“The fire-breathing dragon under the bed, the one who threatens to incinerate your family, your town, your planet, becomes a pet you can pat.” – Carol Cohn, 1987
Seventy-six years after the American detonation of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Little Boy and Fat Man – the subject of nuclear weapons remains contentious: between Russia, China and the US, the prospect of disarmament seems unlikely and an arms race looms. American concerns over Xi Jinping and Putin’s military and technological cooperation remind us that the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal seems to be a good measurement of their power on the global stage. Meanwhile, President Biden has claimed that deterrence is the “sole purpose” of the US nuclear arsenal, a rationale reminiscent of the Cold War and one that seems inherently illogical. The irony of nuclear defence systems does not escape many: apparently it is safe to have weapons that are not safe to use. As Carol Cohn effectively points out, the conflation of military capacity with military intent leads countries to base their planning on the prevention of worst-case scenarios rather than the reality of foreign relations  (Cohn, 1987, p.707).
But underneath the guise of nuclear deterrence theory lies more perverse, albeit unconscious, motivations; ones that reproduce gender hierarchies and render the immeasurable human suffering caused by nuclear weapons almost palatable. Between the sexual subtext of ‘missile envy’ and the patriarchal undercurrents of ‘hard power’, nuclear weapons are the embodiment of a militarised masculinity that perpetuates ideas of ‘masculine’ strength and violence as opposed to ‘feminine’ weakness and compassion (Cohn, 1987, p.692-7). The term militarised masculinity is “central to perpetuation of violence in international relations”, reflecting the view that the threat of force can provide a nation with security (Eichler, 2014, p.81). Historically, war and peace have gendered (and therefore socially constructed) associations: the former with masculinity and the latter with femininity, making the case for nuclear disarmament seem like a female endeavour rather than simply a different perspective on security politics (Kahn, 1985). Nuclear disarmament, and the associated disruption of ‘hard power’ militarisation discourses, is therefore not just about peace, but about diversifying the politics of defence: challenging the patriarchal status quo and gender binaries of international security.
Feminist activism has a longstanding history with nuclear disarmament, aimed at exposing the “ecocidal, suicidal and genocidal” nature of these weapons. Yet, critics have reframed this activism as a utopian dream, an example of women being too emotional, compassionate and lacking any understanding about security. Equally, men who doubt the merits of having a nuclear arsenal in turn face questions about their masculinity. Activists have thus been pegged ‘radical dreamers’, and so the perpetuation of the masculine/feminine binary in the field of international security continues. On one hand, ‘hard power’ is the embodiment of militarised masculinity, whereas ‘soft power’ is associated with compassionate femininity rather than defence. Strangely, “caring about the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons” – which arguably far outweigh the merits of deterrence – translates into a stereotypically feminine point of view, one that is regarded as weak and emotional. And while 2017 saw a victory for disarmament advocates with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by 86 nations and entering into force in January 2021, the initiative has been outwardly opposed by NATO, which “[rejects] any attempt to delegitimize nuclear deterrence”. Evidently, international defence is so intertwined with militarised masculinity to such an extent that the prospect of disarmament is perceived – ironically – to be at odds with safety and security.
Beyond the reproduction of gender binaries within the field of (inter)national security, the language underpinning nuclear weaponry dilutes their destructive power, instead serving to hypersexualize and glamorize the work of “defence intellectuals” (Cohn, 1987). Feminists, journalists and observants alike have already pointed towards the ‘phallic worship’ and ‘nuclear dick-waving’ imbued in militarisation and arms races, reflecting the belief that masculinity is embodied by demonstrations of strength and (the threat of) violence. Hence, disarmament is equated with emasculation, and it is hard to fathom a world leader, be it of Russia, China or even the US, considering that as a viable option (Cohn, 1987, p.693). In 2018, former US President Trump comically – yet not ironically – boasted that his ‘nuclear button’ is “much bigger & more powerful” than North Korean leader’s Kim Jong Un. Yet again, providing evidence that nuclear arsenal bravado is considered by many to be an effective way of asserting one’s dominance in the international arena, reinforcing the notion that militarised masculinity is the apex of strength.
Within national bureaus, the language used by defence intellectuals continues along this hypersexualized and patriarchal narrative. Recounting her experiences working with nuclear strategists, Cohn noted peculiar expressions used in the context of weaponry: ‘patting a missile’; countries ‘losing their virginity’ upon using nuclear weapons for the first time; ‘marrying up’ weapons systems; often male creators of weapons being referred to as ‘parents’ of their ‘babies’ (Cohn, 1987, p.695-99). This abstract, sanitized imagery serves two purposes: to forge a strong link between masculinity and arms at the exclusion of other perspectives, be it those of women, queer or trans people, and to minimize the severity of ‘militaristic endeavours’ (Ibid., p.696). By diluting the lethality of nuclear weapons, this language minimizes their destructive power, from environmental devastation to the gendered health effects of ionising radiation to, most importantly, sheer loss of life. Instead of being discussed as weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons are “pets you can pat” and tools to tame and control, fuelling the hyper-masculine desire for dominance rather than the need for responsibility (Cohn, 1987, p.698).
With nuclear arms unconsciously sitting at the nexus between power and masculinity – and Russia, China and the US being the big game players in terms of building their nuclear arsenal – the current trajectory for disarmament is unclear. Under the current patriarchal status quo of defence politics, arms control is a far more likely outcome than disarmament – and considering both are optimistic outcomes, this does not leave much hope for disarmament activists. While studies indicate that the women’s inclusion in peace processes makes the final agreement 35% more likely to last for at least 15 years, changing gender representation in fields of international security and defence does little without changing their associated stereotypes. That is not to say that the aim of all women is disarmament, as that would simply reinforce the pre-existing gender binary. Rather, as Cohn points out, the feminist objective is to deconstruct the dominant military discourse where hypermasculinity is the only rational voice, and to reconstruct a diverse space that welcomes, not judges, new perspectives on security and defence (Cohn, 1987, p.715).
Cohn, C. (1987). Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, [online] 12(4), pp.687–718. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3174209.
Eichler, M. (2014). Militarized Masculinities in International Relations. The Brown Journal of World Affairs, [online] 21(1), pp.81–93. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24591032.
Kahn, K. (1985). Gender Ideology and the Disarmament Movement. Resist Newsletter. [online] Available at: https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/resistnewsletter/187/.