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The Global Politics of Nuclear Weapons

Alongside their biological and chemical equivalents, nuclear weapons are arguably the most destructive technology human beings have ever invented. Even a ‘limited’ nuclear war would likely kill huge numbers of people, plants and animals, cause massive damage to infrastructure and property, and have a major effect on the global polity and economy. And yet, the prospect of fighting and ‘winning’ a limited nuclear war is still being actively debated in government, military, and scientific circles. For this reason alone, studying the contemporary debate on nuclear strategy is not only important, but also timely and urgent.

Nuclear weapons may well embody technology at its most threatening and potentially lethal, but they are also deeply embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the world. The global politics of nuclear weapons is not only concerned with such things as international negotiations on arms control and proliferation, but also with narratives and representations of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Examples of these narratives include photography, film, music, literature, advertising and other forms of information, sales, and entertainment.

In this module we examine the politics of nuclear weapons not as a static ‘field’ of inquiry, but as a series of cross-cutting and overlapping narratives engaged in an ongoing struggle for dominance before a global ‘audience’. We examine the science of nuclear power, the historical context leading to the creation of the first atomic bombs and their use against Japan, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and evolution of nuclear strategy. We then turn to an analysis of the politics of restraint: exploring public reactions to this seductive yet terrifying technology, and the subsequent emergence of a nuclear ‘taboo’; efforts to regulate and control the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the rise and impact of the anti-nuclear movement. Finally, we discuss contemporary concerns such as terrorism, the resilience of critical infrastructure, and the politics of fear.