It is time to Rethink Our Approach to Nuclear Weapons Policy: A Gendered Perspective

8 March 2020

By Rhiannon Corinaldi

This article first appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs 'Australian Outlook'

The patriarchy and male privilege are dominant features of conventional security policy.  For nuclear disarmament to ever be viable, alternative perspectives must be considered.

In January 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted about his superior “button size” in a chauvinistic attempt to flex his nuclear muscles against North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un – a man Trump mockingly refers to as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump wrote, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is much bigger & more powerful than his, and my Button works!”

Whilst being a brash diplomatic statement, Trump’s tweet is far more than a childish poke at a schoolyard foe. It is a dangerous display of hegemonic masculinity, a form of masculinity which often results in instances of competition, physical dominance, and violence. Indeed, Trump boasting about his bigger and more powerful nuclear button sounds an awful lot like a Freudian euphemism.

Beatrice Fihn, director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) poignantly stated in 2018“nuclear weapons are the beating heart of our colonial and patriarchal order.” There are many inspirational disarmament activists working tirelessly to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, the sentiments and actions of global leaders such as Donald Trump suggest the dream of a nuclear free world may be rapidly slipping through our fingers.

The impacts of the patriarchy and male privilege are perhaps no more omnipresent in US foreign policy than in the field of security, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons policy. A consequence is that security discourse bolsters highly problematic perceptions of what it means to be a “real man,” associating traditional impressions of masculinity with power and control, and femininity with vulnerability and weakness. This dynamic is incredibly concerning in the context of national security policy in the US.

Strategic deterrence, the dominant approach to nuclear security undeniably relies on the continued existence of nuclear weapons. Recent budget statements and policy actions indicate the Trump administration is investing substantial resources into the upkeep and modernisation of their nuclear triad. The past year has seen the US withdraw from two significant arms control agreements, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action , with the Treaty on Open Skies similarly coming under threat. The future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the US is also in doubt, with negotiations for continuance beyond its intended finishing date in February 2021 yet to commence.

It is vital that we continue to rethink the ways in which we understand, discuss, and develop security policies. An essential consideration is the multifarious ways in which power structures and perceptions founded within a patriarchal paradigm have influenced policymakers’ ability to effectively negotiate for nuclear disarmament. Common sentiments such as “does he have the courage and strength, is he man enough, to lead his country to war?” show how problematic the dominant approach is. Thus, disarmament easily becomes equated with feelings of emasculation. The notion of disarmament as a symbolic form of castration cannot be overlooked when assessing the disarmament regime. Indeed, a leading Hindu nationalist said of India’s nuclear testing in 1998, “we had to prove we are not eunuchs.”

Throughout modern history, nuclear weapons policies and practices have been intimately connected with power and dominance, two highly gendered concepts. Disarmament advocate Ray Acheson argues, “whether its small arms in communities or whether its nuclear arms at the state level, the idea that weapons afford security is built into the conception of a very dominant violent masculinity.” Furthermore, the portrayal of women as weak and vulnerable is regularly used to demonstrate a “feminized and devalued notion of peace as unattainable, unrealistic, passive, and (it might be said) undesirable.”

This tendency to devalue certain beliefs, sensibilities, and actions simply because they are regarded as feminine is partnered with a masculine tendency to glorify war as a demonstration of power and prestige. As a result, even when women are involved in discussions relating to arms control and non-proliferation policy, their arguments are often forced to yield to the dominant perspective in order to be seriously considered. Of course, this does not empirically mean women offer one perspective and men offer the opposite. Rather, this dynamic simply serves to highlight the gendered understandings of conflict and peace, armament and disarmament, and strength and weakness.

The Washington, D.C. security domain is regularly criticized for being “a boy’s club.” New America, a think tank, recently released a report titled Consensual Straightjacket: Four Decades of Women in Nuclear Security that interviewed a number of female security professionals in Washington, D.C. who all claimed that “while women have been working in the nuclear policy field at leadership levels for decades, the space is still overwhelmingly white and male.” Women in International Security published a gender scorecard for D.C. think tanks which showed that only three of 22 institutions surveyed employ an equal number of men and women.

Of course, it is critical that gender balance is achieved in the foreign policy and security domains; however, gender equity is only the first step. Increasing diversity will lead to more variation in opinions and creative approaches to problems, as has been seen in many other industries. Nevertheless, it is not enough to merely “add women and stir.” Rather, we need to challenge and rethink the highly gendered perspectives, understandings, and meanings that are enforced in the security regime. Given the linkages between disarmament and emasculation, it is very unlikely nuclear weapon states will voluntarily choose to disarm. It is therefore imperative that policymakers, both men and women, not only create policies that encourage and work towards disarmament, but perhaps more importantly, find a way to reframe the very ways in which we understand the meaning of what it is to disarm.

Notable feminist Carol Cohn argues that the implication of “gendered assumptions in national security goes beyond underwriting certain narrow concepts of strength and how to achieve security. They also short-circuit and distort both deliberative and political processes, preventing us from thinking genuinely and realistically about security.” Indeed, one of the most worrying impacts of the dominant approach to security policy in the US is that “the mantle of ‘realism’ is reserved for whatever is coded ‘masculine,’ while policy alternatives associated with anything coded ‘feminine’ can be summarily dismissed as ‘soft’ or ‘unrealistic.’” When the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was introduced in 2017, the then-US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, criticized the ban, saying “we have to be realistic.” In viewing approaches mired in hegemonic masculinity as more realistic, Haley, and indeed the rest of the professional security community in Washington, D.C., foreclose the option of even considering alternative, “feminised” approaches to national security policy, which are seen as unrealistic. This belief is characteristic of a system of patriarchal privilege, but ultimately, it is not reflective of true “realistic” security.

Instead, perhaps approaching security policies from a place of sensitivity over domination, of cooperation over competition, and on the rule of law instead of the rule of force, will encourage the empathy and trust needed for sustained global disarmament. If we begin to reframe our understanding of what it means to be secure, we can begin to create a more reflective and egalitarian society. In such a society, disarmament may be seen for what it is – a rational, moral, and necessary step in the search for international security.

Rhiannon Corinaldi is an aspiring PhD candidate. She is a recent graduate of the International Studies Honours program at RMIT University and is currently teaching in RMIT’s Global, Urban and Social Studies School.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.