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Nuclear Weapons Choices Governing vulnerabilities between past and future

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - NUCLEAR (Nuclear Weapons ChoicesGoverning vulnerabilities between past and future )

Reporting period: 2020-03-01 to 2021-08-31

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.
I will divide the presentation of the work into three aspects: fieldwork and research per se, conference organization, presentation of the work at scholarly conferences. I will summarize below the key results.

Archival research has been conducted in France, the UK, Kazakhstan, the United States and South Africa so far. Dr Shelekpayev and I have done archival research in France at the National Archives as well as in the Defense archives in Vincennes during his time with the project (month 3 to 12). After Dr Shelekpayev’s departure, this work was continued with the PhD student on the project M. Fraise who was hired on month 13. Dr Shelekpayev has also conducted archival research on his own in the UK (Kew) and in Kazakhstan which will be mobilized for a joint publication by the end of the project. In January 2020, Dr Taha and I have conducted a two week long fieldwork in South Africa in which we have collected primary source material about South African nuclear history in textbooks and conducted interviews with teachers, curriculum designers and researchers on the issue. Beyond archival research, months 4 to 15 have been dedicated to the design – including the choice of the pollster – and implementation of the survey, with Dr Fabricio Fialho. Because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, I decided to conduct many of my in-depth interviews with educators, policymakers and military personnel on zoom between April and September 2020 (month 20 to 25). Those interviews are mobilized in the article on the role of popular culture in making the possibility of nuclear war imaginable which has received a « revise and resubmit with minor revisions » from Cultures & Conflits and in my monograph. Months 26 to 29 have been dedicated to the preparation and implementation of the fieldwork in South Africa with Dr Taha.

The project’s work also benefitted from the workshops we have organized at the very beginning of the project. Most importantly, we have organized a day and a half workshop in November 2018 (month 3: November 13 and 14 in the morning on a comparative study of whether the institutionalization of nuclear weapons produces particular forms, modes and levels of nuclear secrecy (study 2) and the interpretations of Hiroshima and Nagazaki worldwide (study 3). It was followed by another workshop on September 5, 2019 in Stockholm on study 3. I invited Dima Adamsky to discuss his work on nuclear secrecy in Russia for study 2 in Paris on September, 20, 2019.

All the work of the team has been presented at conferences worldwide. I presented different aspects of my conceptualization and empirical investigation of the role of luck in nuclear weapons politics at Université Versailles Saint-Quentin on June 20, 2019, at the Portsmouth 2019 annual conference of the Global Nuclear Order Working Group of the British International Studies Association on November 11, 2019 and at Ecole Normale Supérieure’s Chair on the Geopolitics of Risk on October 7, 2020. This led to a chapter in French published in 2019 « l’insoutenable légèreté de la chance », my International Theory article on ‘Power, luck and scholarly responsibility at the end of the world’ (November 2020), the forthcoming co-authored chapter with Ned Lebow on ‘Facing nuclear war. Luck, learning and the Cuban Missile Crisis’ which has now been accepted and to the developments on the topic and elaborations on luck and epistemic vulnerability in my book manuscript. I presented a design idea for what would become my chapter on the « birth of nuclear eternity » (OUP, 2021) at the annual conference of the European International Studies Association in Prague on September 13, 2018. I also presented the overall project on November 11, 2019 at the project on the history of the French nuclear test site in Polynesia, and at the Vincennes conference on « studying wartime losses » on October 17 and 18, 2019. Most recently, i presented my co-authored article published in European Security at the Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security research seminar on February 24, 2021.
Postdoctoral scholar Dr Fabricio Fialho and/or I have presented our survey and design at the 2019 annual conference of the International Studies Association in Toronto and some results or a draft paper at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation in October 2019, at a January 2020 conference in Johannesburg and most recently at a Stanford University workshop on « Atomic experiments » on October 26, 2020. The feedback we have received has helped prepare our co-authored paper which was published in The National Interest in June 2020, a co-authored paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as well as co-authored op. eds. in La Croix and The Conversation. We now have two other papers based on the survey results and are considering where we should submit them.
Dr Taha presented her work on the vocabulary related to the nuclear condition in Arabic (study 1a) at the BISA annual conference in Portsmouth on November 11, 2019. She further presented her work on imagined futures in fiction in Arabic at the Columbia University Institute for Ideas and Imaginations on zoom on April 16, 2020. Those are two steps towards a joint article for World Politics which we are planning during year 5. At Stockholm University, on September 5, 2019, she presented what would become her article « Hiroshima in Egypt. Interpretations and Imaginations of the Atomic Age » resubmitted to Third World Quarterly in January 2021. She also presented early versions of her paper on « The ACRS process in the Middle East and the New Peace Economy », currently under review by Global Discourse, at the American University of Cairo on January 9, 2020 and at the University of Johannesburg on January 20, 2020. The PhD student on the project Thomas Fraise presented the literature review part of his dissertation at the 2020 conference of the Global Nuclear Order Working Group of the British International Studies Association. It took place online on December 16, 2020.

The most important achievement of the project is to have been able to complete a book manuscript which summarizes the project’s findings so far on research goals 1, 2 and 3, i.e. studies 1a, 3, 4a and 4b in French. Because of the cancellation of fieldwork due to COVID-19, I conducted multiple interviews on zoom and managed to write the book and have it reviewed and accepted for publication by Les Presses de Sciences Po. I have already started looking for a translator with a view to having an English version of the book manuscript accepted for publication in English by the end of the project.
The second most important achievement is to have two key contributions of the project – the role of luck in nuclear weapons politics and the constitutive effect of imagined nuclear futures on the scope of available nuclear choices in the present – published in English either in premier journals or in landmark reference books. Regarding luck, the piece including a definition of the category and its implications for IR has been published in International Theory in 2020 [“Power, luck and scholarly responsibility at the end of the world(s)”, International Theory, 12(3), November 2020, pp. 459-470] and my chapter on « Facing nuclear war. Luck, learning and the Cuban Missile Crisis », co-authored with Professor Richard Ned Lebow, accepted for publication in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of History and International Relations. As for the issue of imagined futures, it is clearly exemplified in my single-authored chapter on « The birth of nuclear eternity » in Jenny Andersson and Sandra Kemp (eds.), Futures, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021 and mobilized in the co-authored peer-reviewed article « European nuclear weapons, zombie debates and nuclear realities » which has been published by European Security in December of 2020. The work on luck will take the form of a dedicated monograph.
The third most important achievement so far has been the project’s outreach and impact on the policymaking, humanitarian and military community worldwide. Most significantly, our survey results on European attitudes towards nuclear testing have been connected to the work of Yale and Harvard colleagues on US citizens’ attitudes towards this issue so as to inform the US debate on the possible resumption of nuclear testing in 2020. As a result of this effort, we contributed to an informed choice by US Senators and were cited in a September 10, 2020 letter to the Chairman of the US Senate armed forces committee by Senator Ed Markey. This was made possible because two project team members – the PI and postdoctoral scholar Dr Fabricio Fialho co-authored a piece in the National Interest, the results of which were widely republished, notably by think tanks such as the British American Science Information Council. Most importantly, US members of congress were exposed to those results which led to a letter and to Democratic Senator Ed Markey and 21 colleagues citing our piece and survey results in a September 10, 2020 letter to the Chairman of the US Senate armed forces committee in a successful attempt at preventing the resumption of US nuclear testing. Within the European Union, the work on luck has had impact on Austrian diplomat and « Arms control person of the year 2014 » Ambassador Alexander Kmentt who cites it twice in his forthcoming book The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. How it was achieved and why it matters (Routledge, 2021) The French Ecole de guerre (Paris) invited me to present the project’s findings on luck on March 6, 2020. The last impact is visible in the August 2020 report from the International Campaign of the Red Cross entitled Humanitarian impacts and risks of use of nuclear weapons which features the NUCLEAR project work on luck.
The fourth most important achievement relates to the third goal of the project and study 3, i.e. which interpretations of past events have been used to make sense of nuclear weapons challenges. Dr Taha and I as well Dr Egeland, have now produced an analysis of why the early 1990s should be treated as a period of nuclear entrenchment and not as a period of opening of nuclear weapons politics. This is true when one investigates the materiality of the arsenals and the long-term funding to perpetuate them in the United States (Egeland), the process Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East (ACRS) which is misremembered as progress towards denuclearization but reflects a project of economic transformation grounded in an idea of security with nuclear weapons (Taha) and in global visual popular culture (Pelopidas) in which the four aesthetic gestures that made the possibility of nuclear war imaginable simply become invisible.
2.5 years after the beginning of the NUCLEAR project and in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already taken scholarship beyond the state of the art in three main ways.
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.
The challenges of assessing the role of luck in the avoidance of past nuclear disaster and of taking into account the difficulty of taking the possibility of nuclear war seriously are two key components of epistemic vulnerability in the nuclear age, i.e. the possibility of a gap between what we think we know and what we actually know. Expanding our understanding of nuclear vulnerabilities, both in their material and epistemic dimensions, was a key goal of the project and this goal has so far been achieved.

In the remaining 2.5 years, we are planning on publishing the 7 scholarly pieces which have been accepted but not published or which are still under review. These 7 pieces include a monograph.
Given the groundbreaking results of my monograph which includes the three key contributions listed above (from studies 1a, 3, 4a and 4b), I am planning on having and expanded version of it submitted to a University Press in English by the end of the project.
We will also focus the coming years on study 2, i.e. the completion of Thomas Fraise's PhD dissertation and the analysis of the effect of nuclear weapons programs on the governance of knowledge, including case studies of France, the UK and Sweden and on a companion edited volume which will explore country case studies that he does not cover in his dissertation. This promises to be a substantive addition to our effort at reconnecting the study of nuclear weapons with that of democracy.