In a new article, Nick Ritchie analyses the power politics behind the recent Ban Treaty. He argues that the Ban Treaty challenges the set of core international social institutions of nuclear order. Whether this challenge is sustained remains to be seen.
We live in interesting times for the global politics of nuclear weapons. The resurgence of deep animosity between the United States, NATO and Russia, concerns about the ability of President Donald Trump to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, and the nuclear threats and insults between the US and North Korea in 2017 all revitalized public fears about nuclear war to an extent not felt since the 1980s.
Less well known is a movement of governments, NGOs and international institutions over the past eight years to galvanize progress towards nuclear disarmament as the only long-term solution to the threat of nuclear violence. This resulted in a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons negotiated at the UN in 2017 to ban nuclear weapons. It was supported by 122 states across the global South but rejected by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. This polarization is symptomatic of the fractious state of nuclear politics.
Given these significant developments, how can or should we understand the messy politics of nuclear weapons in today’s world? In my new article, I argue that the starting point has to be power. This might seem obvious, but it is often missing from serious analysis of nuclear politics and the idea of a ‘global nuclear order’. By taking power seriously we can get a much better understanding of the global politics of nuclear weapons as a ‘global nuclear control order’, one in which the power of the United States is central but not reducible to it.
I define this as a well-established set of practices (material, institutional and discursive) that legitimizes, regulates, and disciplines the development and use of nuclear technology and knowledge. But it does so selectively and in ways that reproduce a global nuclear hierarchy in general and U.S. power and preferences in particular. This includes the selective regulation and disciplining of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programmes and the selective legitimation of the possession of nuclear weapons and even nuclear attacks.
The United States has played the central ordering role in global nuclear politics as the world’s most powerful state. But my argument that the global nuclear control order is rooted in but not reducible to U.S. power is important because it demonstrates the ways in which the global politics of nuclear weapons is shaped by structures of power that have developed and endured over seven decades.
Three further points are relevant here: first, these power structures are hierarchical and they have enjoyed the widespread support of most of the world’s major powers with the exceptions of Germany and Japan in the 1960s, China until the 1990s, and India on a limited but continuing basis. Second, the United States might be the most powerful state in global nuclear politics, but only within a wider nuclear oligarchy of other nuclear-armed states and nuclear beneficiaries; and third, the nuclear control order is embedded in a broader set of power structures that characterize the post-1945 capitalist ‘international liberal order’.
For these reasons, the global nuclear control order should be understood as a hegemonic order. Hegemony, in this sense, refers to a structure of power that is sustained through a combination of coercion and consent between the dominant and dominated. Political scientist Robert Cox argued that coercion and consent are practiced through material power, institutions, and ideas about how political life should be organized. A hegemonic structure describes “a particular combination of thought patterns, material conditions, and human institutions which has a certain coherence among its elements” as Cox put it (p. 135).
Thinking about global nuclear politics in this way means thinking about power beyond traditional notions based on material military and economic power. Instead, we need to think about material power, institutional power, the discursive power of ideas, and structural power. It is the way in which these forms of power are exercised and experienced in global nuclear politics to selectively empower and legitimize that is captured by Cox’s framework. Through this lens, global nuclear politics constitutes a hegemonic structure of control.
This unequal and hierarchical nuclear control order is often framed as universal, normal, and legitimate in ways that conceal its underlying power relations. But the ways in which the ‘ban treaty’ process has actively challenged these power structures has made them more explicit. By taking power seriously and by using Cox’s understanding of hegemony and a more nuanced appreciation of power, a set of core international social institutions, or ‘structural pillars’, of nuclear order can be distilled. These include:
- A nuclear weapons and nuclear trade oligarchy centered on the five nuclear weapon states recognised in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and their positions as permanent members of the UN Security Council;
- An understanding of security that requires a permanent operational capacity for strategic nuclear violence for an exclusive ‘club’ justified by an ideology of ‘nuclearism’;
- A bilateral US-Russia institution of competitive, limited, negotiated and verified constraints on their strategic nuclear delivery systems alongside competitive development of advanced strategic weapons and recapitalization of Cold War nuclear weapon systems;
- A Western nuclear security community of alliances that maps on to global wealth and power in the capitalist economic system with the U.S. as nuclear patron at the core;
- A system of intrusive and institutionalized nuclear policing led primarily by the U.S. and centered on state and non-state actors and networks, often in the global South, such that it is inadvisable to confront or militarily resist the U.S. and wider West without nuclear weapons; and
- A set of formal international institutions that regulate civilian nuclear technologies, knowledge and practices, notably through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The ban treaty has challenged the legitimacy of some (though not all) of these social institutions because of the growing permanence of nuclear inequalities and injustices. It is an expression of collective resistance to those aspects of nuclear hegemony, nuclear hierarchy, and practices of nuclear control that legitimize and perpetuate the existence of nuclear weapons, the practice of nuclear deterrence, and the continuing risk of catastrophic nuclear violence.
What is clear from this analysis is that changing the global politics of nuclear weapons through initiatives like the ban treaty entails confrontation with an embedded historical structure of power and hierarchy. A sustained challenge has the potential to change things at a time when wider power structures and hierarchies in global politics are in a period of flux, but it will need to be sustained.
Nick Ritchie is a senior lecturer at the University of York, UK. He recently published “A hegemonic nuclear order: Understanding the Ban Treaty and the power politics of nuclear weapons”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication, available here.