Nuclear Weapons

Over the past decades, nuclear weapons seem to have become an integral part of the world in general and the domain of international relations in particular. People from various countries have their own views and beliefs about the possession of nuclear weapons by legally recognized nuclear states and proliferation attempts of non-nuclear states and non-state actors. At the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, hardly anyone could have imagined the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons that would last for decades. Even though these weapons have not been used for a very long time, the countries have amassed and improved their nuclear weapons, which has led to the situation when virtually the entire world would be negatively affected by the material use of such weapons in the future. Besides, it is not possible to state that the weapons have not been used at all as they have been exploited ideationally as a deterrent mechanism and a means of increasing power and influence on the international geopolitical arena. Nonetheless, it is traditionally considered that since 1945 there has emerged a tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons as most countries are well aware of adverse consequences of such a decision for all actors, with some researchers even considering this non-use to be an international taboo. Traditions are social norms accepted by the majority of people and are not as rigid, unthinkable, and prohibitive as taboos. Since the issue of nuclear weapons has been subject to discussions, debates, and even amendments in respective policies governing potential uses of such weapons, their non-use is a tradition and not a taboo. Overall, this tradition has been upheld for about seven decades, which could be a foundation for subsequent delegitimization of nuclear weapons and elimination of existing stockpiles until recently there have emerged worrying trends about changing the tradition in terms of expanding a list of instances when countries can use nuclear weapons.

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Discussion of “Taboo or tradition? The non-use of nuclear weapons in world politics”

The author of the first article under consideration is T.V. Paul, a well-known scholar in the domain of international relations, who has dedicated much time and efforts to the study of topical international relations issues, including nuclear weapons. Currently, he is James McGill Professor of International Relations at McGill University and has published many peer-reviewed articles and books, with the most applicable hereto being his 2009 book titled “The tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons”. Hence, the author is definitely a reliable and valid source of information, thereby proving the validity of the article discussed herein. In fact, the article is highly informative and valuable for understanding the role of nuclear weapons in international politics and relations, as well as providing an in-depth discussion of potential uses of nuclear weapons in the future.

The article under consideration discusses the non-use of nuclear weapons by nuclear states against each other and non-nuclear states, which has been observed in the world since the 1945 attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hence, Paul does not consider such non-use to be a taboo accepted by all international actors. His view of the world situation with nuclear states opposes the traditional international relations view, according to which nuclear weapons perform a deterrent function and there has emerged a taboo about their use. Unlike most scholars supporting the view that non-use of nuclear weapons is a taboo, he contends that the issue is subject to a tradition that can be altered under external circumstances and in different situations. Besides, he provides convincing examples and arguments in favor of his view. The main underlying justification of this view is different natures of taboos and traditions. While taboos are absolute by nature and country leaders would not even consider violating a taboo because of its complete unacceptability, a tradition is less absolute and can be changed, discussed, and considered in terms of violation. 

The article by Paul is essential for the understanding of nuclear weapons and why the non-use of such weapons should be considered a tradition. This understanding is also facilitated by clear language, an easily comprehensible structure of narration, and the use of real-life examples to justify the author’s views. The greatest value of the article consists in its content. Hence, the author’s claim about the reputational costs as a significant factor taken into account by world leaders while deciding whether to use nuclear weapons or not is highly reasonable and helps understand why the USA and other nuclear states have repeatedly refrained from using such weapons during previous military confrontations. He is also right emphasizing that “traditions have a greater degree of malleability than taboos”, which means that they are sustained and upheld only through human actions and can be amended if people decide to break. This idea seems to be valid and convincing in terms of distinguishing between taboos and traditions. If the non-use of nuclear weapons were really a taboo, nuclear states and their leaders would never think of potential ways of using such weapons. However, nowadays, all nuclear states except for China have the first use policy, under which they can be the first to employ nuclear weapons against their enemy in a rather wide range of instances, be it a nuclear or non-nuclear state or even a non-state actor. The presence of such policies and their regular revision prove that the leaders of nuclear states consider the use of nuclear weapons to be a possible scenario under peculiar circumstances, which does not allow to conclude that the non-use is a taboo. Furthermore, various states, for instance, North Korea and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations have strived to acquire the weapons under consideration as a means of obtaining more power regionally and globally and being on equal terms with nuclear states. Therefore, the non-use of nuclear weapons can hardly be considered a taboo but rather resembles a tradition that can be changed and, in fact, has been somewhat changed. 

Nonetheless, an opposing view about the non-use of nuclear weapons being a taboo also has some solid arguments in favor of this position. Paul mentions a book by Tannenwald that is aimed at proving the taboo hypothesis, considering some of his opponent’s views as valid. Thus, a taboo hypothesis is supported with an assertion that leaders and the public have started considering the non-use of nuclear weapons as an obligation since 1945. Finally, the non-use is a taboo because people believe it to be a taboo, and it has become one based on reciprocity over time so that states do not use nuclear weapons against each other under any circumstances. Although some of these arguments seem to be reasonable, they are not really convincing when compared to those of Paul. Therefore, the non-use of nuclear weapons should be considered a tradition rather than a taboo as stated and proved in the article under review.

Discussion of “Using nuclear weapons” by Atkinson

Carol Atkinson, the author of the second article under consideration, provides a highly credible and reliable source of information about such a sensitive issue as nuclear weapons. She has received her PhD in Political Sciences from Duke University and is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. She is also a U.S. military veteran who occupied the position of the Chief of Nuclear Target Analysis for Contingencies at U.S. Strategic Command and an advisor on Strategic Air Command’s nuclear airborne command post while serving. This way, she definitely has sufficient experience and knowledge of the issue under consideration and can provide an invaluable insight into the topic of nuclear weapons and their use. 

The article under study is a discussion and analysis of the book on nuclear weapons by Nina Tannenwald that initiated the tradition of speaking about the nuclear weapons taboo. This way, Atkinson, similarly to Paul, focuses on the analysis and reconceptualization of the nuclear taboo hypothesis. Hence, Atkinson strives to critically analyze the key assumptions, as well as constructivist and rationalist explanations provided by her predecessor and expand them accordingly. In general, the author agrees with the underlying core premise of the taboo hypothesis; yet, she considers it to be applicable only with respect to the material use of nuclear weapons, i.e. their detonation. However, Atkinson believes that nuclear weapons should not be considered from the material perspective only and justifies the analysis of the issue from the idealist perspective. This way, she justifies a view that detonation or non-use of nuclear weapons has not only material, but also ideational outcomes. Besides, ideational factors can also be viewed as the causal mechanisms of actions, in particular with respect to the use of nuclear weapons, which is why they need to be studied in more detail. Such ideational factors include collective identity, norms, and beliefs, while ideational outcomes include collective identity and latent power. For instance, with respect to the collective identity, Atkinson emphasizes that the U.S. as a civilized nation has inherent unwillingness to subject other nations to immense suffering and pain that would be definitely caused by the detonation of nuclear weapons as the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki proves. Thus, the author expands the taboo hypothesis and subsequently challenges it by emphasizing that nuclear weapons have been extensively used by states from the ideational perspective. 

Overall, the article under consideration is highly valuable and informative as it provides a critical analysis of a seminal work in the nuclear weapons discussion discourse in addition to giving a novel insight into the issue. It should also be recognized that the article is a reliable and credible source of information that is easily comprehensible thanks to the clear and professional writing style of the author and the structuring of the presented information. The most valuable part of the article seems to be the discussion of nuclear weapons' usage over the years, which challenges the taboo perspective and contributes to the comprehension of the tradition hypothesis. Hence, Atkinson claims that nuclear weapons possess latent power that has been extensively exploited by nuclear states and “It is the context within which confrontational situations take place between nuclear armed states and those who do not possess nuclear arms that shapes international politics in a nuclear world”. In this context, the word ‘use’ does not mean material use, i.e. detonation of nuclear weapons, but rather use in the ideational sense. In this respect, it seems to be true that nuclear weapons have been used by nuclear states during military confrontations and as a means of negotiations aimed at obtaining the desired outcome for the nuclear state to which a non-nuclear state has to succumb to avoid a nuclear threat. Atkinson mentions the Operation Desert Storm and continued maintenance of the U.S. nuclear airborne posts as examples of the nuclear weapons use. This point is highly valid and essential in the discussion of the tradition of the nuclear weapons non-use.

However, the opposing view about the material non-use of nuclear weapons seems to be valid as well. Thus, Atkinson agrees with the taboo hypothesis from the material perspective and emphasizes that there really seems to be a social norm prohibiting detonation of nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, she is right that the material non-use does not automatically mean ideational non-use. As evident from the article under consideration, nuclear weapons have latent power that nuclear states have exploited in order to avoid or win confrontations and influence the international geopolitical arena. It seems obvious that nuclear states are highly influential in the world, and, in some circumstances, even impose their will and decisions on non-nuclear states. Within this context, it becomes understandable why certain non-nuclear states that have some tensions and face national security threats may be willing to acquire nuclear weapons despite the tradition of their material non-use, as it would increase their latent political and diplomatic power.

Discussion of “Deligitimizing nuclear weapons” by Mendelsohn

The article by Mendelsohn continues the discussion of nuclear weapons as weapons that should be associated with a strong tradition of non-use. Hence, the author believes that nuclear weapons should be delegitimized all over the world, with the United Stated taking “the lead in making the use of nuclear weapons unacceptable under any but the most extenuating circumstances”. The article emphasizes that politicians, country leaders, and the public have “come to view nuclear weapons as a seamless extension of the nation’s military capabilities and the threat of their potential use as an acceptable part of its political rhetoric”. In turn, the author believes that such position is unacceptable and should be changed; thus, highly developed nuclear states, including primarily the USA, should lead the world in changing the perception of the weapons. It seems unjustified that nuclear weapons remain legitimate and not governed by the international law, while other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological ones, are strictly prohibited, with the countries suspected of possessing them being subject to harsh sanctions. Furthermore, the move of the U.S. aimed at expanding the range of instances when nuclear weapons may be used is a provocative step that undermines stability and peace of the world. Although it is impossible to eliminate the nuclear weapons at once, their gradual delegitimization is essential for the world peace.

This way, Mendelsohn presents a persuasive and thought-provoking narrative with an evident call to reconsider the current view of the nuclear weapons and their role in national security defense and international politics. Based on the arguments presented in the article under consideration, it is clear that Mendelsohn supports the tradition hypothesis about the nuclear weapons use. Hence, currently, politicians prefer to uphold the tradition of the material non-use of nuclear weapons; yet, the author supports a view that this can change in the future since non-nuclear countries prone to engage in conflicts strive to obtain nuclear weapons. It is evident that under the effective international law their proliferation efforts cannot be harshly prosecuted through legal means, which is why there is a need to delegitimize nuclear weapons in order to efficiently stop them. Thus, Mendelsohn advocates for turning the present non-use tradition into a taboo upheld by legal and social norms and means. 


However, not all scholars suppose that nuclear weapons should be considered as a tradition or a taboo, thereby being gradually decreased in volume and eliminated until the so-called zero state when there are no nuclear weapons in the world. On the contrary, there is quite a popular view that nuclear weapons constitute an integral part of the national defense system in all nuclear states in general and the USA in particular. Hence, Myers claims that nuclear weapons cannot be abandoned by the USA since there are many nations that “are viscerally hostile” to the U.S. and “nuclear weapons are actively sought by a set of lethal new nonstate enemies”. Even though the scholar does not state explicitly why the country needs to preserve and improve its nuclear weapons, it is implicitly obvious that the primary goal of such preservation is to be able to strike first or attack in response to any hostile actions. This way, it is evident that Myers does not consider the non-use of nuclear weapons to be a taboo and even fails to support the tradition hypothesis since she advocates for an active use of such weapons either as preemptive or retaliatory measures. Still, it should be noted that the scholar is in favor of developing smaller and more mobile nuclear weapons that would have a smaller radius of effects. Myers (2009, p. 4) considers such weapons useful in terms of their capacity to “accomplish the real war-fighting tasks assigned to them”. Apparently, she does not take into account that this might start a nuclear war and that the exact effects and damage radius are difficult to forecast and predict accurately. 

Reiss partially supports the position that nuclear weapons are necessary and useful, but discusses the issue from a slightly different perspective. He does not call for the improvement and extension of the model range of nuclear weapons, but suggests the preservation of the existing weapons as a response to the threat posed by proliferating states in general and North Korea in particular. So far, nuclear states and other influential actors of the geopolitical arena have failed to contain North Korean proliferation efforts using the soft power and latent power assigned to them because of their nuclear status and economic capacities. Since North Korea has ignored the world opinion on its actions for a long time, “the inability of four of the world’s strongest military and economic powers – the United States, China, Russia, and Japan – including three nuclear-weapons states and three members of the UN Security Council, to shape the strategic environment in Northeast Asia” is obvious. This way, their latent power as defined by Atkinson has failed them, and the only thing they have now as a defense means is the force represented by material nuclear weapons. Except for the situation with North Korea, nuclear countries usually get what they want merely because of their nuclear status. Gartzke & Jo have revealed that, in fact, “nuclear weapons matter less for war and peace”, but “it is the realm of diplomatic wrangling and bargained settlements that we observe a significant shift associated with nuclear weapons”. Their study shows that there is no essential difference between nuclear and non-nuclear states in terms of the frequency of engaging in some conflicts and confrontations. In turn, there is a significant difference in terms of the influence they have on the diplomatic, economic, and international relations with other countries. For instance, it means that the opponents of nuclear states may be pressured to settle some dispute on conditions favorable for the nuclear state because of the difference in power both of them have. From this perspective, nuclear weapons seem to be useful and beneficial for their owners. Nonetheless, this ideational power does not always work, as the current situation with North Korea shows, while the material use of nuclear weapons will have adverse outcomes for the entire world.


The present argumentative synthesis has presented and discussed different views on such a topical and deadly issue as nuclear weapons. Nowadays, these weapons are not illegitimate under the international law contrary to other weapons of mass destruction; yet, the six recognized nuclear states acutely respond to any proliferation attempts of non-nuclear states. Besides, only China has the policy of no first use, while other nuclear states with seemingly democratic regimes have recently expanded a list of scenarios under which they are entitled to strike with nuclear weapons first. Therefore, the non-use of such weapons observed since 1945 can hardly be considered a taboo since the issue is open for discussion, and the situation can be changed under a wide range of circumstances. In turn, the view of the non-use as a social tradition is more suitable for the issue under consideration. Despite the opposing views about the usefulness of nuclear weapons and their possession, they seem to pose more risks than benefits, which is why they should be delegitimized, thereby legally supporting the existing non-use tradition.

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