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What does Masculinity and East/West thinking have to do with Nuclear Weapons?

What does Masculinity and East/West thinking have to do with Nuclear Weapons?

Photo credit: Thea Mjelstad

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Das, R. (2014). United States-India nuclear relations post-9/11: neo-liberal discourses, masculinities, and orientalism in international politics. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 49(1), 16-33. 

Talking Points

  • Masculinity operates in U.S./Indian nuclear discourses, marking both U.S. and Indian state identities as rational, responsible actors who engage in strategic interdependence to meet their economic and political interests.
  • Orientalism operates in U.S./Indian nuclear discourses, marking India as inferior to the U.S. as a potentially irresponsible non-Western country that must be “watched with its nuclear technology use”.
  • India engages in its own orientalist “internal” othering of Pakistan in the way that it draws clear distinctions between the characteristics it shares with the U.S.— “democracy, pluralism, and secularism”—and the characteristics of Pakistan, who is represented as home to terrorist groups and as not fully evolved politically. 


To the untrained eye, nuclear politics may appear very far from considerations of gender in international politics. Political leaders generally justify their nuclear policies on the basis of national security or economic cooperation, both of which seem neutral and ungendered at first glance. The author aims to demonstrate the fundamental ways in which gender actually influences nuclear politics globally, reinforcing unequal power relations between different countries and legitimizing particular nuclear policies. The focus of the author’s analysis is post-9/11 nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and India, and she is interested in finding out the extent to which masculinity and orientalism inform U.S./Indian nuclear discourse and politics.

Tracing the history of U.S./Indian relations since World War II, with special attention to nuclear politics, the author notes an evolution from a somewhat strained relationship during India’s post-independence commitment to economic development and their non-alignment during the Cold War—to warmer relations when India shifted to a more liberal market economy. Cooperation grew between the two countries despite India’s move to acquire nuclear weapons and refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the 1960s-1970s. After the end of the Cold War, U.S./Indian relations were generally positive, the U.S. insisted on the two-tier “nuclear apartheid” system (enshrined by the NPT). In this system, certain states were/are considered legitimate nuclear powers and others were/are considered unfit to possess nuclear weapons India (and Pakistan) were punished for their 1998 nuclear tests, but the U.S. softened this stance when it began prioritizing economic and anti-terrorism cooperation with India after 9/11.

Masculinity (in international relations): “a form of ‘symbolic gender-coding’ that represents a gendered and hierarchical ‘way of structuring relations of power’ in international politics.” For instance, gendering an actor or practice as masculine (through qualities widely associated with masculinity such as being “tough,” “rational,” “unemotional,” etc.) endows it with value and legitimacy, whereas gendering an actor or practice as feminine (through qualities widely associated with femininity such as being “weak,” “emotional,” “in need of protection,” etc.) devalues or delegitimizes it. (-Das drawing on Cohn, C.; Hoffman, F.; Ruddick, S. (N.d.). The relevance of gender for eliminating weapons of mass destruction. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, 38.

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.

The author looks to various official documents and speeches in order to analyze the nuclear discourse between the U.S. and India post-9/11. This period is characterized by a neo-liberal emphasis on international interdependence and cooperation to facilitate political and economic freedom and fight terrorism. This analysis leads her to three central findings. First, the discourse outlining U.S./Indian cooperation—especially in the area of nuclear energy—is informed by a “globalized masculinity”. U.S. and Indian state identities are marked as rational, responsible actors who engage in strategic interdependence to meet their economic and political interests. Second, at the same time, these are hierarchically ordered masculinities informed by orientalist representations. India is infantilized and/or feminized vis-à-vis the U.S., due to its post-colonial status as a non-Western country that is potentially irresponsible and must be “watched” with its nuclear technology use. Third, India, in turn, engages in its own orientalist “internal” othering of Pakistan. It draws clear distinctions between the characteristics it (India) shares with the U.S.—“democracy, pluralism, and secularism”—and the characteristics of Pakistan, who is represented as home to terrorist groups and as not fully evolved politically. This orientalist move towards Pakistan is complicated, however, and does not directly replicate the U.S.’s orientalism towards India. Being self-conscious of its own post-colonial position in relation to the West/U.S., India also contains plenty of critics of U.S./Indian cooperation.

Contemporary Relevance

This article is important for two main reasons. First, it reminds us of the widespread presence of gender as a tool for structuring value and legitimizing particular practices in global politics—including nuclear weapons possession. Once we begin to train ourselves to see the operation of gender in various spheres of political life, we can start to bring its operation to light. We then can call out the way in which, for instance, appeals to masculinity normalize nuclear deterrence or the feminizing of nuclear-abolition activists delegitimizes their concerns.

Second, this article highlights the often-eclipsed two-tier system of “nuclear apartheid” that operates on the global level, one that divides the world into acceptable, responsible nuclear powers vs. those not civilized/developed/responsible enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. As much as non-proliferation may be a laudable goal, one can understand the arguments of countries—including India, Pakistan, and now North Korea—who resist this unequal system and wish to develop nuclear capabilities themselves. As the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons against human beings in wartime, the U.S. has dubious standing when it comes to telling other countries that they are not fit to own nuclear weapons.

Although this double standard mostly applies to the distinction between the official nuclear countries identified in the NPT (the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia, and France), and everyone else, it is worth mentioning that it also applies to different ways of viewing the various countries that have acquired nuclear weapons despite—or outside the parameters of—the NPT, such as India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel. While the U.S. clearly tolerates Israel’s (and to some extent India’s and Pakistan’s) nuclear weapons, it declares North Korea’s nuclear weapons possession (and Iran’s potential nuclear weapons possession) wholly unacceptable.

On a final related note, the nuclear non-proliferation regime centered on the NPT is based on a fundamental premise: non-nuclear states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons if nuclear states agree to move towards complete disarmament. So far, the official nuclear states have not taken this aspect of the treaty seriously, despite the 2017 UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Practical Implications

As noted by various feminist scholars and anti-nuclear activists such as Carol Cohn, Sara Ruddick, Ray Acheson, Felicity Hill, and others, employing a gender lens in our analysis is critical to understanding both how nuclear weapons are legitimized and normalized and how to abolish them. One step to take is to bring seemingly “feminine” concerns and voices into discussions on nuclear weapons and to value—rather than denigrate—them (easier said than done, as noted by Cohn). For instance, even if you feel like you are the only one with this concern in the context of abstract political discussions about nuclear deterrence—and even if you fear that voicing it will mark you as “emotional” and “naïve” (qualities with feminine connotations)—vocalize your concern about the embodied human beings whose lives are put at risk by the very existence of these weapons. Even when it seems out of place, bring up the negative physical and environmental effects of nuclear testing or the opportunity costs (in terms of education, healthcare, economic well-being, and so on) of devoting massive amounts of money to upgrading the nuclear stockpile.

When it comes to the matter of orientalism and so-called “nuclear apartheid,” practical implications of this research include drawing out and publicizing the inconsistencies apparent in the nuclear policies of official nuclear weapons states vis-à-vis non-nuclear weapons states. Why is it that the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons against actual human beings is considered more responsible—and therefore a more legitimate possessor of nuclear weapons—than countless other countries who have not? Furthermore, it is important to keep drawing attention to Article 6 of the NPT, in which nuclear weapons states agreed to engage in good-faith negotiations towards complete nuclear disarmament. It is unreasonable to expect non-nuclear weapons states to deny themselves a right to nuclear weapons acquisition when the nuclear weapons states are not holding up their end of the bargain with nuclear disarmament. —especially in light of the new UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, the negotiations for which none of the nuclear weapons states participated in and which none of the nuclear weapons states have yet signed.

Continued Reading

Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals By Carol Cohn. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Summer 1987).

Sex, Gender, and Nuclear Weapons By Ray Acheson. Reaching Critical Will, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, 2015:

The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction By Carol Cohn, with Felicity Hill and Sara Ruddick. Paper #38, The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, 2005:

Keywords: discourse, India, masculinity, nuclear apartheid, nuclear weapons, Orientalism, Pakistan

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


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