By Iiris Aliska
Achieving Nuclear Disarmament from the Feminist Viewpoint by Changing the Discourse Surrounding Nuclear Weapons
The Ukrainian crisis presents a turning point for international security – we can either push for sustainable peace without nuclear weapons or choose a path toward further violence and uncertainty.
The illegal Ukrainian invasion and subsequent deterioration of diplomatic relations are inviting all states to hear arguments for both rearmament and abolishment of nuclear weapons. All of this is happening with the backdrop of Russia and the US modernizing their arms technology, and the UK pledging to increase its nuclear spending. Treaties like New START and the Non-Proliferation Treaty that limit nuclear spending, testing, and proliferation are undermined by polarization between abolishers and promoters of nuclear weapons, therefore threatening their extension. The current events are horrifying, and to many states and actors, they are almost paralyzing. But we cannot lose focus on peacebuilding. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a critical juncture, and what we do now will define the trajectory of international security, peace, and diplomacy in the future.
The idea that we are safe from a nuclear war hinges on the presumption that as long as there is a continuous threat of a nuclear strike, no nuclear state can strike others, as this would cause mutually assured destruction. Nuclear states are ready to murder millions of people – just to promote ‘’peace’’. But peace as a continuous threat of violence is not peace, and it is not sustainable. The abolishment of nuclear weapons was made possible in 2021 by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which made having, making, or using nuclear weapons illegal for its signatories. The treaty is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately, none of the nuclear weapons states is a signatory.
So, how can we persuade all states to give up their nuclear weapons, and prioritize humanity, over insecure claims to power through threats of massive acts of violence?
According to the feminist theory of nuclear weapons and security, having a nuclear arsenal holds a dimension of power and dominance, that states and their leaders are not willing to give up on. For the feminist theory, international politics and security can be seen as gendered, and power promoted by nuclear weapons can be conceptualized as masculine. Unfortunately, this dichotomy also ranks concepts as strong (masculine) or weak (feminine), and dictates which behaviours and policies are favoured over others. This is because masculine behaviour is perceived as more admirable than feminine, and is integrated into everyday practices. Concepts such as peace, empathy, humanitarianism, reconciliation, and disarmament are seen as feminine. Concepts such as realism, military superiority, nuclear weapons, and strength are seen as masculine.
This is perpetuated by discourse used by security experts and politicians alike. The Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) review found that upon examining the Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence, signed by President Putin, the language was highly gendered and used several masculine metaphors equating Russia’s claim for international military domination as strong and admirable. This is also echoing the president’s presentation on the media, which constructs Putin as a strong leader due to his masculine behaviour and appearance.
This is why feminist theory pinpoints changing the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons and security from hypermasculine to gender-neutral as a key to disarmament. It would encourage states to begin disarmament because nuclear weapons would lose their status as symbols of masculine power and international prestige.
The other effect of endorsement of masculine ideas of security is that those with feminine ideas are often excluded from the decision-making processes, or feminine ideas are not seen as valuable. In this case, it means that states promoting disarmament, states affected directly by nuclear testing and development, women, and minorities are excluded from the conversations held by nuclear states. As the highest-ranking actors in the international field and permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UK, US, France, Russia, and China have a monopoly on deciding what type of security the rest of the world has to pursue.
The only way to challenge and change discourses is to start talking. If nuclear weapons remain the ultimate source of masculine power, it will prevent politicians and actors from practising feminine policies such as disarmament. According to promoters of nuclear deterrence as the ultimate security strategy, rationalism is what keeps states from utilizing nuclear weapons. But as we see from the invasion of Ukraine, we cannot rely on international actors to always be rational.
Even a small-scale nuclear war would push two billion people into extreme poverty and famine, destroy the climate, and render parts of the world inhabitable. In light of the current crisis, we continuously see comments about the pacifying and stabilizing effects of having nuclear weapons, but hardly any of what would actually happen if one was launched. If nuclear weapons are held in a ready-to-launch status someone’s trigger finger will eventually slip; either by misunderstanding or on purpose.
The Conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (CHINW) (2013-2014) broke the ground for the success of the NPTW, which shows the significance of approaching nuclear weapons and disarmament from the humanitarian viewpoint. Instead of the usual presumption of weapons as means of peace, the conferences saw an exchange of inclusive, intersectional first-hand experiences and testimonies about the impact of nuclear weapons use and testing. Inclusive participation enables fair and inclusive outcomes, like the TPNW, which the current security system is not.
Therefore the international community must stop using language that reinforces the image of nuclear weapons being the height of security, and identify them for what they truly are: tools of global disaster and mass murder. This new language has to be realistic about the effects and cost of having weapons, and stop glamorizing them as sources of power. From the feminist viewpoint, this can be done by adopting a more gender-neutral discourse of nuclear weapons, that abstains from connecting weapons to masculinity, and highlights their true potential for destruction. If this is unveiled, it will become more attractive to endorse policy and behaviour that promotes disarmament. It will also help shift the idealization of peace from the balance of terror to peace as mutual peaceful co-existence in the international space.
An avenue to adopt such a language and bring all states together could be the first Meeting of States to the TPNW in June 2022. The meeting will invite all signatories of the TPNW as participants, and all other states as observers to engage with the objects, aims, and contents of the treaty. However, in light of the current crisis in Ukraine, it seems unlikely that all states can sit down together and discuss disarmament. Even before the crisis, the nuclear weapons states had declined to participate. Now, widespread participation is even more important for peacebuilding.
This action has to take place on both the grassroots and international levels. All of this is underpinned by understanding that the security system and the discourse surrounding it are a central part of why no meaningful steps towards disarmament can be made.
At the grassroots level, individuals and organizations can promote and share ideas about disarmament, and change the domestic discourse surrounding issues of nuclear weapons and their effects on human rights, security, and equality. As the FFP review reveals, no meaningful policy towards complete equality and sustainability can be made without divestment and renouncement of nuclear weapons, even on the domestic level. This can help states to change their view of international security and modify their rhetoric and approach to foreign policy and diplomacy.
Despite the UK’s rejection of the TPNW, the Scottish government strongly opposes the ownership and usage of nuclear weapons and has been vocal about its interest in becoming a signatory if it becomes independent. Nicola Sturgeon has embraced a humanitarian viewpoint on nuclear weapons and has called on the UK government to sign the treaty. Therefore Scotland as a domestic actor can have a central role in challenging the discourse on nuclear weapons in the UK. Scotland must stand unified against nuclear weapons, especially as the UK’s nuclear weapons are all stationed in Scotland. High attendance at the first Meeting of the States on the TPNW is crucial for the spread of awareness about the harms of nuclear weapons, especially as the Scottish view is not expressed by the UK parliament. This can be a pathway to express and engage with ideas of disarmament and channel this information back to the UK.
Scotland could potentially encourage the UK to adopt initiatives, like the Feminist Foreign Policy framework, which suggests how to overcome policies producing inequality. Carina Uchida recognizes nuclear weapons policy to be a central inhibitor of achieving truly inclusive and ethical domestic policy in the UK. In her report, she details how important adopting the framework is and deems changing discourses surrounding the nuclear trident and British exceptionalism as imperative for both disarmament and achieving true structural equality in the UK. Scotland could be a key player in this transition.
On an international level, inclusivity has to be improved to ensure that the humanitarian viewpoint can be heard and promoted. For example, the UN has taken steps towards this by introducing inclusivity quotas on participation in negotiations, which could further be applied and introduced to avenues like large disarmament forums. This can help take steps opening the decision-making process on nuclear weapons to all affected states instead of the entitled few, and mainstream feminine ideas of peace and disarmament as the norm of security policy. Eventually, this could lead to the universal adoption of the TPNW, banning nuclear weapons once and for all.
Starting the discussion ahead of the first Meeting of States to the TPNW can promote peace and diplomacy, and hopefully help ease the tensions between states. Peaceful and inclusive engagement can change the discourse on security and nuclear weapons to neutral terms that do not associate nuclear weapons with masculine conceptions of power, but instead with the inherent destruction they can create. Acknowledging this is not weak – it is a strength. All discussion over nuclear weapons has to depart from this point. And we as individuals, organizations, and states have to create a new ideal of peace without nuclear weapons. Peace should not lie in the ability of the few to commit inhuman violence, but in the ability to invite everyone to co-exist and work together.
Read more about Feminist Foreign Policy and the feminist theory on nuclear weapons and security here: Feminism, Power, & Nuclear Weapons: An Eye on the P5