Reflecting on the Past, Present, and Future of Nuclear Weapons in International Politics

Philipp C. Bleek
July 2, 2019

This is an excerpt of a review of “Forum 21 on ‘Global Nuclear Order’” published in H-Diplo/International Security Studies Forum’s Diplomacy & Statecraft.

These are fascinating times to be studying the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. A host of topics that are usually the domain of specialist conversations are front and center in the news. The general public appears more engaged on nuclear issues than they have been since U.S.-Soviet tensions raised nuclear fears in the early 1980s. Accessible, policy-relevant scholarship—of the sort gathered in the special issue under review here—can help inform both public and policymaker conversations.

The collected papers offer a “representative sampling of the themes and ideas” raised during a 2015 workshop in Melbourne, Australia on the topic of “Re-Assessing the Global Nuclear Order.” Blending history, policy, and strategy, the workshop marked the 50th anniversary of the Gilpatric Report, the product of a blue-ribbon commission that examined nuclear threats and recommended, among other things, the negotiation of what became the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that has shaped the nuclear landscape up through the present.

The authors delve into a breadth of topics united only by their focus on some aspect of nuclear weapons in international politics. In rough chronological order, papers delve into the early history of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, the history of the U.S. pursuit of peaceful nuclear explosives, the evolution and current challenges confronting the nuclear nonproliferation regime, the challenges of extended nuclear deterrence, a potential strategy for the Trump administration vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear deal, the possibility of protracted Sino-U.S. conventional conflict in the shadow of nuclear weapons, and a stocktaking of the current global nuclear order and the relationship between the NPT and the nascent Ban Treaty. The breadth of the topics makes it hard to generalize about the papers, but each has nuances worth highlighting.

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