Waiting for Kant: devaluing and delegitimizing nuclear weapons

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Abstract

Expectations of significant progress towards a nuclear weapons-free world continue to shape global nuclear politics. Progress towards nuclear disarmament will require diminishing the value of nuclear weapons to the point where it becomes politically, strategically and socially acceptable for nuclear-armed states to relinquish permanently their nuclear arsenals. Key to this are the concepts and processes of ‘devaluing’ and ‘delegitimizing’ nuclear weapons that have steadily coalesced in global nuclear discourse since the mid-1990s. This article builds on current research by developing three images of nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): ‘surface’ devaluing, ‘deep’ devaluing, and delegitimizing nuclear weapons. The first represents codification by the nuclear-weapon states of the transformation of the Cold War environment through reductions in the size and role of nuclear arsenals that leaves the logic of nuclear deterrence and nuclear prestige largely unchanged. Deep devaluing is framed as a reconceptualization of the political, strategic and military logics that underpin nuclear-weapons policies and practices. Delegitimizing represents a more radical normative project to transform collective meanings assigned to nuclear weapons. The analysis examines conceptions of devaluing nuclear weapons from the perspective of non-nuclear weapon states and the relationship between devaluing nuclear weapons and the idea of a spectrum of nuclear deterrence. It concludes by highlighting the tension between surface and deep devaluing, the emergence of a delegitimizing agenda, and the political implications for the current NPT review cycle set to culminate in the next quinquennial Review Conference in 2015.

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