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Exposing Flaws in the Logic(s) of Nuclear Deterrence as an International Security Strategy – a Feminist Postcolonial Perspective

“Nuclear weapons (...) must remain instruments of deterrence, with the objective of preventing war” Emmanuel Macron, 2020.1

“Germany also remains committed to nuclear participation within NATO. We view this nuclear umbrella as an essential part of European security” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 2020.2

Lately, the discourse on nuclear weapons in the European Union (EU) has experienced a revival in popularity. With the United States (US) as an increasingly unreliable ally, as evidenced in Iran’s and the US’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Deal, French president Emmanuel Macron spoke at the Munich Security Conference of the need for a new EU-wide nuclear strategy. While, for some, the topic’s prominence may have come as a surprise, this move sparked a debate which seemed to have been lurking beneath the surface, waiting to resurface. Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, with astonishing speed, averted and reaffirmed President Macron’s argument of how the existence of nuclear weapons is essential to security and to the prevention of war.

Does this all sound familiar? It sure does. Prevention through deterrence is one of, if not the most central concepts originating from the period of bipolarity between 1945 and 1989. From post-World War II, the “Cold War”, to today, nuclear deterrence as a military concept remains critical to the mainstream narrative of how “natural order” can be restored and maintained. To elaborate, starting in the 1980s, deterrence led to a (nuclear) arms race, and progressively turned into a (inter)national security strategy.3 Deterrence as a military strategy saw its “heyday” during the “Cold War”, when the US and Soviet Union’s power-plays formed a bipartite world. Having a nuclear shield has been framed as a tool to peace, and thus has become a critical component of international politics and the political system. Up until today, being in possession of nuclear weapons – backed by a large non-nuclear military corpus or not – is inextricably linked to questions of power and dominance in the international community.

With the recent rejuvenation of nuclear deterrence, we ought to look at the logic behind this narrative and ask ourselves: Do weapons of mass destruction and the threats of using them really function as a means to international security? What historical and social processes may we be neglecting within this narrative? What do we fail to see? And – posing a truly feminist question – who is being silenced when such a strategy is adopted?

To find answers to these questions, feminist postcolonial approaches to IR provide analytical prisms that allow us to expose some of the flaws in the logic of security through nuclear deterrence. Feminist postcolonial analyses provide several tools to uncover and deconstruct how power is distributed in political systems and social structures.4 Although there is no single conceptualization of power, there is a common commitment to “exploring absence, silence, difference, oppression and the power of epistemology”5. While feminist analyses unveil how patriarchy and gender act as global organizing principles, adding a postcolonial perspective to the analytic equation reveals how (neo)imperialism interacts with race, gender and class to shape international politics and determine the distribution of power, especially access to and control over resources, rights and participation, as well as – for this analysis, most importantly – security. If we perceive the world through these prisms, it becomes evident how the (re)production of power is contingent upon these historically grown ordering international principles.

In the following, we briefly outline the epistemological linkage between imperialism and neorealist theories. We then demonstrate how societal norm systems fit within the logics of nuclear deterrence and examine how hegemonic masculinities operate on a systemic level to reproduce the logic behind deterrence as a means for international security. This is followed by an inquiry of how notions of superiority and inferiority manifest and reproduce “order” in the international community, and how this justifies the possession of nuclear weapons. Finally, we analyse how racialized and gendered dynamics unfold and culminate in such contexts. We do so by asking the following questions: how do societal and political norms come into place, who gets to make decisions, and who may be silenced in such processes?

Neorealist Theories – forms of imperialism?

Nuclear deterrence and related security politics have evolved from the political realities of Cold War times, an Anglo-American thumbprint of neorealist theories of International Relations (IR) and the discipline’s “imperial” remnants.6 IR was born out of and mirrored the foundations of a world organized by imperial powers that conceived superiority and inferiority in racist and culturalist ways.7 By the late 19th century, the world had been mapped according to an imperialist sort of gusto, influenced by Eurocentric and Orientalist conceptions of the Western Self and the non-Western Other.8 How international politics operated stood and still stands in reciprocity with hierarchizing conceptions of race, gender and order.

Therefore, neorealist logic behind nuclear deterrence is epistemologically linked, in large part, to Eurocentric historiographic processes. This significantly influences common understandings of order and disorder in the international community. Accepting hierarchies as natural misconstrues the above outlined historical processes and omits racialized and gendered power relations in the discipline as well as in practice.9 As neorealist theories have (had) a significant impact on a policy level, such theories not only undermine consequences of nuclear and security politics on a (inter)national and local level, but also render specific actors and communities, such as women (of colour), invisible.10

If we then mirror this widely-accepted narrative around nuclear deterrence during the Cold War with the stories behind e.g. anti-colonial independence wars between the 1940s and 1980s, as portrayed in the documentary “Concerning Violence”11 with Frantz Fanon’s annotations on colonialism, the foundations of the nuclear peace and war dichotomy begin to totter. Wars during this period were anything but ‘cold’, despite the existence of nuclear weapons. Conflicts just did not take place in the West and in imperial metropoles. The narrative of nuclear deterrence preventing war and providing international security, thus, neglects the complex stories and knowledge of the intricate political, power and ideological entanglements of this period.

Nuclear deterrence as a societal norm

As discussed above, neorealist perspectives prevail in international nuclear policy-making. Neorealism presumes the necessity of certain defence systems – such as “nuclear umbrellas” – without questioning the social, political and environmental consequences of deploying these weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons have unequivocally become normal security instruments. How can the existence of nuclear weapons, with the one and only effect of nuclear disaster, become normal weapons for us?

The consensual understanding of what is the norm and what is deviant originates from narratives which shape and permeate socie­ties. These highly affect how we view the world, which makes the control over norms an issue of power struggles.12 A crucial part of these prevailing narratives is based on the racialized and gendered polarity between the Self and the Other, femininity and masculinity and its associated attributes of rogue vs. civil, weak vs. strong, submissive vs. dominant, deviant vs. norm, and peace vs. war. This narrative constructs masculinity as logical, rational and superior and is considered to be the norm of identity and societal behaviour. On the other hand, femininity is associated with emotionality, weakness, irrationality, i.e. any characteristic which deviates from the norm.13 The interrelation of masculinity and femininity is hierarchized, that is masculinity dominating femininity.14 As these gender norms penetrate all spheres of society, narratives and identities are created which are subordinating in and of themselves. Gender norms, then, do not necessarily originate from physical, violent oppression, but rather, from the social production of subordinated subjects.15 Socially grown binaries also translate into the security system by associating militarized defence systems, especially nuclear deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons, with symbols of strength and power. These are attributed with masculine rationality and reason. Therefore, the ascribed characteristics of femininity and masculinity also affect the way people think of weapons, war and the military.16 Owning nuclear weapons, therefore, is characterized by notions of protection and masculinity.17 As a result, critical stances on nuclear deterrence or even disarmament are frequently discarded as naive and irrational, following a common pattern of attributing those with feminized notions of weakness or emotionality.18 Hence, nuclear disarmament or nonviolent peace processes are symbols of weakness, while nuclear deterrence is legitimized through the symbolic strength of nuclear arms. As gender norms remain deeply entrenched in our societies, such norms are easily integrated within the narrative of security.19

Patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity as foundation

Looking into where and how these norms are incorporated, it leaves us realizing that this system constructed in a dualistic order favours characteristics of the strong heteronormative masculine self. People dominating high-levelled positions of governments, research or military structures inter alia in the nuclear realm are mainly mid-aged, wealthy (context-specific, white), heterosexual men who benefit from their positions and aim to uphold the system to their favour.20 Feminists refer to this ruling group as “hegemonic masculinity”21, oriented at Antonio Gramsci’s concept of a hegemonic ruling class. The system favouring hegemonic masculinity is what we have already encountered as patriarchy. It arranges gender relations according to a hierarchy which works on all levels – between individuals, groups and states – assuring decision-making power from the top to bottom. Decision-making in this ­hierarchy excludes all who are referred to as deviant, i.e. the Other: women, LGBTQI, non-whites, youth, indigenous groups or marginalized ethnicities. This systematic exclusion creates and reproduces the perspective of only one group of people as the accepted norm in all spheres of decision-making. This already is an expression of masculinized violence which applies to almost any sector of the military or security.

Specific to nuclear deterrence, hegemonic masculinity not only reproduces hierarchies of who gets to sit in the control room to decide on the production, deployment and detonation of nuclear weapons. Such masculinity also determines who suffers most from the extraordinarily high human and environmental costs of such development and deployment.22

Drawing up an interim result, we already find three flawed assumptions, which are, firstly, that societies and human behaviour can be explained through a dichotomous worldview, secondly, that armament elevates strength and rationality, whereas disarmament connotes weakness23 and thirdly, that only one group’s reality can be applied to the rest of the world.

Processes of Self and Othering, which reproduce hegemonic masculinity, play a crucial role not only on a decision-making level, but also find expression in the international community, as we shall see in the next section.

Order and disorder: Who maintains it?

As previously alluded to in the introduction, a historically grown Western liberal international system and patriarchy as a political order stand in reciprocity to one another, which (re)­produces notions of superiority and inferiority to manifest ‘order’ in the international community. The logic of nuclear deterrence as an initial military, then international security strategy implies assumptions of a conflict between competing systems in a hierarchized world of superior powerful and inferior peripheral actors. It suggests that this competition is intractable, and can merely be contained. Here, we can pinpoint the system’s gendered and racialized institutionalization of rationality, logic, and competition, which constitute the preconditioning characteristics for nuclear deterrence as an international security strategy. A system of order and disorder evolves in which certain actors possess nuclear weapons or enrich uranium while others do not and cannot. While Western actors seem to have given themselves a “carte blanche”, peripheral ones, such as India, are allowed to partake if they obey the rules and comply with categories of being “rational”, “civil”, “reasonable” and “controllable”. Orientalist notions of the Self and the Other interact to reproduce the West self-constitution superior to the non-Western, uncivilized, savage and exotic Othered rest, which is conceived of as a disordering threat to the historically grown international order. “By drawing on and evoking gendered imagery and resonances, the discourse naturalizes the idea that ‘We’ / […]/ the responsible father must protect, must control and limit ‘her,’” the emotional, out-of-control state, for her own good, as well as for ours”24.

All possessors of nuclear weapons have to share a consensual understanding of what qualifies as logical and what is rational. Therefore, military or governmental leaders have to either agree on the neorealist logic or are no longer seen as eligible to possess these weapons because of their alleged incapability to handle them. As soon as an actor appears “irrational” such as Iran, the entire security system is in danger.25 Only when all possessors of nuclear weapons act perfectly rational in the neorealist logic, and consequently maintain an international order according to Western standards, is the usage of such weapons prevented, and international security prevails. Ray Acheson concludes that nuclear weapons serve as a means to maintain patriarchy – hence a system of power – not to maintain security.26

If then, as suggested by Macron, “we” live in a safer world when certain actors are or are not able to have nuclear weapons at their disposal, we can only substantiate the importance of Shampa Biswas’ cogent question: Who is meant by “we”.27

Whose security are we talking about?

So far, our analysis discussed how hegemonic masculinity and questions of order and disorder are paramount to upholding the proposition that nuclear deterrence can sustain international security. With this analysis in mind, we pause for a moment with the truly inconvenient question: “Whose security are we talking about?”

To find a possible answer, we look at the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean, where the USA and France undertook several nuclear tests between the 1940s and 1990s. This example, we argue, unveils how gendered and racialized notions culminate to rationalize and justify nuclear weapons and their functionality as a means to guarantee international security.

The brevity of this analysis does not allow for us to delve into the history of these archipelagos, however, the presence of the US and French forces results from imperialist expansion and settler-colonialism, reinforced by numerous conflicts ranging into the early 20th century, including World War II as a predecessor to the “Cold War”.

Tests of nuclear bombs in these colonized territories in the name of deterrence can be regarded as an expression of imperial and patriarchal conceptions for the following reasons.

Justification for these tests was, first of all, drawn from the idea that the existence of nuclear bombs was inherent to the “Cold War” period. Conducting nuclear tests was framed as a necessary deterring precondition to prevent a global catastrophe of a nuclear war in times of bipolarity. Second, when the first ramifications of the bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfolded and, with scientific progress, the sheer force of the bomb grew, it became evident that more remote sites for testing were needed. Now, it is curious to see how remoteness is defined from a US or French perspective. Far away from home, these areas were classified as military bases that did not pose any security threat to the French or US American population. For natives of the archipelagos, on the other hand, this meant the irrevocable destruction of their livelihoods. The justification of testing in these geographical spheres originated from ideas of how the world was ordered. That is, how patriarchal and imperial conceptions arranged inferiority and superiority on an international and local level, sustaining the liberal Western order. Denigrated as weak, uncivilized, yet exotic and paradisiac, racialized and gendered notions of the islands’ native populations reinforced and reproduced conceptions of the heteronormative, i.e. hegemonic masculine Self and deviant, feminized Other, which made it easy to accept the costs of such tests. This feminist postcolonial perspective was, and still is, frequently excluded from “Cold War” and nuclear deterrence narratives until this day.

While the post-World War II saw a renovation of human rights; claiming all humans to be equal, subliminal racist and sexist differences prevailed to shape international politics. Colonized territories still had to carry the can for what was labelled as international security. Power differentials resulting from patriarchal and imperial orders made it obsolete to consider who had to suffer from these tests in what way, be it economic, social, political or cultural. A gendered racialized hierarchy of superiority and inferiority was maintained as the indigenous populations of French Polynesia and the Marshall Islands did not count as internationally relevant, irrespective of the compromises made to their social, economic and physical security. These are not only stories of the past. Doctors around the world estimate that 2,4 million people died of cancer related to tests of nuclear weapons until the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.28

The absence and silencing of these peoples’ stories in today’s recurring discourse on the necessity of a nuclear umbrella draws on and reinforces “Cold War” narratives. As the stories of colonized, oppressed women and men are omitted, we not only see who writes history, but how stories are marginalized to maintain certain versions of history. As a result, the security of only a few, i.e. the hegemonic ruling class, is considered.

Therefore, the patriarchal and imperialist leitmotif is reproduced. This is where conceptions of hierarchy, order, logic, as well as rationality intersect, and declare nuclear deterrence as necessary to maintaining international security.

Nuclear deterrence can only prevail in an unjust world

Coming back to how nuclear deterrence is presented as a solution to the problem of balancing international security, it may be less surprising that, in political practice, concepts of power in neorealism are used. Questioning those would otherwise reveal embedded expressions of inequality and power differentials and would therefore push actors into an inconvenient situation of significantly rethinking their nuclear policy and understanding of security.

In this article, we have elaborated that logics behind security need to be deconstructed. Feminist security approaches consider a wider range of security actors than just the state and add several more levels, such as social or economic security that are beyond the scope of this paper. Yet, attending to Biswas’ question already reveals how security is highly subjective, how it is maintained and defined by those in power through self-reproducing narratives, such as the narrative of the “Cold War”. It becomes a vicious circle where narratives feed into maintaining a patriarchal and hegemonic system. This, again, upholds norms that shape our perceptions of security policy strategy and, in the end, legitimize certain actions. As we have shown in this article, we need to break out of the circle to be able to grasp the depth of such power plays.

Nuclear Weapons are entry tickets to power

Deterrence is about maintaining positions at the top of the hierarchical power pyramid, controlling and shaping societal norms in the global order and, in the end, taking advantage of such positions. It is about the power to force national interests upon other countries and exploit natural resources or labour, which then feeds the highly gender unjust system of capitalism – but that is a whole other story that we did not even touch. Nuclear weapons seem to be the entry ticket into the circle of the most powerful. It is a flawed assumption that deterrence strategy or even possessing nuclear weapons is a security strategy. This becomes apparent in countries’ fear of losing power, or in countries’ motivations to rise up higher. It is not an actual method to create security by equalizing threats. It is the expression of a system with an underlying political and social soil of injustices. International security requires means, such as conflict transformation, trust building and mediation. Security, most importantly, needs disarmament.

We end with the only possible conclusion, that if nuclear deterrence is central to securing an international order and can only be performed by selected actors, peace can only be maintained if inequalities between actors remain intact. In other words, so-called peace solely exists if the world remains as unequal as it is. This reveals the deeply entrenched logics of racist and gendered inequality and injustices that are inherent to a system which was built upon imperial and patriarchal grounds – carried onwards throughout the second half of the 20th century, and still prevailing today.

1 Speech of the President of the Republic on the Defense and Deterrence Strategy, 2002. (accessed 6.5.2020).

2 Kramp-Karrenbauer, Annegret (2020): “Defending the West – Speech by Federal Minister of Defence.” Bundesministerium der Verteidigung. (accessed 6.5.2020).

3 Morgan, Patrick M. (2003): Deterrence Now. Cambridge.

4 Acheson, Ray, n. d.: “Eine feministische Kritik der Atombombe.” (accessed 6.5.2020).

5 Ackerly, Brooke and True, Jacqui (2008): “Reflexivity in Practice: Power and Ethics in Feminist Research on International Relations.” In: International Studies Review 10, pp. 693–707. (accessed 6.5.2020).

6 Vitalis, Robert (2010): “The Noble American Science of Imperial Relations and Its Laws of Race Development.” In: Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (4), pp. 909-918.

7 Anievas, Alexander, Manchanda, Nivi and Shillam, Robbie (eds.) (2014): Race and Racism in International Relations. Confronting the Global Colour Line. London.

8 Said, Edward W. (2003): Orientalism. London.

9 Chowdhry, Geeta and Nair, Sheila (eds.) (2002): Power, postcolonialism and International Relations. Reading Race, Gender and Class. London.

10 Ackerly, Brooke and True, Jacqui (2008).

11 Olsson, Göran Hugo (2014): “Concerning Violence.” (accessed 6.5.2020).

12 True, Jacqui (2010): “Feminism and Gender Studies in International Relations Theory.” In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International (accessed 6.5.2020).

13 Cohn, Carol, Hill, Felicity and Ruddick, Sara (2005): “The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction.” (accessed 24.5.2020).

14 Acker, Joan (1990): “HIERARCHIES, JOBS, BODIES:: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” In: Gender & Society 4, pp. 139–158. (accessed 6.5.2020).

15 Dunn, Kevin (2008): “Interrogating white male privilege.” In: Parpart, Jane L. and Zalewski, Marysia (eds.): Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations. Distributed in the USA by Palgrave Macmillan, London; New York: New York.

16 Cohn, Carol, Hill, Felicity and Ruddick, Sara (2005).

17 “Gender and Disarmament.” (accessed 25.4.2020).

18 Acheson, Ray (2019): “The nuclear ban and the patriarchy: a feminist analysis of opposition to prohibiting nuclear weapons.” In: Critical Studies on Security 7/2019, pp. 78-82. (accessed 25.4.2020).

19 Cohn, Carol, Hill, Felicity and Ruddick, Sara (2005).

20 Carver, Terrell (2014): “Men and Masculinities in International Relations Research.” In: The Brown Journal of World Affairs 21 (1), 2014. (accessed 25.4.2020).

21 Connell, Robert W. (2002): “The History of Masculinity.” In: Adams, Rachel and Savran, David (eds.) The Masculinity Studies Reader. Malden, Mass.

22 Cohn, Carol and Ruddick, Sara (2003): “A Feminist Ethical Perspective on Weapons of Mass Destruction.” In: Hashmi, Sohail H., Lee, Steven P. (eds.): Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Religious and Secular Perspectives. Cambridge, pp. 405–435. (accessed 25.4.2020).

23 Acheson, Ray (2019).

24 Cohn, Carol and Ruddick, Sara (2003).

25 ibid.

26 Acheson, Ray (2019).

27 Biswas, Shampa (2014): Nuclear Desire. Power and the Postcolonial Order. Minneapolis.

28 Kimball, Daryl (2019): “The Nuclear Testing Tally.” (accessed 24.4.2020).


Madita Standke-Erdmann

Madita Standke-Erdmann is a research associate with the FWF-funded project “GBV-MIG” at the Department of Political Science of the University of Vienna. The project looks at roots of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) against women migrants and refugees. Her doctoral research, situated in feminist and postcolonial theories of International Relations, engages with the intersections of security and humanitarianism at borders. She holds an MSc in International Relations Theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). 

Victoria Scheyer

Victoria Scheyer is a PhD candidate at the Gender, Peace and Security Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, Austra­lia. In her research she examines how feminist foreign policy and feminist security can be transformational tools towards peace. Previously, she coordinated the German Association for Peace and Conflict Studies in the position of deputy secretary general. Victoria Scheyer engages actively as a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, advocating for gender-equality, disarmament and demilitarization.

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All articles in this issue

The End of the "Interlude" – Nuclear Deterrence in the Light of Roman Catholic Social Teaching
Heinz-Günther Stobbe
Waiting for Armageddon: Theological and Ethical Aspects Of Nuclear Deterrence
Drew Christiansen SJ
The Relevance of the Heidelberg Theses today
Ines-Jacqueline Werkner
Exposing Flaws in the Logic(s) of Nuclear Deterrence as an International Security Strategy – a Feminist Postcolonial Perspective
Madita Standke-Erdmann, Victoria Scheyer
We Are the Bomb: Opaque Financial Flows and Unwitting Involvement in Nuclear Armament
Robin Jaspert
Extended Nuclear Deterrence and Participation: Overcome Together, Don’t Go It Alone
Wolfgang Richter
Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation Regimes in Deep Crisis
Tom Sauer
"No Way Out": Nuclear Weapons Remain An Important Factor in International Politics
Michael Rühle
Russian Nuclear Weapons: Reason or Feelings?
Konstantin Bogdanov
China’s Nuclear Strategy in a New Geopolitical Environment
Sven Bernhard Gareis


Markus Bentler Burkhard Bleul