Disarmament and the production of less violent and more responsible nuclear states

Nuclear weapons states regularly underline their commitment to disarmament. Building on feminist scholarship, Carolina P. Panico argues in a recent article that this renders nuclear possession actually more acceptable.

On March 16, 2021, the UK announced changes to its nuclear weapons policy, significantly increasing its overall nuclear stockpile cap. While the previous self-imposed cap set a target of no more than 180 warheads in the stockpile by the mid-2020s, the new limit now sits at 260. The announcement comes with the reassurance that the UK remains committed to a world free of nuclear weapons and continues to support the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the rules that come with it. What is interesting, however, is that the UK invokes its commitment to disarmament at the very moment it seeks to expand and modernize its nuclear arsenal.

Although the NPT establishes that the five nuclear states must take steps to disarm in good faith, the disarmament discourse must not be taken for granted. One may think that the scenario outlined above is nothing but a reflection of the rules-based order in operation. After all, the NPT sets disarmament as an end goal. However, this position fails to appreciate how the system of thought revolving around disarmament can modify our perception of what is right and wrong in the context of nuclear politics. Article VI, the disarmament proposition of the NPT, is usually seen with great enthusiasm and described as a focal point for collective responsibility towards nuclear disarmament. In a recent article, I present a different story about Article VI. I argue that it makes possible the very thing it is supposed to prevent; it renders nuclear possession more acceptable.

The article advances three core points. First, I examine the ideas accompanying our understanding of disarmament, such as peace, non-violence, anti-war, and explain that these meanings change the way we see the act of possessing nuclear weapons. I compare the nuclear case to feminist critiques of ethics, arguing that invoking disarmament adds a layer of responsibility and peaceful purposes to the nuclear discourse, producing less violent and more responsible possessors.

Second, the disarmament principle allows the nuclear powers to justify possessing their weapons on the grounds of responsibility. To support this claim, I compare the disarmament principle to the norms around non-combatant immunity, which allow states to justify killing civilians in war based on the “good” intentions of “not targeting” or “not intending to harm them.” Under the laws of war, killing is acceptable so long as soldiers follow the prescriptions of the Geneva Conventions accordingly. In nuclear politics, the continued possession and rebuilding of nuclear arsenals is justified if one demonstrates a commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons, which reiterates responsible behavior.

Third, I draw attention to how the persistence of nuclear weapons in global politics is associated with a process of repetition and reiteration of responsibility through the disarmament discourse. More importantly, I argue that so long as we have states performing in a way that replicates dominant understandings defining what passes as “normal” in nuclear politics, in which responsibility is key, nuclear possession will remain a more acceptable practice.

While I remain optimistic that it is possible to eliminate nuclear weapons, my work sheds light on some obstacles preventing us from moving forward with disarmament initiatives. It encourages thinking disarmament in a way that avoids recycling the tightly controlled requirements that constitute the current nuclear order. It is important to note that despite presenting a critique of the NPT and its normative apparatus, I am not advocating for abandoning the treaty. On the contrary, my article suggests that even though the treaty is at the heart of the nuclear problem, the reworking of power structures that arise from its normative framework will lead to transformation. With the TPNW now in force, the findings presented in the article can help develop implementation strategies while encouraging thinking the TPNW as a tool to shift dynamics rendering possession a more acceptable practice.

Uncovering stories that help us understand what makes nuclear weapons such a persistent feature of global politics is an integral part of the process of disarming. It is only through a deepened understanding of the origin and structure of nuclear order that one will be able to grasp and seize possibilities for change, therefore, reorganizing such knowledge as effective sites of resistance.

Carolina P. Panico is a Doctoral Candidate and Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Auckland, Department of Politics and International Relations. She is the author of “Making nuclear possession possible: The NPT disarmament principle and the production of less violent and more responsible nuclear states”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here. Her Twitter account is: @CarolPantoliano

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