University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Four senior U.S. statesmen — George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn — captured world attention in January 2007 with their call for “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” in the Wall Street Journal. Their premise is compelling: nuclear deterrence is no longer required in the post Cold War, and the danger of continued proliferation demands urgent action. The steps they propose to get ever closer to nuclear zero are practical and within our current capabilities.

Some disarmament advocates, however, in their pursuit of nuclear zero, continue the dualistic “good guys, bad guys” premises of the Cold War era. This approach does not match current realities and may end up making the needed responses more difficult.


For some, fear of Muslims underlies the urgency behind the world’s move toward nuclear zero. But Islamophobia skews, toward terrorism alone, the full range of nuclear threats the world faces from nuclear weapons. Demonizing Muslims is an unhelpful and possibly even dangerous approach, as it will make it more difficult to get the information needed to prevent a terrorist attack if an Islamist terror group should get a nuclear weapon.

The fear-based focus on terrorism, and Muslims as terrorists, is evident in the 2010 documentary, Nuclear Tipping Point. The trailer shows one terrorist bombing or attack after another. The film features dramatizations that show individuals in what appear to be Muslim dress, assembling bombs. Yet the film also features extensive interviews with Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn, which cover many of the other ways the world is at risk from the continued existence of nuclear weapons.


Americans have very recently been most at risk from nuclear weapons that are inadequately secured by our own armed forces. In 2007, a B-52 bomber flew over the central United States loaded with six cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads that were mistakenly attached to the airplane’s wing. The threat of a nuclear miscalculation because of our continued “launch-on-warning” policy is very real.

The nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan, and their continued conflict, are a very live risk to the world’s security. An armed conflict between the two could accelerate to a nuclear exchange. The threat of nuclear proliferation in an increasingly unstable Middle East also is an extremely urgent issue.

The best way to prevent Islamist terror groups from acquiring nuclear weapons is not to demonize Muslims but to build trust and increase communication with Muslim communities.

No one doubts that Islamist terror groups are seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade material with the intent to launch a nuclear attack. But the best way to prevent such an event, and for authorities to gain information and intelligence needed for prevention, is not to alienate Muslims, but rather to build trust and increase communication with Muslim communities. This point was made by many of the knowledgeable panelists at the recent Center for American Progress event, Strengthening America’s Security: Identifying, Preventing and Responding to Domestic Terrorism.


The world is too complex for Cold War dualism. The traditional power arrangements have shifted dramatically away from bi-polarity, and our analysis of how to engage issues in this context must not get stuck in a new bi-polar mindset. Replacing one enemy with another, substituting Islamism for Communism, is tempting, because, after all, we “defeated” Communism and thus we are led to the comfortable feeling that we can “defeat” a militant Islam. Those who believe this are dangerously mistaken, both in the analysis and in the prescription for what has to be done now.

Getting to nuclear zero is going to take more than warmed-over Cold War thinking. It will take the kind of practical, nuanced, and consistent approach that, ironically enough, the former Cold Warriors and now nuclear-zero advocates George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn actually recommend.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is the former president of Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.