It’s a rough time to be working against nuclear weapons. In a few short months, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again brought nuclear weapons into the public consciousness, with media and experts openly speculating on the possibility of a Russian tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine. This has compounded the deep and pervasive resistance of the executive branch to even those reforms to US nuclear policy supported by President Joe Biden during his presidential candidacy, such as No First Use.
Meanwhile, the defense industry and its congressional supporters have used the invasion as cover to push for a massive expansion of the 2023 military budget — over $100 billion more than the Trump administration’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) topline. The current demand is a maximalist approach that sweeps aside the lack of consensus between the White House and the Pentagon on the necessity of the weapons systems Congress plans to fund. Inflation, and the seemingly inevitable approaching recession, is being used as cover for expanding defense spending as well, despite the fact that its actual effects on costs for the Pentagon are much more limited than those experienced by consumers.
At the same time, the field’s institutions have been forced to strategize in the face of reduced funding, as major funders have withdrawn from funding nuclear policy work or focused on addressing other threats.
THE MYTH OF JOB CREATION
As has been the case in other moments of economic downturn, the defense industry’s reputation as a job creator — one it works hard to maintain — is a substantial challenge for advocates and organizers hoping to activate persistent public ambivalence about nuclear weapons. But it also holds the key to building a durable, truly grassroots movement for nuclear disarmament for the long term.
It’s clear that neither Congress nor the executive branch is committed to leading the way toward a world free from the threat that nuclear weapons will be used.
The US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force is a case in point. Research shows that claims that the defense industry is a uniquely effective job creator are overstated. Healthcare, education, infrastructure, and non-fossil fuel energy all create more jobs than defense given comparable levels of federal investment. And the states where ICBMs are based — Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming — all have substantial need for expanded investment in these areas.
Montana, for example, which hosts Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, is experiencing rapid growth in demand for healthcare services, particularly among older residents and in its rural areas. In the 2010s, in response to a relatively minor reduction in staffing needs at the base, the city invested in attracting new investment in energy, manufacturing, and healthcare, making it a regional hub for healthcare provision in an area where demand still outstrips supply.
Furthermore, despite a decades-long effort by the US Air Force to create and maintain public support for ICBMs in these states, active support for these weapons remains low, particularly if viable replacements for their economic impact are on the table. And the chill in US–Russia relations following the Ukraine invasion has not convinced most Americans of the need to expand US defense spending.
FOCUSING ON COMMUNITY NEEDS
It’s clear that, in the short term, neither Congress nor the executive branch is committed to leading the way toward a world free from the threat that nuclear weapons will be used. Furthermore, efforts to force large-scale action to address immediate threats to human security, such as climate change, the nationwide housing crisis, and the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, will likely continue to be stymied. This makes sense: Members of Congress and the defense industry derive direct material benefit from the US’ ongoing reliance on nuclear weapons in a way that they do not from expanding investment in meeting their constituents’ basic needs. But to eliminate their threat, we have to start by making sure that the needs of communities that rely on them as a source of jobs and revenue are met.
Experience shows that community members involved in planning for a future after a military base closure or other shift in local defense spending can help design better outcomes that lead to increased prosperity. As just one example, the town of Brunswick, Maine, successfully redeveloped the land that had been the Brunswick Naval Air Station by involving hundreds of local residents in the planning and feedback process, including local high school students.
The fight for nuclear disarmament can’t be a matter of a single budget cycle — or even a single presidential administration. Advocates working for nuclear disarmament at the grassroots level face the challenge — and the opportunity — to craft a comprehensive vision for a better future defined by real, long-term security, together with their communities.
Emma Claire Foley is an Associate Partner for Research & Policy at Global Zero. She recently published a report, “The Real Cost of ICBMs: US Economic Development Beyond Defense Spending,” on the domestic economic impact of US land-based nuclear missiles.