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Nuclear Weapons Choices Governing vulnerabilities between past and future

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - NUCLEAR (Nuclear Weapons ChoicesGoverning vulnerabilities between past and future )

Reporting period: 2021-09-01 to 2023-02-28

Nuclear weapons choices commit populations and societies for decades and can wipe them out in matters of minutes.
In 2021, all nuclear-armed states have initiated plans to retain and modernize their nuclear arsenals for fifty to eighty years. At the same time, a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has entered into force with a view to abolishing these weapons. Courses of action such as pursuing nuclear disarmament or relying on nuclear weapons as an irreplaceable instrument of security both run the risk of nuclear war and no protection against nuclear weapons explosions, be they deliberate or accidental, is in sight.

Given the stakes, the NUCLEAR project asks the following question: How is the scope of available nuclear weapons choices decided?

Direct experience cannot be the answer as no one can rely on personal experience of nuclear war. Most decision-makers no longer even have the experience of the effects of such weapons either given that North Korea has been the only country testing nuclear weapons since 1998 and those tests were underground. The populations’ wishes do not qualify either when it comes to explaining the scope of possibilities in nuclear politics, since they are very rarely consulted and only few studies on citizens' attitudes exist. Therefore this project offers the first in depth global investigation of the grounds on which the scope of publicly acceptable nuclear weapons choices have been based since the end of nuclear testing. To do so, this project constructs an interdisciplinary research program investigating four ways in which nuclear weapons choices are bounded: 1) the intellectual categories we depend on to think about those issues; 2) the governance of nuclear knowledge by nuclear-weapons related institutions; 3) specific readings of the past identifying events or trends from which lessons are expected to be learned about the scope of the possible, and 4) the imaginary of possible futures as opposed to the ones deemed utopian. Combining archival research and interviews worldwide, large-scale polling and discourse analysis of policy officials and strategists over several decades, it assesses the blinding power of categories created several decades ago and sometimes still deemed as irreplaceable lexicon of the nuclear age as well as the way in which nuclear weapons programs modify the governance of knowledge. Based on those findings, it offers a novel understanding of nuclear vulnerabilities in their epistemic and political dimensions, and not only the material ones. Beyond its contribution to scholarship, it will allow citizens to make an informed choice about nuclear weapons policy.

This effort is necessary for the future of a democratic Europe for at least four reasons.
First, as suggested above, there still is no protection against nuclear explosions, either deliberate, unauthorized or accidental, so the possibilities of nuclear war and nuclear accidents remain.
Second, scholarship has identified an enduring disconnect between the official justifications for nuclear weapons policies offered by policymakers and the arsenals that have actually been built.
Third, many questions remain to be asked regarding the relationship between nuclear weapons and world politics. For example, the fields of nuclear security studies and democracy studies largely continue to operate in mutual neglect as though the introduction of nuclear weapons in world affairs had no consequences for the possibility of democratic governance. This assumption remains to be tested systematically and existing works suggest that it is not valid.
Fourth, we only have very limited knowledge of European citizens' knowledge about nuclear weapons and preferences on this matter.
First, we have created a method to assess the role of luck in the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions. This followed from the dual discovery of the use of the category of "luck" by policymakers and military leaders in explaining such events since the 1960s and of the current scholarship inability to adequately account for it or learn from it. This methodology is articulated in two scholarly publications so far: it includes a distinctive definition of lucky cases as incompatible with practices of control, a typology of these possible incompatibilities and a set of empirical case studies based on primary documents. The way in which scholarship as well as policy discourse claims to account for luck but ends up reducing it to manageable risk or to treat it inconsistently became an additional line of enquiry.
Second, we have established that and how imagined futures shape conceivable nuclear weapons policy options in the present. While this intuition was present in some of the existing scholarship, most of it did not treat it as such. We have expanded this insight based on two components of those imagined futures: the idea that nuclear weapons are a permanent feature of any possible future - nuclear eternity - and the awareness of the possibility of nuclear war. We have first historicized those notions and shown that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the imagined future of nuclear eternity was not co-terminus with the existence of nuclear weapons. Instead, we have shown that the entrenchment of this idea has happened in the 1960s. Moreover, through open questions in the survey as well as interviews of policymakers, military personnel, engineers, educators and artists engaging with nuclear weapons worldwide, we have documented the challenge of imagining the possibility of nuclear war and of acting according to an awareness of this possibility. Further, we have argued that visual popular culture was a medium to overcome this challenge. We identified four aesthetic gestures that have allowed viewers to imagine the possibility of nuclear war and traced them since the 1950s. The finding that all four of those gestures have stopped being associated to nuclear war since 1990 contributes to explaining apathy in that realm.
Third, we have reconnected nuclear weapons politics to democratic choices – the two have been treated as separate matters in scholarship for over three decades. Through a survey, we have documented citizens' level of knowledge about and attitudes towards nuclear weapons across nine European countries. Results in those two realms are at odds with common assumptions.