Author: Lucy Thompson
Monica Montgomery is the Political Director for the non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization Council for a Livable World. The organization is dedicated to reducing the danger of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminating them through advocating sensible national security policies and helping elect congressional candidates who support them. Today, we discuss Monica’s journey into policymaking, the importance of representation, and the intersection of peace and policy within society.
What was your inspiration that led you to your current role?
I first became interested in nuclear arms control, non-proliferation, and disarmament work through my undergraduate studies at University of Notre Dame, where I had a professor who had extensively worked in Washington, DC on disarmament issues. He organized a trip to the Vatican for a conference that was hosted by Pope Francis himself on issues of nuclear disarmament. I attended this conference and I was really inspired by the message of the Pope. I’ve had Catholic schooling all my life, but this was not something that I had really ever engaged in or had ever thought of nuclear arms control within this sphere.
I think that a lot of the younger generation in the US, at least until recently, hadn’t thought much about this message and the need to continue to focus on revitalizing commitment from nuclear weapons states towards nuclear disarmament. This really inspired me and led me into the work that I am doing now. It also really connected my own interest in US politics and national security, with a more specific focus towards an issue like nuclear arms control non-proliferation.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
What I enjoy most is serving as a link between research and policymakers, especially when it comes to working with Congress and being involved in actual actionable items that happen in US policy making. A lot of the role that we serve at the Council for a Livable World is almost ‘watering down’ large, complex issues for policymakers.
We’re able to make important, complex issues digestible and accessible, giving policymakers a quick but in depth analysis, while also providing tangible policy ideas, language for bills, and suggestions on how to move forward. Serving as that link between research and the bigger progress that’s been put forth on nuclear policy, and being involved with policymakers who have the ability to push forward on those goals, is really rewarding.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
“This year, the Council for a Livable World is celebrating its 60th anniversary. We were founded by the Manhattan Project nuclear physicist, Leo Szilard, because he said “the sweet voice of reason alone could not do the job, that campaign contributions could not do the job, but the combination of the sweet voice of reason and substantial campaign contributions might very well do the job”. So in that manner, the council still plays an active role in congressional campaigns.
One major project that we’ve been working on is the 2022 midterm elections and supporting candidates that we believe, based on their prior track records, are committed to and will support arms control, diplomacy, and push for progressive foreign policy ideas. So endorsing strong champions for nuclear policy issues has been a big project that we’ve been working on culminating this week with the 2022 congressional midterms elections.
However, our work doesn’t stop on election day. After helping elect champions, or reelect champions, we work with them and with other members of Congress to advance on our policy agenda. This agenda has become more relevant than ever over the past nine months, with the war in Ukraine and Putin’s threats to US nuclear weapons.
We have been educating policymakers about the threats and concerns that we have about the war, helping equip them with the right messaging tools that they can use to talk about condemning nuclear threats, but also pushing the US government to recognize that we need to be keeping open lines of communications with Russia and doing whatever we can to reduce nuclear threats.
We also have continual work, through the US Congress budget process, to push back against excess spending on nuclear weapons, particularly on programs that we see as uniquely destabilizing, or being wasteful, while still ensuring that US nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, and reliable. Further investment in some weapons is an unnecessary waste of taxpayer dollars and actually increases the risk of nuclear war.
Finally, a big project that we work on is rebuilding consensus in Washington that arms control is actually good for US national security. Throughout the Cold War, there was always an understanding that negotiating with Russia to constrain their nuclear arsenal, but also constrain ours, was good and in our national interests. However, across Washington today, there is kind of a lack of consensus on this issue. The Council for a Livable World is trying to rebuild this understanding that even though it might mean placing limits on US nuclear arms, it may also mean we can: seek limits on the Russia’s, we can work to reenter non-proliferation treaties, and we can work to bring China to the table to talk about how we can avoid conflict.
What needs to change to ensure women’s voices are being heard and represented in policymaking?
Policymaking in general, as well as the nuclear policy field, has really long been dominated predominantly by men, particularly white men of older generations. A lot of those same people are still around making policy or influencing the discourse. Today, it’s changing. But I would say a lot more work needs to be done, not only for the future, but also for the present.
One thing that can be done is what we call ‘passing the microphone’ or ‘expanding the table’ to ensure that the key spokespeople and the key decision makers who are drafting documents, or in Congress, or staffing members of Congress, represent more diverse backgrounds, including women and people of color. It is a really important step that needs to be happening now, not just this commitment to future diversification in policy making, but for the present because there are certainly many women out there who are very capable of engaging in this conversation.
I also think something that is really important is mentorship and recruitment of younger women in the field. The reason I was able to be a part of this work is because I had a handful of female mentors that really cultivated my original interest in the field and showed me that not only was it possible to advance, but necessary, as diversity in perspective is integral for policy. If we only have people who look like each other and think like each other and talk like each other, then we’re going to come up with a lot of stale policies and lack of progress. So the need for that mentorship, pipelines for recruitment, and just bigger efforts for diversification in policymaking is really important.
The Council for a Livable World states that there are two serious, existential threats to all life on earth: climate change and nuclear war. How does the instability created by climate change increase the chance of regional and global conflicts?
There are two existential threats: climate change and nuclear war. The difference is nuclear war could end life as we know it in a matter of minutes, where climate change is ending life as we know it, but over time, and they’re connected. If a nuclear weapon was used, it would have profound impacts on the climate and our environment, not only talking about immediate loss of life, but also damage to the planet, damage even to countries far away from where nuclear weapons would have been used.
Climate change also plays a role in increasing global instability. For years, US defense and intelligence leaders have talked about climate change as posing a severe threat to national security. We look at rising sea levels, forced migration, resource scarcity, natural disasters, escalating tensions in volatile regions, and the increasing need for humanitarian aid. As climate change continues to put strain on the local population, it increases the risk of conflict and instability, and of course, this conflict could escalate nuclear risk. So we need to take steps to address the national security threat posed by climate change and there are a lot of ways we can do this.
First and foremost, one way is actually recognizing the role that the Pentagon and US military policy plays in escalating the climate crisis through the military’s own greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to think bigger than just what can be done at the Department of Defense to curb the Pentagon’s climate footprint. How can we work on a US government and a broader global effort to reverse global warming, to reduce nuclear risks, and to prioritize cooperative approaches towards addressing this unconventional national security threat, including cooperating with adversaries? Climate change is an issue that we see with our adversaries and one that we have to work together on.
The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, supports the ideology ‘disarmament to save humanity’ on the subject of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and your work at Council for a Livable World very much supports this. What steps do you feel society needs to take to reach total disarmament?
The vision of a world free from nuclear weapons is something that we are very committed to in our work and we think it’s absolutely vital if we want to see humanity continue on. What’s needed, I think, is the million-dollar question that we’re all struggling to answer.
A lot of it goes back to a necessary commitment, and not just commitment in words but in actions, from nuclear weapons states to work towards disarmament and the idea that nuclear weapons can actually negatively impact national security.
We’ve seen the permanent five members of the UN Security Council reaffirm the commitment that a nuclear war cannot be won, and therefore it must not be fought. However, we see nuclear weapon states, including the United States, Russia, and China, expanding their nuclear weapons arsenals, and also investing in nuclear technologies, which are really contributing to an arms race and the idea that you could limit a nuclear war, or that we should be developing unique lower yield nuclear weapons to win a nuclear war. And this idea really runs extremely counter to disarmament goals.
Instead, we need to see a recommitment not just in rhetoric, but also in action. Actions such as investing in arms control diplomacy and a commitment to not lean into an arms race. And finally, we need to see an acceptance that a nuclear war, even a limited one, cannot be fought. This reinvigoration of leadership must come from those states, but how we get there is complicated. It requires a lot of trust and commitment to diplomacy. It requires innovation, fresh ideas and the furthering of science and technology. We can also look at treaties and verification, but it’s going to take a consensus across the globe to commit towards global zero.
Putin’s nuclear threats have brought this issue back on many citizens’ minds across the world. In order to get governments to care about these issues, we need to really see the revitalization of the idea that we cannot live forever in a world with nuclear weapons, because so long as we have them, we risk that they can be used.
Following on from that, how do you feel the advancement of science and technology affects peace and security in society?
Science and technology affects peace and security in both a positive and negative way. As we see science and technology develop through modernizing novel defense systems, this creates fear in governments and causes further development and spending on weapon technologies.
But also science and technology can be a really useful and a necessary tool in advancing peace and security. One area in particular is the development of verification technology in aiding arms control. Historically, verification technology has been used to ensure commitments are upheld. For example, verifying an agreement to limit nuclear weapons or an agreement to not test nuclear weapons.
However, we need new innovative technology to address future arms control issues. Right now we’re seeing a lot of new questions about what needs to come next in arms control treaties. How could we limit the nuclear warheads* themselves and verify that limit of the number of warheads that the United States and Russia have? At the moment, there is a lot of science research that goes into developing new tools and cutting edge technology to assist with questions like how we could distinguish what warheads are actually nuclear and how to detect them on the ground or from afar. This science is really critical to paving the way for a future arms control treaty that could limit the actual number of warheads and will be vital for future arms control and non-proliferation efforts.
*A warhead is the explosive or toxic material that is delivered by a missile, rocket, or torpedo.
Looking to the future, how best can policy be informed to safeguard societal peace?
First and foremost, particularly when we talk about national security and policy making, it requires a rethink of the way that we look at the threats that we all face. Instead of just looking at things through a traditional, national security lens, asking questions such as: is this a threat to our nation? How do we respond militarily? How do we spend more on the military to protect our nation? We need a shift to: what threats do nuclear arms control or nuclear arms racing and non-proliferation pose to humanity in general? What are the threats that climate change poses to our country? What are the threats that pandemics pose to our country? What are the threats that food insecurity, poverty, and inadequate education pose to our nation as well?
We need more of a focus within policy on non-traditional security threats so it’s not just being viewed as a nationwide military issue, but more of a humanitarian issue. What are the things that we should be investing in instead of new nuclear weapons that are very expensive? How can we be investing in other avenues that will promote peace and security? How can we be spending more money on diplomacy and building up our diplomatic corps? How can we invest more in not just emerging technology to defend the country, but emerging technology that can deal with the verification and arms control issues that we’re talking about?
Shifting this militarist mindset to consider wider, non-traditional threats, and a bigger vision of what humanity needs when it comes to safeguarding our peace and security, is going to be really critical to advance in the future.
Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.