ICAN – does the ‘I’ stand for ‘imperialist’?

IssueAugust - September 2022
Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Joe Biden. PHOTOS: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons (CC by 4.0), Ben Shread/Cabinet Office (OGL 3), Adam Schultz/whitehouse.gov, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Horns added.
Feature by Milan Rai

If you’re a Western disarmament group, and you choose not to mention or engage with the long history of Western nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapon states, I think that’s a problem, morally, politically and in terms of strategy – but it’s kind of business as usual.

If you’re a Western disarmament group, and you choose to engage with the threatened use of nuclear weapons in international crisis situations, but you choose to talk only about nuclear threats issued by enemies of the West, then that’s a much, much bigger problem.

If you’re a Western disarmament group, there is one step further that you can go down this path of colluding with Western propaganda – a step which is truly outrageous.

You can take a document issued by a respected international disarmament body which talks about the problem of nuclear threats in general, not mentioning any particular guilty parties, and you can publicise it by only mentioning nuclear threats issued by an enemy of the West.

That is way, way over the line.

Twisting words

In June, there was an important meeting in Vienna of states which have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (see Christina Kelly’s report on the opposite page).

At the end of the meeting, they issued a joint declaration which, among other things, condemned nuclear threats. Here are some quotes from the declaration:

‘We are alarmed and dismayed by threats to use nuclear weapons and increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric.... We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.... We thus insist that, pending the total elimination of nuclear weapons, all nuclear-armed states never use or threaten to use these weapons under any circumstances.’

No particular state is named in the declaration.

Here is how International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which played a huge role in making the Nuclear Ban Treaty a reality, announced the declaration:

‘Just a few hours ago at the United Nations in Vienna, States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons just concluded the first meeting of the treaty and condemned unequivocally “any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.” In response to Russia’s nuclear threats, this is the strongest multilateral condemnation of threats to use nuclear weapons ever.’ (emphasis added)

This is a serious distortion of what the Vienna Declaration said. ICAN is making it appear that TPNW-supporting governments condemned Russia by name as though Russia is the only state that has ever issued a nuclear threat in a confrontation.


Is it true that Russia has been issuing frightening nuclear threats during the present Ukraine crisis? Of course.

It is, however, just as true that the US and the UK issued frightening nuclear threats before they invaded Iraq in 1991 and 2003, to deter the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. (Iraq was then and still is a non-nuclear weapon state.)

It is just as true that the US issued nuclear threats against China in 1955, during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. (China was a non-nuclear weapon state then.)

It is just as true that the UK threatened Indonesia with nuclear weapons in the mid-1960s when it flew strategic nuclear bombers out to Singapore and Malaya, and kept them there beyond their normal tour, during the UK-Indonesia war known as the ‘Confrontation’. (Again, this was a nuclear threat against a non-nuclear weapon state.)

In the US, there are a number of books on the history of US nuclear threats including, most recently, Joseph Gerson’s Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Pluto, 2007) and a section in Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (Bloomsbury, 2017).

In the US, the topic of US nuclear threats is discussed in academia and in the world of thinktanks, sometimes called ‘atomic diplomacy’ or ‘nuclear coercion’. Less has been written about British nuclear threats.

The examples mentioned above were discussed in my blog post back in February: ‘How the West paved the way for Russia’s nuclear threats over Ukraine’ (PN 2659). I embedded links to the evidence supporting the claims I was making. Over the years, I’ve written similarly-heavily-referenced pieces about many other US and British nuclear threats – in the pages of PN and elsewhere.

There is no justification, at this point in history, for Western disarmament groups to be ignorant of the long record of Western nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapon states.

The best move ICAN could take now would be to acknowledge that it made a misstep in how it framed the Vienna declaration (naming just Russia, and making it appear as though the declaration named Russia) and to recognise publicly that the US and Britain have also made nuclear threats against non-nuclear weapon states, naming some examples when this has happened.

The future of the TPNW is too important for it to be compromised by one of its most important supporters being perceived as colluding with Western propaganda, excusing and covering up US and British nuclear imperialism.

Topics: Nuclear weapons