Nuclear Politics: Beyond Positivism

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Critical Studies on Security, Vol. 4 No. 1, 2016

What is it possible to say, or think, about nuclear weapons today? The answer will depend less on what you know than on who you are: on where you are situated, and on what the background rules of memory, discourse and research that shape your community’s understanding of the nuclear problem are. Are you Russian, American, or Iranian? Are you a strategist in the Department of Defense or a Washington DC beltway think tank, or a Marshall Islander or Navajo native American struggling with the legacy of testing and mining? In a small way, this special issue of Critical Studies on Security aims to highlight the discursive architectures, and the material stakes, of the politics of knowledge around nuclear weapons.

This politics was brought home to me, once again, in New York City a year before this issue went to press. Over the course of a long conversation with one of the contributors, someone who has moved between government, think tanks and academia, they remarked that nuclear disarmament remains an almost unspeakable notion in the United States. At best, it is not seen as geopolitically realistic or germane to US national security; at worst, its concerted advocacy would be damaging to one’s career. My eyes flared in surprise; as believable as it was, it still seemed shocking. Did not the US President give a speech in a European capital evoking a world, many decades hence, without nuclear weapons? (Obama 2009) Had not four former US leaders –the so-called ‘gang of four’–made a similar call and their voices been joined by numerous former cabinet members, generals and political leaders? (Burke 2009, 507, 511; Schultz and Goodby 2015) How could the think tanks and university schools, known for their hundreds of leading thinkers on strategic and security affairs, be so far behind?

My disbelief was enhanced by the ironic fact that, earlier that day, I had been sitting in the United Nations Headquarters on the East River watching diplomats debate during the ninth Review Conference (or ‘Revcon’) on the Treaty on the NonProliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which includes the core Article VI committing its member states to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament’. At the very least, this centrepiece of the global regime governing nuclear weapons ought to mean that disarmament –however complex or politically fraught –should be seen as part of the American nuclear real. Yet the remaining weeks of the review conference bore out the ghostly quality of disarmament in global nuclear politics: a vast gulf separated those many states who are so frustrated by the slow pace of disarmament that they are promoting new legal mechanisms (the ‘effective measures’ of Article VI) to ban nuclear weapons, and those nuclear weapons states and their allies who maintain that disarmament must remain a faltering, incremental process subject to favourable geopolitical conditions (Potter 2016).The Revcon failed to agree a final document, in part because this gulf could not be bridged.

Disarmament: the ghostly subject of a vast, coerced silence that traverses nations and generations.

How is this possible? What other nuclear realities lay silenced under that silence? This special issue is a product of efforts initiated by Maria Rost Rublee, of Monash University, and Marianne Hanson, of the University of Queensland, who organised first a panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) meeting in San Diego in 2012 and then (with myself) an ISA catalytic workshop in San Francisco in 2013 which included many of the contributors. We are grateful to the ISA for that opportunity to develop this project further at that meeting.

We aimed at these events to gather a diverse group of scholars working broadly under a post-positivist rubric to discuss contemporary and historical nuclear politics. Our concern was that the dominant traditions of nuclear and security scholarship were deliberately marginalising critical perspectives and voices, and that some of this marginalisation was being carried out under the banner of correct methodology. Our view is that many methodologies, including positivist ones, can produce valuable forms of nuclear critique and knowledge. Problems arise when groups of scholars and institutions want to establish forms of hierarchy and exclusion that shut down important lines of research and debate –the very kind of debate that is vibrantly evident in living international institutions like the NPT and its review conferences. Positivist scholarship is often marked by a silent suppression of important facts or perspectives –for example, mainstream articles about non-proliferation often fail to talk about the NPT or disarmament, and support status quo or nuclear state perspectives without any reflexivity or justification. Their norms and commitments are implicit, rather than made available for scrutiny and debate. Worse, we know of too many experiences of bullying and censorship from conservative or positivist colleagues (though we are not arguing that this is widespread), and it is time for such toxic practices to cease. Everyone has a stake in the beneficial operation of the nuclear (and broader global security) order, given how difficult it is to manage and the fact that the survival of the planet hinges on the way that it evolves. Diversity and openness need to be our touchstones now.

That said, I will soften the framing of this special issue around the positivist/postpositivist divide, which is more a fiction peddled by the positivist side of the field, one used to deliberately marginalise ‘postmodernist’ and constructivist perspectives without any acknowledgement of how diverse and internally contested these perspectives are. To subsume these, diverse perspectives under a common methodological rubric risks suppressing interesting lines of debate and contestation. For example, in this issue are two exemplars of the postcolonial perspective in security studies (Itty Abraham and Ritu Mathur), while, in the ‘new materialist’ argument of Mike Bourne and the hybrid materialist-post-structural methodology of Anthony Burke, you can see a creative fracturing of the assumed post-structuralist epistemological consensus about the textuality and constructedness of the real. Ursula Jaspers, in her effort to supplement structural-realist, neoliberal institutionalist and constructivist accounts of why the flaws in the NPT regime do not ‘see stronger protests and revisionist aspirations’, eschews the traditional model of Foucault’s ‘discourse’, ‘governmentality’ and ‘subjectification’ for Bourdieu’s sociological model of ‘habitus’, ‘cultural capital’ and ‘field’. (As Colin Wight [2013, 329] argues, Bourdieu’s position has more in common with a critical realist perspective than a poststructuralist one.) This enables her, without overextending the metaphor, to conceptualise the ‘highly hierarchical, discriminatory structure’ of the NPT regime as a quasi-religious order which can explain both ‘the distribution of symbolic capital –i.e. of nuclear weapons in the nuclear case –but also the acceptance of inferiority or subordination by the majority’. One influence on this work was the way that Carol Cohn (1987, 702), in the course of her groundbreaking feminist analysis of how gendered metaphors in nuclear strategy shape and corral thinking, remarked on how ‘the creators of strategic doctrine actually refer to members of the community as “the nuclear priesthood”. In this way, a practice-based post-positivism can shed important light on a major practical problem within the non-proliferation regime.

We can better honour the distinctive perspectives present in this issue, and the political stakes involved, by putting them under the broader rubric of ‘critical’ work. By ‘critical’, I mean work that questions received assumptions and subterranean political and metaphysical frameworks; that understands that all knowledge has a political element and is for something and someone; and that aims to uncover –with novel methodologies –less visible aspects of the real.

This is the major connecting theme of the issue: Jaspers argues that ‘we need to uncover … structural, deeply ingrained dispositions and practices and radically rethink the existing order beyond the confines of today’s nuclear conventionalism’; Abraham argues for acquiring ‘a critical distance from commonplace assumptions attached to the nuclear condition’; Bourne aims to make the ‘impossibility of [nuclear] uninvention an empirical question rather than an a priori assumption’; Mathur aims to highlight the Orientalist politics of western-dominated nuclear order ‘circulating as colonial nonsense that is time and time again iterated to maintain the status quo’; Burke develops ‘an understanding of time as a metaphor that gives shape to our understandings, and performances, of nuclear policy, history and practice’ and challenges its effects; and Harrington performs an ‘immanent critique’ of neorealist thinking on nuclear weapons that ‘takes a thought system on its own terms and by revealing its contradictions from within, opens up new possibilities for transformation’.

In this way, these papers build on a relatively small but important critical literature on nuclear weapons and security dating at least to the second Cold War (and which, interestingly, had precedents in the work of some classical realists such as Morgenthau [1964]; see also Craig [2003] and game theorists such as Anatole Rapoport [1969]). In nuclear politics, critical work has two main features: first is a political and normative challenge to the existence of nuclear weapons and the acceptability of deterrence, and a desire to explain why non-proliferation has occurred and why –along with disarmament it would be beneficial to world order. This agenda takes in works such as Ken Booth’s critique of nuclearism (1999a, 1999b); Marianne Hanson’s critique of the detrimental impact of nuclear weapons on international security (2002); Ramesh Thakur’s work on the non-proliferation regime (2016); Joseph Camilleri’s work on states, nuclear power and ANZUS (Camilleri 1984, 1987); and the work of Maria Rost-Rublee (2009) and other constructivists (Tannenwald 2005a, 2005b; Hymans 2006) which both explains and supports the normative underpinnings of non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear abstinence in a way that realist and positivist theories could not.

Such writers are often drawing on mainstream theoretical perspectives such as constructivism, English school solidarism, peace studies and revisionist historiography, but with the important proviso that they are extending the boundaries of ethical concern and challenging fundamental nuclear categories from a normative or ethical standpoint. There are important connections between these standpoints and contemporary writers such as Shampa Biswas (2014), whose postcolonial critique of dominant structures and interpretations of the non-proliferation regime is more fundamentally concerned with exposing forms of nuclear vulnerability and harm that it has kept hidden, or worse, actually enabled. In a similar way, Thomas Doyle (2010) has been working to widen the field of nuclear ethics beyond its Cold War limits.

Such critical work has a strong normative affinity to more obviously deconstructive works that directly target the cultural, linguistic and ontological architectures that have helped build and sustain nuclear weapons systems and governance. One thinks here of David Mutimer’s(2000) work on the metaphors and ‘image’ of non-proliferation, Gabrielle Hecht’s Africa-focused work on the ‘ambiguities of the nuclear state, and the state of being nuclear’ (2012, 3); William Chaloupka’s(1992) remarkable work of social and cultural theory, Knowing Nukes; Nick Ritchie’s(2012) work on Trident; Cooper and Mutimer’s(2011) critique of arms control (also Mutimer 2011); and Columba Peoples’ work on the ‘justification’ of missile defence (2010) and the limits of nuclear critique (2016). A fascinating and distinctive strand of critical writing has been that which highlights the constructive and political power of nuclear histories and puts them into question: examples here include work by Brent Steele (2015), Joseph Masco (2015) and Itty Abraham (2006), and Stefanie Fishel’s (2015) critique of the linked state politics of nuclear silencing and memorialisation. All of the authors in this issue have previously published groundbreaking work that has shaped both of these critical traditions (Mathur 2012; Burke 2009; Bourne 2012; Jasper 2014; Abraham 2006, 2010; Harrington De Santana 2009). These new articles will no doubt feed into the continued development of a vibrant and innovative ‘critical nuclear studies’; we hope you enjoy them and find yourselves inspired, challenged, argumentative and engaged.


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