World Without End

By John T. Ward
Illustration: Izhar Cohen

Two Pace professors made a commitment to each other—and to wiping out nuclear weapons. Being instrumental in the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was icing on the cake.

Matthew Bolton and Emily Welty, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
Matthew Bolton’s and Emily Welty’s contributions helped the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons win the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

At the risk of trivializing their profoundly important work, it’s worth noting that the initial encounter between Emily Welty and Matthew Bolton had a meet-cute quality right out of Hollywood.

Arriving early for the first session of intermediate Spanish one summer evening in Washington, DC, Welty found that another student had gotten there even earlier: a tall young man with a soft British accent. He was eager to chat and moved to sit beside her. She was focused squarely on finishing her master’s degree in peace and conflict resolution. Flirting was out of the question. But fate got in the way; she had the wrong textbook, and so they wound up sharing his.

Fifteen years later, they’re married PhDs working side-by-side at Pace and she still calls him “Mateo.” But their story veers away from rom-com in scene two, when Bolton and Welty get engaged. On the grounds of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial alongside the Potomac River, Welty and Bolton pledged themselves not only to one another, but to a joint, outward focus on helping to solve the world’s deepest problems.

“From the get-go,” says Welty, an associate professor and director of the Peace and Justice Studies program, their marriage was about “committing to stick together no matter what, and to using our collective energies and our passion for each other to fire a much bigger project of addressing brokenness in the world.”

His wasn’t “a very romantic proposal,” Bolton allows, as they sit in his compact office in Pace’s political science department, where he’s an associate professor and directs the International Disarmament Institute. Nor were the Roosevelts a model couple, he adds with a smile. But, walking among lofty, carved-in-stone FDR quotations, that day when he proposed, “inspired me to think about ‘how do I ask this question?’ Because it’s not just a question of ‘will you marry me,’ but ‘can we embark on this quest together?’”

NOW, AS EDUCATORS and contributors to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, Bolton and Welty are working on, and enlisting Pace students in, perhaps, humankind’s most urgent quest: preventing its annihilation by nuclear war or accident.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ so-called Doomsday Clock remains at two minutes to midnight, the closest the symbolic device has ever been to apocalypse, but if it seems nobody talks much about the Bomb anymore, well, didn’t the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 mean that Americans could stop worrying so much about mutually assured destruction? Besides, now there’s incipient climate disaster, the rise of nationalism, Kardashian culture, and so much more shoving nukes off the front page.

Still, ICAN, a coalition of more than 500 nongovernmental organizations around the globe, won the Nobel for persuading the UN to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which outlaws their manufacture, possession, and use, and includes plans for their elimination.

Bolton and Welty were contributors to the effort. He brought years of work on landmine-related issues to argue that nuclear weapons should be banned on humanitarian and environmental grounds. As an elected official of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC), Welty helped rally faith groups to apply moral pressure. The pair also enlisted 20 of their students to conduct vital nuclear ban research, document debates on disarmament for the UN’s First Committee, and pick up the phone to urge member states to ratify the treaty.

Welty acknowledges that until she got involved with the WCC five years ago, she, too, hadn’t tuned into the nukes issue.

“I started having dreams and panic attacks about nuclear weapons,” she says. “And at the same moment, I encountered ICAN, which is this amazing group of people who say, ‘yes, all of that fear is based in a very real terror and in the history of horrific violence, but is not inevitable, and we can do something, and we will.’”

Bolton, an authority on issues related to landmines and nuclear testing, calls the treaty “a stigmatizing instrument” aimed at the nine nuclear-armed states, including the US. “People say, ‘well, what’s the point?’ Well, the point is that it says clearly that nuclear weapons are illegal, and that those who persist in keeping them are essentially framed as ethical pariahs, rogue states.”

Emily Welty and Pope Francis shaking hands
In 2017, the Vatican invited Welty to a conference on nuclear disarmament.

WELTY’S AWAKENING TO ISSUES OF JUSTICE came early. Growing up in a suburb of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Welty “was thinking about racial justice from a pretty early age and asking questions about inequality,” she says. But her “activist awakening” occurred on day one at the College of Wooster. She was all-in: liberation theology, feminism, environmentalism. She paraphrases theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Bolton, too, seems pre-programmed to do global-scale good. Born in Oxford, England, he spent his formative years in the liberal redoubt of Leicester, England, where signs proclaim the city a nuclear-free zone. During his boyhood, he recalls seeing a bank repeatedly get tagged with spray paint for its investments in apartheid South Africa. “To this day, I think about that artist, whoever that was, having the courage to do something bold, to call out wrongdoing, and to defamiliarize the familiar,” he says.

Their marriage in 2007 was founded on an egalitarian principle, one that powered their determination to overcome academia’s “twobody problem,” the difficulty educators who are paired in relationships face in landing jobs at the same school. But it was a non-negotiable, and when Bolton came up for a political science position at Pace, Welty persuaded the University that it needed a peace and social justice program.

“Everyone said, ‘You can’t do that, that’s never going to work, you will have to choose,’” she says with a chuckle. Today, her program counts some 100 students who major or minor in the topic, making it one of the largest in the United States and the recipient of praise by both former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and current Secretary-General António Guterres.

She urges her students—in class and out—to change the way they talk about nukes. “Stop making jokes about them and stop normalizing them,” she says. “Start saying, ‘Another world is possible and we’re gonna do this.’” Bolton says he sees his role as helping students “not accept the way the world is as a given without questioning the kind of packed rationalizations that politicians and government officials will give them.”

Welty says she’s “proud” that the vision of marriage she and Bolton conjured in their 20s hasn’t been “blunted by the world.” Now, being part of something as “sublime” as a Nobel-winning effort, she says, “calls us to continue our existing commitments, but also to keep asking, ‘Is there an additional thing that the world needs from me right now? Is there something else that I can offer?’”

Why present to your class when you can address the UN?

Both Bolton’s and Welty’s programs offer students entrée to the UN— located just two express stops away via subway—continuing Pace’s long association with the world body. Last October, a pair of their students appeared before a United Nations committee in the General Assembly and hammered home the importance of education as a critical element of a “nuclear disarmament toolbox.”

To fulfill a service-learning component of Bolton’s Global Politics of Disarmament class, Terrie Soule ’19 and Sydney Korman ’21 worked with nongovernmental organizations to keep countries focused on education, one of their “positive obligations” under the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, adopted by the UN in 2017.

Pace Students, Terrie Soule ’19 and Sydney Korman ’21, Speaking at the United Nations
Soule and Korman urged UN member states to not drop the ball on disarmament education.

“It is difficult to convey to the general public, particularly youth, the urgency of education for disarmament,” Korman and Soule told their listeners, members of the UN’s First Committee, established in 1946 to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy. “Further, there is a serious lack of funding, and few professional opportunities, for youth who are passionate about disarmament issues, leaving them ultimately disengaged.”

The experience of speaking in the crucible of global deliberation was “nerve-racking,” but also “exciting and empowering,” Soule said via email from Rwanda, where she is studying post-genocide restoration and peacebuilding. (Korman was in Thailand.) And how did it affect her belief that she could influence change?

“My biggest takeaway from working on this project as it pertains to influencing global change is the importance of education,” Soule said. “Lack of education about important global issues such as disarmament works to exclude people from conversations that affect us all.”

John T. Ward is a journalist based in New Jersey.