of nuclear war would be so massive for the whole world that is that really a decision for one country to take?
LEVITT: So, I think that’s a rhetorical question because it’s so obvious that the answer to that is: “No.”
FIHN: For a rational decision maker, using nuclear weapons would never be rational. It would never be worth it. But then of course, the opponents they know that, meaning that the deterrence logic is flawed, in a way.
LEVITT: I wonder, what do you think would happen if Russia used a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? What’s your best guess at what the international response would be?
FIHN: I think it will be a massive reaction. Of course, not responding with nuclear weapons would always be the best option because going to nuclear war would just create more humanitarian suffering. The rational decision would always be to stand down. And I think that’s inherent and that’s why deterrence — it only works if you’re irrational.
LEVITT: Yeah. Ex-post, it can’t be the right thing for the U.S. to do, to kill millions of Russian civilians because we’re outraged that Russia killed hundreds of thousands —
FIHN: And then Russia would kill millions of millions.
LEVITT: Exactly. So, it can’t be the right reaction.
FIHN: But at the same time, I think it would also trigger such an outrage, such a shock, that I don’t know what the leaders of the nuclear-armed states would feel obliged to do. They have also talked the talk, right, for a long time saying that: “Oh, if you do this, we will use nuclear weapons.” So, would they be able to not get pushed into it? These are just people. And I think that it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day in countries like Russia and the United States, the president has all authority to use nuclear weapons. And of course, they will have to have people who implement those decisions, but the military has to comply with the orders. So, it’s just up to the good judgment of a few individuals really.
LEVITT: Yeah, absolutely. And you saw at the end of the Trump administration, various members of the U.S. military already — in a preparatory way — talking about how don’t worry, we’re not going to do anything, even if Trump does something, which was really interesting as an American to see.
FIHN: Yeah, but also isn’t that bizarre, right? That U.S. military would commit treason and not implement the orders of our democratically elected president. That’s basically a coup, right? So, are we celebrating that as well? No, but yes, but no, but yes. It’s just completely irrational. All of this.
LEVITT: So, my own interest and concern around this topic became much greater after I talked to M.I.T. physicist, Max Tegmark, who you know. And what really shocked me is that he estimates that there’s a 1 percent chance per year of nuclear war. And initially, I dismiss his estimate as preposterously high. And that implies roughly a 50 percent chance of nuclear war in the next 50 years. Essentially, in your lifetime. But then he started talking about the number of close calls we’ve had. And there’ve been well-known ones, like the Cuban missile crisis, but also a handful of other less known ones. For me, the craziest one, I think, occurred in 1983 with Stanislav Petrov. Can you tell his story?
FIHN: Yeah, Stanislav Petro was a Soviet military person who was monitoring the radars. And he got the alarm that U.S. missiles were coming towards Soviets. And according to procedures, he was supposed to flag this, put it up to his superior that: “We are being attacked.” And the response then is counter-launch the missiles. He thought that something was wrong. It didn’t feel right to him. “Why was the only —” I think it was seven or something like that. “Why is it only seven? If they’re launching a full-scale nuclear attack, why now?” It doesn’t seem like the right sort of political fix right now. So, he decided to not say anything. And again, this is actually, not allowed in the military. You have to follow orders, right? So, he violated his orders and decided to wait for 20 minutes and see: “If I’m right, then we’re still here.” If I’m wrong, well, you know. And to make that decision requires real bravery. And what had happened was that there were some solar rays that were reflected on some satellites to make it look on the monitors as incoming missiles, but it was of course, not correct. And there’s been many occasions like this. The U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb from a plane in, I think, South Carolina in the ‘50s. And three of the four fail-safes — like little metal pegs — broke. One kept it from detonating. A plane with nuclear bombs fell down outside the coast of Spain. I think 2009, we had a British and a French nuclear submarine that collided. You have all these accidents. So, yes, it’s 1 percent. Right now, it could be higher. Other years when things are like less tense, it might be lower. But also think about how we are adding a lot of cyber capabilities to these kinds of systems. We are adding artificial intelligence and automated processes. So, we actually removing the Stanislav Petrovs and putting in place machines that say, “Nuh-uh, the data are correct. Authorize launch.” And we are creating more and more complex system with more nuclear-arms states and a very volatile international situation. So, even if a nuclear leader of a nuclear-arm states won’t say authorize the launch, I am very worried about accidents and misunderstandings and miscalculations.
LEVITT: Yeah, hackers. And now that you say it, hackers seem like the worst of all.
FIHN: Yeah. And you can also manipulate other types of information. Remember a few years ago in 2018 when all citizens on Hawaii got a text message one morning: “Incoming missiles. Take cover. This is not a drill.” People were traumatized and terrified by that because this was during a very tense period when Trump and Kim Jong Un from North Korea were trading insults on Twitter. So, it was completely credible — that alert. And imagine if that kind of alert would go to someone like Putin right now. It can just be deep fakes for example, or false information on social media, that can trigger a very flustered decision-makers. It’s really an unsustainable system. And I think that having a percentage of risk, no matter what it is, it’s greater than zero, and given enough time, it means that they will be used.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with Beatrice Fihn. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
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LEVEY: Hey, Steve.
LEVITT: Hey, Morgan,
LEVEY: So, we had a lot of feedback on last week’s listener question. We had someone ask if there were any ways to increase the likelihood that their bid would get accepted on a new home, especially in this really competitive market. And you had a couple of suggestions for them. One of them was to avoid having a buyer’s agent. And the other was to maybe write a letter or bake some cupcakes for the home seller.
LEVITT: Yep. And I was heartened to get to so many positive emails over the course of the week. Literally dozens of people wrote us to say how they had tried these different strategies. And by and large, they said they worked.
LEVEY: But a lot of people did suggest that there seems to be some legality issues over these letters to home sellers. What they actually call “love letters.” Apparently, these love letters are really contentious in the real estate world. And there’s some states that actually have made it illegal for buyers to send sellers love letters.
LEVITT: So, I find it strange. So, the logic behind these laws, which is sensible, is that by writing these letters, you signal things about your race, ethnicity, gender —
LEVEY: Or religion.
LEVITT: Or religion — that might lead to discrimination. It might lead the sellers to choose you because you were some kind of a preferred candidate in that regard. And I’m extremely sympathetic to the idea that we don’t want real estate transactions being carried out in a discriminatory manner. But I’m a little confused, because the idea that by banning love letters, you would purge the transaction from the kind of information that would allow the seller to infer the race or ethnicity of the buyer, seems really odd in light of the fact that when you hand a contract — a signed contract — to the seller, it has the buyer’s name and the buyer’s address on it right now. Which I’ve always wondered about: Why do we do that? And in fact, it seems, as long as you’re worried about discrimination, we should change the way contracts are done overall. And the contract that’s given to the seller, it shouldn’t have any names or addresses on it. It should be strictly based on the financials of the deal. So, it’s interesting because it raises an issue I hadn’t thought about, but it also suggests that the solution that the current legislation is going after isn’t really going to solve the problem. We need to go even further.
LEVEY: So, a lot of people also suggested that seller’s agents will sometimes block love letters and that’s because it goes against the agent’s priorities, which is to make the most profit off of a deal. And if the seller is letting their emotional side sway them on a deal, then it might not work out as well as it could for the seller’s agent.
LEVITT: Yeah, exactly. So, it’s funny because if the seller is swayed by a love letter, it’s because it’s worth something to the seller to be able to know that their home is going to someone who they feel good about. And so, the sellers’ agents have in some ways distorted incentives, bad incentives, to try to make sure that nothing that pulls at the heartstrings of the seller gets through to them. So, look I’m much more sympathetic to the arguments about discrimination than I am to sellers’ agents’ arguments that transactions about real estate should be made only based on financials because by revealed preference, the people who are selling houses, are saying they care about more than just the price they get. They care about the legacy of what will happen with their house after they’re gone.
LEVEY: Exactly. So, do you still stand by your statement that people should be writing love letters to sellers?
LEVITT: Absolutely. What I infer from the response is that these love letters work. That’s why people write them. And that’s also why they’re trying to pass laws so that people can’t use them. And look, the question that the reader poses is: “How can I get a leg up in this competitive market?” And I think this is just great evidence that this is a leg up. So, maybe you wouldn’t even want to write one because you’re worried that it might improperly give you some advantage. But I still say there’s nothing wrong with cupcakes.
LEVEY: If you want to send us cupcakes, you can reach out to us at our email email@example.com. That’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. It’s an acronym for a show, Steve and I read every email that’s sent, and we look forward to reading yours.
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In the second part of our conversation, I’d like to dig into the details of ICAN’s nuclear prohibition treaty. What does it say? And does it actually mean something? Or is it just window dressing?
LEVITT: So, the particular thing that ICAN spearheaded was the passage of something called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and it was signed in 2017. What does that treaty say?
FIHN: It prohibits the use of nuclear weapons — tests, threats to use possession, development, maintenance — all of the different actions that you do to have nuclear weapons really. And it follows the models of the bans on chemical weapons, biological weapons, bans on landmines, the cluster bombs ban. These kind of treaties that look at international law and the laws of war and say, “Actually, since we are not allowed to kill civilians intentionally — that’s banned under the international humanitarian law — these weapons categories are weapons that have excessive civilian impact, that are indiscriminate and inhumane.” But yet, somehow we forgot about nuclear weapons. And we made them this kind of big hypocritical exception because we don’t see them as real weapons. We see them as just theoretical power concepts. And what we really wanted to do with the treaty was just treat it as we treat real weapons. It’s a real bomb and therefore it should be illegal to possess them and threaten to use them and develop them. And if we can draw this line in the sand in international law — that this is actually unacceptable behavior — then it’s going to be much easier for us to convince governments to not do it than if we keep it legal.
LEVITT: And how many countries do you have on board?
FIHN: So, 122 governments adopted the text. They approved the text at the U.N. general assembly in 2017. And then after that, the text was finalized. They start signing and ratifying. So, signing means you just commit yourself to the text, and we have 86 countries to have signed it. And then when you ratified the text, it means that you put in the national laws in your own country to comply with that treaty and confirm that to the U.N. And we have 60 of those. So, when we hit 50 that’s when it entered into force and became international law. It still doesn’t apply to the countries that have not yet joined it, but it still exists as an international law in the same way as the bioweapons convention, or the chemical weapons convention.
LEVITT: What is amazing to me is: you took over in 2014. This idea was barely going. And by 2017, three years later, this was adopted by 120 countries. How did you manage in three years to mobilize 120 countries?
FIHN: We worked through our coalition. Of course, we have a legally set up organization here in Geneva, but it’s a coalition of organizations. And I think this is the biggest challenge for civil society and organizations is to try to work together. Because when we work on different issues and when we compete against each other, that’s when the people in power can easily dismiss us. But when we coordinate and work as an effective coalition on one issue, that just gives a really powerful force. We also teamed up with some really progressive countries that were very committed to nuclear disarmament. Countries like South Africa, which is the only country that’s had nuclear weapons and disarmed them. Countries like Kazakhstan, that has suffered enormously from nuclear testing. Countries like Austria, Ireland, New Zealand — who has a very strong traditional role on opposing nuclear weapons. Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia. We also had huge humanitarian actors, like the Red Cross. As emergency responders, they know that they can’t help in a case of a nuclear detonation. So, the only thing they can do is work to prohibit it before it happens. And also, the partners in ICAN. We have some doctors. They have a medical perspective. We have some environmental organizations. We have some academics and scientists. We have some lawyers. We have some youth groups that do amazing TikToks these days. So, we really try to use the strength of diversity.
LEVITT: So, some listeners are probably thinking, “This is all admirable. You have this treaty, but ultimately is it just a symbolic waste of time? Does it really matter if a bunch of African and Micronesian and South American countries say nuclear weapons should be banned?” The nine countries with nuclear weapons weren’t going to be early signatories of your treaty. I’m sure you knew that when you started. So, you must have a longer view of things, a strategy into which this treaty fits — of changing perceptions of nuclear weapons. Can you talk about that?
FIHN: Yeah, the whole strategy — it was really to start with a core of governments — the ones that are already on our side — and then build outwards and convince them one by one. One of the big problems with nuclear weapons is that they were legitimized in people’s view — “Oh, well, they have them, so let’s let them keep them.” And we put it out of our minds, but if you want to change something, you have to change the rules almost. So, by creating this treaty, and then bringing more and more countries on board that becomes the new norm and the new normal standard. We have a view of international law as weak and powerless, but I think it’s actually the opposite. We’ve seen enormous shifts in how governments behave over the last — since World War II, for example. The E.U., the U.N., the World Health Organization, the W.T.O. — like, all these big institutions have changed how we work together. It doesn’t always work, but they do change behavior. It takes time. The first days after the Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine — I have to admit, I felt so much despair and sadness. And it felt like, “Ugh, all of this work that we’re doing, not just on the nuclear weapons issue, but on all of the international issue; all of these human rights, international law, it’s all for nothing. They just ignore it, and they just violate it. Why are we even bothering?” But then, you saw this U.N. General Assembly resolution where over 140 countries strongly condemned Russia. And they condemned them based on these international Geneva Conventions, the U.N. charter. The ban on cluster munitions — there’s been all these accusations that Russia has been using cluster munitions — these illegal weapons. And President Zelensky of Ukraine said in a speech a few weeks ago that Putin needs to go in front of the international criminal court for his illegal use of cluster bombs. Despite the fact that Russia has not signed this treaty, Ukraine has not signed this treaty, and the U.S. ambassador call them “these illegal weapons,” despite the U.S. haven’t signed this treaty. And they all opposed. They have set a new norm with this treaty. It doesn’t mean that we, of course, can prevent any use, but it gives us a tool to respond. And then there’s a lot of practical things like with the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Again, nuclear weapons are supposed to be a power symbol. So, if the rest of the world — even if it’s small African countries — say, “No, we don’t believe in it.” And that’s a bit how you end dictatorship, right? When the masses of the people just say, “Actually, we don’t agree with you. We’re not going to follow your rules.” And that’s where the real power is — in the majority. So, rallying the majority of states in the world, and making the nuclear weapon states the outliers, they are the ones violating the laws. We are the ones on the right side of history. It’s very powerful. And it also gives us tools to use. So, for example, we are working with American cities and states. We had California adopt a motion supporting the treaty, calling on the U.S. government to join. And we had the city of New York adopt a motion supporting the treaty and asking the city’s comptroller to divest its pension funds from nuclear weapons producing companies. We’re working with banks all over the world now, even in countries that have not joined the treaty saying, “Hey, international law says that these weapons are banned. You need to blacklist all of these companies.” It’s a way to create outrage and stigmatizing. And a way to just put obstacles in their way — make it trickier, harder, costly — as a way to convince them to get rid of them.
LEVITT: You’re young, not even 40 yearsold, and it’s surprising to me to see someone of your generation focus on nuclear weapons. When you were getting started and trying to change the world, weren’t all the cool kids working on climate change or indigenous rights or refugees? How did you find your way to an old school topic, like new nuclear disarmament?
FIHN: Well, it was actually exactly like that. I didn’t want to work on nuclear weapons. I thought it was completely lame. I was very interested in United Nations, multilateralism, diplomacy, international law, equality and justice, women’s rights, protection of civilians in armed conflict. But I got an internship and it was paid, which was very unusual. And they said that “Oh, it’s about following the nuclear weapons issue.” And I’m like, “Oh God, so boring.” And then I got completely sucked into it. Because I realized that it was a symbol of complete injustice on the international level. But I also saw how people have been impacted by these weapons. First, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also around the world in nuclear test sites. So, talking about indigenous right, for example. Every nuclear-arm states have tested these weapons on communities that they don’t really care about. So, Soviet tested up on indigenous peoples up north on Kazakhstan. They even tested some in Ukraine. And the impact there has been decimating. The U.S. tested in New Mexico; Nevada on indigenous people’s land; on Marshall Island, the country that they basically colonized. France tested in Algeria, and in the Pacific Island states. The U.K. tested on Aboriginal land in Australia. China tested on Uyghur land. It’s a systematic way of not even recognizing that there were people there because they didn’t count as people. I got completely fascinated by how it’s this enormous hypocritical issue. So, I just got stuck in it.
LEVITT: And how do you come to be executive director of ICAN — the organization which will win the Nobel Prize just a few years after you take over — how did you come to be the executive director of ICAN at the age of 32?
FIHN: I worked with a few other organizations working in the similar field and then came back to the same organization I had an internship with and worked on their disarmament program. And that organization was a member of ICAN. And ICAN held its first conference in Oslo, which was going to talk about this treaty and talk about the impact of nuclear weapons. And I remember the P-5 boycotted this conference. Because, of course, they don’t want to ban nuclear weapons. They want to keep them. And I remember how, the fact that they boycotted this meeting didn’t bother most of these people in ICAN. It was just like, “Yeah, of course, but we’re going to do it anyway.” I really understood then how the power dynamics work. That nuclear weapons are only impressive if you let them be impressive. And they only get to dictate the terms, these countries, if we let them. And if we just do our own thing and move on and create the new laws and the new norms, then we will be in the driver’s seat. We will be the ones in power. I got more involved with ICAN And then the team was growing and they needed someone to step up and take the leadership role, and I offered.
LEVITT: Okay. You offered and they said, sure? And so, how many employees were there at ICAN when you took over in 2014?
FIHN: I think we were four or five in the team But of course, the campaign — the organization — has always been quite small because the real power is in the membership. It’s not individuals that are member. It’s N.G.O.s, organizations that are part of this campaign. Today, we’ve grown to be over 600 organizations in 108 countries. We have a staff team right now, I think we’re 14 at the moment. But we represent people from all over the world. And we work very strategically with trying to influence governments and make them sign the treaty. Trying to get parliamentarians to debate this. Trying to get journalists to cover this issue. Trying to get cities to speak out and oppose nuclear weapons. And to try to get the public to speak out and oppose these weapons.
LEVITT: So, it’s not surprising that countries like the United States and Russia, North Korea — that they wouldn’t sign your treaty because it would be inconsistent with their actions. They’d now be forced by law to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. But countries, like your birthplace Sweden, haven’t signed. Sweden doesn’t have nuclear weapons and they’re not trying to build them. And at least the Swedes that I’ve met, I suspect they would support the Swedish government signing this treaty massively.
FIHN: We’ve done polling if Sweden should sign the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And we got, like, massive support for it. But it’s not an issue that’s a priority for voters. So, the politicians who then are being pressured by the U.S. — Sweden is in a process now — the invasion of Ukraine has really triggered a massive conversation if Sweden should join NATO. And then you need to sign up to the deal of supporting nuclear weapons. A lot of these governments in Europe, for example, people are very much against nuclear weapons, but the governments are defending the U.S. right to have nuclear weapons, the U.K. right to have nuclear weapons, the French to have nuclear weapons. And don’t dare to take a position against that. And because people haven’t been loud enough to demand it, we see that it’s stuck. Even on the issue where people are loud, like climate change, these same governments are not doing the right thing. And I think it’s because governments are inherently not willing to challenge power and break the status quo unless people really force them.
LEVITT: It seems like you have an even lower view of government than I do, which is pretty low. If you’re saying that, look, the Swedish government knows that the people want something different, but because they’re not yelling loud enough about it, we’re going to defy them and keep on doing what we’re doing anyway.
FIHN: I have a lot of respect for individuals in governments, but I think the structures just makes it very hard to change anything. We saw someone like President Obama, for example. He came into power and delivered this Prague speech, a big vision for a world without nuclear weapons. And I think he genuinely wanted to do something on nuclear disarmament, but there’s just all these structures in governments and it’s the defense system. And it’s the very conservative think-tank groups who are the ones that are actually spending time and energy talking about this issue, because the general public doesn’t. And organizations like ours are so underfunded in comparison to the weapons companies. You know, in the U.S. you have systems where these weapons companies are giving huge political contributions to candidates and senators and Congress people. You might have numbers on paper that people want this, but there are no consequences for the politicians if they don’t do it. We might have a moment now with the war on Ukraine, where we see the consequences of our nuclear weapon state using its nuclear weapons to enable an illegal invasion. And how people all over — especially here in Europe, people are terrified of nuclear war. With all the pharmacies are out of like iodine tablets. People are Googling like, “Where’s the closest bomb shelter?” People are really scared right now. And I think we can hopefully use this awareness to really start that kind of push towards politicians to do something because it’s completely fixable, this issue.
LEVITT: Is there a particular social movement that you think worked well that you model the nuclear disarmament campaign after?
FIHN: I think the anti-smoking ban is a really powerful way of looking at stigmatizing. So, we couldn’t just wait for everyone to stop smoking on their own. So, you ban smoking indoors. We can’t control what they’re doing. If they want to, they can keep doing it, but they have to go outside. And now it was five meters outside the door. And something that was completely acceptable and normal in society suddenly becomes completely unacceptable. If I think about sitting here in a studio, picking up a cigarette and smoking in here, it’s absurd. That’s a very sort of inspirational thing for nuclear weapons. Another movement that I’m really inspired by is also things like same-sex marriage in the United States. State by state in the U.S. changed. So, that’s also what we’re trying to do with all these other governments. And just trying to create the sense that one by one is changing. And eventually it will just be natural for a new generation of politicians in the U.S. or in Russia — you know, who knows what Russia will look like in 20 years. Everything is changing right now. It could change there, too.
LEVITT: Speaking, honestly, do you think you will live long enough to see the last nuclear weapon disbanded?
FIHN: Hmm. I don’t know. Actually, to be honest. I think I will live long enough to see them be banned and starting the process. The chemical weapons convention — when the U.S. and Russia signed it, it took them over 20 years to dismantle the chemical weapons arsenals. So, the dismantlement takes a long time, but I definitely think that I will either see nuclear weapons being used or the decision to eliminate them.
There’s no shortage of problems to worry about in the world. Rising inequality, climate change, violence, Covid, refugees, discrimination, cancer, the list goes on and on. The amount of time and attention available for fixing these problems is not infinite. As individuals, and as a society, we’re forced to make tradeoffs about where we put our focus. But I have to say, having talked to Max Tegmark back in December, and talking to Beatrice today, it sure feels to me like when we think about trying to make the world a better place, getting rid of nuclear weapons deserves a bigger share of our attention than it currently gets. As always, thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.
People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Gabriel Roth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Eleanor Osborne, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
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LEVITT: Were you saying it was fun to win or it’s fun to fantasize about winning?
LEVITT: No, I agree. Yeah.
FIHN: It’s a lot of fun to win it, I have to say.
- Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
- “Sweden and Finland Make Moves to Join NATO,” by Jon Henley (The Guardian, 2022).
- “How Isolated Is Russia, Really?” by Adam Taylor (The Washington Post, 2022).
- “Russia’s Military is Incompetent. That Makes it More Dangerous,” by Kori Schake (The Washington Post, 2022).
- “New York City Joins ICAN Cities Appeal,” (I.C.A.N., 2021).
- “‘Downwind’ of Trinity: Remembering the First Victims of the Atomic Bomb,” by Katharine Leede and Maggie O’Brien (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2021).
- “The Long Legacy of France’s Nuclear Tests in Algeria,” (The Economist, 2021).
- “France Grossly Underestimated Radioactive Fallout Atom Bomb Tests Study Finds,” by Adrian Cho (Science, 2021).
- “U.N. Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Takes Effect, Without The U.S. And Other Powers,” by Bill Chappell (NPR, 2021).
- “Milley Acted to Prevent Trump From Misusing Nuclear Weapons, War With China, Book Says,” by Dareh Gregorian and Jesse Rodriguez (NBC News, 2021).
- “Transparency in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” (National Nuclear Security Administration, 2021).
- “Nuclear Tests and the Shoshone People,” by Ian Zabarte (Las Vegas Review-Journal, 2020).
- “NATO Nuclear Deterrence Factsheet,” (NATO, 2020).
- “36 Years Ago Today, One Man Saved Us From World-Ending Nuclear War,” by Dylan Matthews (Vox, 2019).
- “The Nuclear Sins of the Soviet Union Live on in Kazakhstan,” by Wudan Yan (Nature, 2019).
- “California Supports the Nuclear Ban Treaty,” (I.C.A.N., 2018).
- “The Atomic Bomb That Faded Into South Carolina History,” by Bo Petersen (Military Times, 2018).
- “‘BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,’ the Alert Screamed. It Was a False Alarm,” by Amy B Wang and Brittany Lyte (The Washington Post, 2018).
- “Giving Up Nuclear Weapons: It’s Rare, But It’s Happened,” by Greg Myre (NPR, 2017).
- “International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,” (The Nobel Prize, 2017).
- “After the Bomb,” by Haruka Sakaguchi and Lily Rothman (TIME Magazine, 2017).
- “Obama’s Prague Speech on Disarmament,” (EURACTIV, 2009).
- “Geology of the Chinese Nuclear Test Site Near Lop Nor, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China,” by John R.Matzko (Engineering Geology, 1994).
- “Dealing With the Legacy of the Past: Aborigines and Atomic Testing in South Australia,” by Kingsley Palmer (Aboriginal History, 1990).
- “Atomic Timeline,” (Atomic Heritage Foundation).
- “Marshall Islands,” (Atomic Heritage Foundation).
- “Nuclear Explosion,” (Ready.gov).
- “Sweden,” (I.C.A.N.).
- “War Crimes,” (United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect).
- “Max Tegmark on Why Treating Humanity Like a Child Will Save Us All,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- ICAN on TikTok.
- The U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.