Nuclear Weapons: Investing in Patriarchal Power 

Within the next decade, governments on a global scale will spend an astounding 1 trillion USD on nuclear weapons. This entails 100 billion USD per year invested in the proliferation and development of weapons of mass destruction that are supposedly never to be used. To put nuclear weapons into a broader context, as it stands, global military expenditure sums up to a staggering 1,981 billion USD. Unfathomable amounts of money are being poured into creating a global structure of violence that has normalized heavily masculinised, militaristic approaches to security. Nuclear armed nations, such as the United States, China, and Russia, among others, have bullied their way through the international order to achieve their objectives. 

Weapons equate to power.The more harm you can potentially unleash on your opponent, the better. It is the ultimate form of manipulation and an outright abuse of power. When imaginings of power come with such implications, it is no longer power, but rather an extremely damaging and ineffective way to carry out security, diplomacy, and international relations. As a clear example of an abuse of power, directly linked to nuclear weapons and inflated militaries, it is no coincidence that the five members of the United Nations Security Council all have nuclear weapons, and subsequent veto power regarding global governance and decision making.   

Since the invention of nuclear weapons in the Second World War, throughout the Cold War and up until now, our common security is under constant threat by global weapons regimes, especially the nuclear kind. As the former US Secretary of Defense William J Perry stated in 2017:

“We stand today, I believe, in greater danger of a nuclear catastrophe than we faced during the Cold War. And I can explain why I believe that, but the first point I want to make, though, is that hardly anybody understands that. And because we don’t understand it, our policies are not responsive to those dangers.” – Willian J Perry 

Perry’s 2017 quote has become even more relevant today. It is highly worrisome that a weapon with the potential to cause a nuclear holocaust does not have the aqequate policies designed to protect us, such as no first use policies. Currently, China is the only state that has an unconditional no first use policy. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia hold 90% of the world’s 13,080 nuclear weapons. Even between the nuclear armed states, power imbalances exist with the US and Russia holding the most ‘power’ in terms of their nuclear stockpiles and military might.   

Nuclear Weapons and Human Rights: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

During the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threat of nuclear weapons being used in the conflict has escalated significantly, with Russian president Vladimir Putin placing the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons on special alert for the first time since the Crimea incident in 2014. As Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, stated, “we’ve seen with Putin now that this is not a weapon they use to protect their own country. It’s a weapon they use to be able to do whatever they want to other countries.”

 The nuclear armed states claim that nuclear weapons keep us safe, and there is an underlying assumption that they maintain a balance of power in our current global order. Furthermore, there is a belief that leaders of such nuclear armed states are rational thinkers who wouldn’t make a first strike. Aside from the risks of a nuclear weapon strike happening by accident, which has nearly happened several times throughout their history, Putin has brought to light the fact that in war, rationality is often put on the back-burner. 

Nuclear deterrence, which is the current strategy that our global order and balance of power regime adopts, only works until it does not. As Matthew Gault stated:

“If you think it’s slightly insane that Putin and the West are holding hostage the lives of millions of men, women, and children to bargain over the fate of Ukraine and the future of Putin’s rule in Russia, you just might be a nuclear deterrence skeptic.” – Mathew Gault

Nuclear deterrence is nothing but a power tool, and is inherently unethical. The nuclear weapon is fundamentally unethical in and of itself. Value codes associated with solidarity, empathy, human rights, and non-military forms of rationality are all at the bottom of the list when a leader maintains weapons of mass destruction at their disposal, as has been showcased by multiple wars throughout history. 

Today’s international security regimes grossly lack an ethics of care approach in which humans and their wellbeing are even considered. During World War Two, between 70 to 85 million civilians and soldiers lost their lives. As of September 2022, more than 5,800 people are estimated dead because of this war. Every conflict throughout time has been the battle of powerful men with highly masculinised imperialist values. The United States’ ‘legal’ invasions of Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Syria are not much different to what is happening in Ukraine. This is made especially evident by the global power dynamics at play in such conflicts, where imperial interests in safeguarding access to and control over various valuable resources, such as oil, trump a concern for collective security, thus causing further harm to both the planet and its peoples. 

That is why a human rights-based approach, that puts human security at its center, is imperative to achieve sustainable, long lasting, positive peace. Human security regards the individual, as opposed to the state, as the ‘referent object of security’, which entails that the security of individuals is above state sovereignty. The United Nations Security Council, comprised of nuclear weapon possessing states, is not a feasible entry point to achieve disarmament as each state maintains a strong interest in remaining a nuclear power, and freely uses its veto power as it suits their national politics. Therefore, the United Nations’ human rights bodies are the most strategic places to start working towards human security. 

For example, Ukraine has filed an application to the International Court of Justice, accusing Russia of war crimes under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This approach is one that respects human rights, international law, and puts human security first. The United Nations was originally designed as a peace project, and an essential part of peace is disarmament and conflict resolution. Moreover, the United Nations General Assembly resolution on Youth, Disarmament and Non-proliferation is another highly effective document in amplifying youth voices in the disarmament field, and a powerful tool in shaping the future youths are inheriting, putting human security at its core.  

Nuclear Weapons: A Manmade Problem with Feminist Solutions 

As the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs’ Securing Our Common Future report highlighted, the world needs a new disarmament agenda; one that saves lives, protects humanity, and our common future. Therefore, to build on this and the aforementioned notions of a human rights-based approach and human security, feminist peace is another important part of the puzzle. Feminist peace is closely related to human security, and securing our common future, but goes a step further. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) has shaped the concept of feminist peace. WILPF stands for ‘feminist peace for equality, justice and demilitarised security’, therefore aiming to stigmatize war and violence. WILPF seeks to achieve this by transforming gendered power and promoting a feminist political economy. A fundamental approach to WILPF’s concept of feminist peace is demilitarisation, specifically advocating for nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, “for decades, nuclear weapons treaties, policies, and practices have been developed and negotiated in deeply patriarchal and elitist spaces, reinforcing unequal social and political power structures around the world”, which is what organizations like WILPF challenge.   

Approaches such as WILPF’s tackle the root cause of conflict and violence: patriarchal systems of power and violence. While masculine and feminine constructions are both present in political institutions, it is the masculine ideal that is more valued and, because of this, has the most influence in shaping “structures, practices and norms, the ways of valuing things, ways of behaving and ways of being”. On the other hand, feminine traits tend to result in women being less valued and, therefore, lead them to have fewer resources, power, and influence.

Security issues, namely nuclear disarmament, and gender comprise of three main areas: representation, impact, and perspective. Representation matters because numerous studies have shown that involving women in peacebuilding processes, such as negotiations and diplomacy, at all levels is more likely to achieve long lasting, positive peace. Ultimately, a gender perspective in the disarmament field would aid in diversifying the debate on security, thus challenging the conventional and masculinized patterns of power, thus working towards a world free of nuclear weapons and long-lasting peace. 

There has been a noteworthy increase of women entering the security field over the past decades, however women are still heavily under-represented in multilateral forums regarding issues like nuclear weapons, especially at the higher levels of decision making. Statistics show that women are kept in the ‘soft issues’ spaces, working more in the humanitarian areas, such as the UN’s Third Committee, as opposed to working in the ‘hard issues’ spaces, such as security, which is the focus of the UN’s First Committee. This is a significant problem as women can potentially bring in new perspectives and views because of their different experiences and approaches within the securitization field. Thus, equal gender representation, as well as more inclusivity and diversity overall, plays a key role in security. 

In connection to this, scientific evidence demonstrates that females, biologically speaking, are affected more severely by the consequences of nuclear weapons than their male counterparts. These effects range from physiological problems, socio-economic problems, displacement issues, as well as the negative psychological impacts of nuclear weapon detonations. For example, women have a higher body fat percentage than men, and are therefore more vulnerable to the negative health effects of nuclear detonations, such as ionizing radiation. Cultural and indigenous rights are also affected. For example, during the nuclear testing done on the Marshall Islands, a matriarchal society was displaced. This displacement led to the women losing their incomes and property, and ultimately, their independence and self-sufficiency. Thus, the environmental, economic and infrastructural damage done after nuclear detonations have adverse effects on women’s lives, too. 

Overall, there is strong evidence signifying that women are more severely impacted by the consequences of nuclear detentions in numerous ways. These consequences intersect across various social, economic, political, and environmental issues that all affect and are affected by gender. Despite being the portion of the population that are most impacted by nuclear weapons, and conflict in general, women have the least say in the matter, globally.  


In conclusion, there is a highly overarching patriarchal system that maintains the interests of powerful entities which keep investments in weaponry alive and growing, as seen during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within such a patriarchal system, it is not enough to add women, or youths, to the agenda and stir. There needs to be structural change, as the Securing our Common Future report suggested, within the disarmament field. The protection of our future generations is dependent on this. It is imperative that we listen to those most affected by the military industrial complex, and its consequences, and bring justice to all by placing more value on feminist, ethical, human security, and human rights-based approaches, the world over. Women are the most severely impacted by the atrocities of war, but have the least say in global disarmament and security decision-making bodies, and as long as the deeply militarized and military-industrial approaches to security remain hegemonic within such spaces, positive change will be outstanding.  

Article by: Michaela Higgins Sørensen

Edited by: Nico Edwards

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