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The Importance of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons

The Importance of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons

Photo credit: Yutaka Nagata

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ritchie, N. (2013). Valuing and devaluing nuclear weapons. Contemporary Security Policy, 34(1), 146-173.

Talking Points

  • Nuclear weapons are “social objects” that gain their meaning and value from the social context—both domestic and global—within which they are embedded, therefore the value attached to them is subject to change.
  • Movement towards nuclear abolition must include the devaluation of nuclear weapons if political elites are to be expected to voluntarily rid themselves of them.
  • Key areas of focus for devaluing nuclear weapons include shifting to de-nuclearized conceptions of national identity; decoupling UN Security Council permanent membership from nuclear status to decrease the prestige associated with nuclear weapons possession; and challenging arguments about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.


Thinking on nuclear disarmament usually revolves around the political and technical steps necessary to accomplish such a feat. But nuclear weapons are not simply hardware; they are “social objects” that gain their meaning and value from the social context. Whether on the domestic or global level their context currently endows them with various forms of value and legitimacy. As such, moving towards nuclear abolition requires more than just political and technical problem-solving; it requires the devaluing of nuclear weapons, as “states are unlikely to voluntarily surrender highly prized national assets.” The author’s purpose in this article is to explore what devaluing nuclear weapons means and what the devaluing process might look like.

The author begins by clarifying what he means by “devaluing” nuclear weapons, a term he sees as encompassing two other terms: marginalizing and delegitimizing. Marginalizing nuclear weapons entails changes to national policy and force structure that sideline nuclear weapons in broader military planning. Delegitimizing nuclear weapons entails either formal rulings of nuclear weapons’ illegality or the evolution of more informal norms that stigmatize their use. To fully understand the process of devaluing nuclear weapons, however, the author insists that we must first understand nuclear value—something that does not exist objectively but rather emerges from specific contexts and discourses that create particular “truths” regarding what nuclear weapons are and what they can do. In other words, nuclear value comes from dominant modes of representing particular security practices and tools—including nuclear weapons—as legitimate and/or effective and others as illegitimate and/or ineffective. These dominant modes of representation take on the guise of “truth” and therefore have powerful effects on how we think and act.

To measure nuclear value in the case of the United Kingdom the author looks to discourse, analyzing “formal reports, statements, and interviews with current and former policy-makers.” And to measure nuclear weapons devaluation in the same case, he looks not only at “changes in material force structure and operations” and “formal nuclear policy” but also at the interpretations of these changes in nuclear policy discourse.

Nuclear value in the UK is categorized into six different domains: domestic, ontological, institutional, systemic, relational, and operational. Domestic political value includes the retention of skilled jobs in various nuclear industries, the party politics implications of being viewed as “strong on defence,” organizational value accorded to the Ministry of Defence, and public opinion in support of nuclear possession. Ontological value inheres in the value of stable national identity, which for the UK is tied up with nuclear weapons possession—the UK’s roles both as a “militarily moral ‘force for good’” that “uphold[s] international peace and security” and as a country with a “special relationship” with the United States. Institutional/governance value relates to the way in which nuclear weapons have come to symbolize status and prestige in international politics. This is largely due to the way in which the official Nuclear Weapons States (N5) identified in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) correspond with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5), “fetishiz[ing] [nuclear weapons] as a currency of international power” and creating a strong incentive for non-nuclear states to acquire the weapons. Systemic and relational value refer to general and specific deterrence value, respectively; the former relates to the role nuclear weapons are understood to play in maintaining international order and stability, and the latter relates to the presumed deterrent value nuclear weapons can have against specific adversaries, particularly Russia and Iran in the case of the UK. Finally, operational value entails what is believed to constitute “responsible” and “effective” practices to ensure minimum nuclear deterrence—for instance, the UK’s practice of always having at least one of its nuclear-armed submarines on patrol. Together, these six domains endow British nuclear weapons with significant value—value that is produced through both domestic and international discourses.

Discourse: “a mode of organizing knowledge, ideas, or experience that is rooted in language and its concrete contexts (such as history or institutions)” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Discourse is usually understood to, in a sense. produce reality rather than merely describe it, insofar as the language we use to represent the world around us shapes how we perceive and act on that world.

In turning to nuclear weapons devaluation processes, the author distinguishes between “surface” and “deep” devaluing: the former means reducing “the size and role of nuclear arsenals” while leaving the “logic of nuclear deterrence and nuclear prestige” largely intact; the latter means more fundamentally rethinking deterrence, as well as the prestige associated with nuclear weapons. The author suggests that deep devaluing will require the following changes, among others: a shift in conceptions of national identity such that nuclear weapons possession is not essential to the other roles that the UK performs; a decoupling of nuclear status from UN Security Council permanent membership; challenges to arguments about the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence in specific adversarial relationships; attention to economic concerns about dismantling nuclear industries; and greater “legal-normative restraints” on nuclear use. In short, these broader devaluation processes are necessary before political elites are likely to see nuclear abolition as consistent with national identity and national interest.  

Contemporary Relevance

This past year has demonstrated dramatic movement in opposite directions when it comes to the valuing and devaluing of nuclear weapons. On the one hand, the current escalation between the U.S. and North Korea demonstrates—and reinvigorates—the value both countries attribute to nuclear weapons. To North Korea, no doubt, nuclear weapons are attractive both because they signal prestige and power and because their possession of them has so far averted a U.S. military attack. In the case of Iraq, for example, the U.S. attacked and invaded a country that did not have nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons to North Korea also provide a symbol of national pride and resistance for a population that might otherwise have ample reason to resent their leadership. Likewise, for the U.S. under the current administration, nuclear weapons are tools of masculine bravado. Leaders can inflate their egos and strengthen their position when domestic approval ratings are plummeting. On the other hand, earlier this year, the UN adopted the Treaty on the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, which is the first legally binding treaty to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons (as well as their threat and use). This represents a huge step forward in delegitimizing these weapons and helps shift the normative context in which nuclear weapons states act, even if they continue to possess nuclear weapons and refuse to become signatories.

Practical Implications

This article provides an excellent avenue for action on the part of civil society actors and disarmament-minded political leaders who wish to bring the world closer to nuclear abolition. The analysis here lends credence to activities anti-nuclear activists are already engaging in to delegitimize nuclear weapons. These activities can slowly transform the standards and discursive context that has so far made nuclear weapons ownership acceptable but one day will not. The more nuclear weapons possession is viewed by the political elite as a liability rather than an asset, the more likely they will be to move towards disarmament. An important point here is that the discourses that make nuclear weapons appear acceptable and effective are unstable and fraught with inconsistencies. One glaring inconsistency is, of course, the fact that nuclear deterrence requires threatening millions of innocent lives in order to protect them. Another is that nuclear weapons provide absolutely no protection against a non-state actor who decides to detonate a conventional or nuclear device in a civilian area. If activists can draw out such instabilities and inconsistencies, they can create cracks in the seeming inevitability of nuclear weapons ownership. What are considered established interests and strategies tied up with nuclear weapons possession can become unclear, contested and divisive among power holders. Those moments of schism are when real change can occur, as what was once taken as natural or inevitable is revealed no longer to be.

Continued Reading

A Challenge to Nuclear Deterrence By Edward Ifft. Arms Control Today, March 2017:

After the Prohibition Treaty: A Practical Agenda to Reduce Nuclear Dangers By Lewis A. Dunn. Arms Control Association (July/August 2017).

The world doesn’t need more Nuclear Weapons By Erika Gregory at TedWomen.

Cultural Change Initiative by Ploughshares Fund. By Ploughshares Fund.

Strengthening Civil Society in an Age of Nuclear Uncertainty. By Emma Belcher. 2017.

Keywords: devaluing, discourse, nuclear weapons

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Special Issue: Nuclear Weapons, of the Peace Science Digest.


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