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Nuclear Weapons

Less is More: the Feminist Case Against Minimum Deterrence

by Laura Rose Brown
June 22, 2021

If countries take the wellbeing and security of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities as their starting point, we will end up with a very different approach to nuclear weapons and different policy outcomes.

In April this year, the United Kingdom published Global Britain in a Competitive Age, an extensive integrated review of the UK’s security, defense, foreign policy and international development work. The review received significant attention given the UK’s decision to increase the upper limit on its nuclear stockpile and to stop making its nuclear warhead numbers public.

sailor stands in weapons room

In the weapons room on HMS Vigilant, submarine on January 20, 2016, in Rhu, Scotland. HMS Vigilant is one of the UK's four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines capable of carrying up to 40 nuclear warheads and up to 8 operational Trident ballistic missiles. Spearfish anti-submarine torpedoes are pictured in the background.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The UK describes its minimum deterrent as that which "guarantees our security, and that of our Allies." It entails the "minimum destructive power needed to guarantee that the UK’s nuclear deterrent remains credible." While a minimum deterrence posture is often seen as a step on the path towards non-proliferation and disarmament, in reality, the UK’s minimum deterrent policy helps its outdated security strategy—which relies on domination, unequal power dynamics, and discrimination—to survive. A wolf in sheep's clothing, the policy obscures the UK’s stalling commitment to global disarmament.

On size...

Reliance on the overwhelmingly subjective "minimum" deterrent, as defined by the time, place, and person who uses it, is alarming. For one thing, the irony that the UK has managed to increase the limit on its stockpile while emphasizing its commitment to maintaining the smallest stockpile possible should not be lost on us. What does it mean when the smallest stockpile size is undefined, dynamic, and subject to change? There is always the possibility for a future "change of heart," leaving the door open to ever-increasing stockpile limits with little accountability, undermining disarmament and stalling the transition to equitable, responsible, and feminist foreign policymaking.

protestors lay on the ground

Anti-nuclear weapons activists from Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament stage a die-in protest outside Westminster Abbey on May 3, 2019, in London, England. Westminster Abbey hosted a service of recognition to the commitment of the Royal Navy to peace-keeping through Britain's nuclear deterrent system on the 50th anniversary of its deployment.

Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Recent research has suggested that despite the UK’s commitments to reducing its arsenal size made in both 2010 and 2015, its nuclear stockpile has remained unchanged, never hitting the 2015 reduction target of 180 warheads. If this is true, we must ask whether the introduction of reduction-based language into the UK’s nuclear playbook was ever really intended to translate into meaningful and tangible action. There is a sizable gap between what is said, and what is really done. The minimum deterrent posture only makes state doctrines on nuclear weapons murkier. A feminist foreign policy approach seeks clarity in the struggle for equality.

On safety....

The concept of a minimum deterrent is not new. Those in favor of a minimal deterrent have upheld the policy as a means for steadily reducing overall nuclear weapons numbers, while reducing the risks and costs associated with the weapons themselves. Large nuclear weapons arsenals have been portrayed as risk-prone, unpredictable, and dangerous. While smaller arsenals, the minimum deterrent, have been lauded as safer, more reliable, and more manageable by governments.

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The emphasis on safety is at best misplaced, and at worst a complete denial of and distraction from the danger that nuclear weapons pose to life on Earth. Vulnerability to nuclear weapons testing and use is significantly greater for women and children in biological and social terms;  hence, for meaningful discussions about deterrence and disarmament dynamics to take place, it is essential to acknowledge that a stockpile of any size is dangerous. The emphasis on minimum deterrence as a "responsible" approach to nuclear weapons possession is a red-herring.

On direction...

Taken as a step in the right direction for non-proliferation, the psychological implications of the posture of minimum deterrence go unexamined.

The overall reduction of global nuclear stockpiles is a necessary goal. But what happens when the minimum is reached?

Let there be no doubt, the overall reduction of global nuclear stockpiles is a necessary goal. But what happens when the minimum is reached? First, we run the risk of increasing the prestige of individual warheads by increasing their perceived role in creating security and stability. When the idea that any stockpile level below the "minimum" harms our national insecurity, what hope do we have of disarming below this level? Arguably, very little.

Alarmingly, operating at the minimum creates the logical imperative for state actors to view increases in stockpile limits as a sure-fire means to increase national security. This is what we have seen with the UK’s integrated review—put simply, the only way is up. And, this is directly at odds with the pursuit of an equitable, feminist foreign policy that engenders global disarmament.

protestors hold signs

Protesters holding placards demonstrate against the renewal of Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system in Parliament Square on July 18, 2016, in London, England. Members of Parliament voted to renew the Trident nuclear weapons program and the manufacture of the next generation of nuclear submarines.
 

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

A feminist approach requires a shake-up of the current way of doing things. By forming policy with a feminist framework in mind, states are encouraged to take the wellbeing and security of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities as their starting point. For nuclear policymaking, this means considering those most vulnerable to the impacts of nuclear weapons (not only in the event of detonation but also their manufacture, testing, etc.) and taking tangible steps to remedy "nuclear inequalities" imposed because of gender, race, and colonial attitudes. These inequalities matter, not only because they reveal the prevalence of discrimination and disproportionate harm on specific groups, but also because they undermine core pillars of a feminist foreign policy approachtransparency and inclusion. An intangible minimum deterrent, reliant on ambiguity and exclusion of those outside of the policymaking room, stands firmly at odds with a comprehensive approach to security that protects all and leaves no one behind.

This content produced in collaboration with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). BASIC connects governments, policy influencers, and experts to design credible proposals in order to build international trust, reduce the risks of nuclear use, and advance nuclear disarmament.

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