A feminist and postcolonial approach to nuclear politics

The July issue of International Affairs includes eight articles on the global nuclear order and eight more covering Chinese lending, abortion rights, and global security.

Expert comment Published 20 July 2022 Updated 21 July 2022 3 minute READ

Disarmament and arms control has been a consistent area of debate in this journal for the past century, as underscored in our recent archive collection of research on a century of war and conflict.

The July edition moves this debate forward with a collection of papers guest-edited by Shine Choi and Catherine Eschle. The section ‘Feminist interrogations of global nuclear politics’ includes work by nine authors exploring seven global case-studies that help rethink nuclear politics and feminism.

As the guest editors note in their introduction, the section brings together research on nuclear power and nuclear weaponry to ‘begin the process of decentring 1980s white, western experiences of the global nuclear order in feminist IR’.

The articles speak to three core themes: they provide evidence of the ongoing destructive nature of nuclear technologies, extend understanding of the gendered, racialized, and colonial dimensions of nuclear discourses, and unearth the impact of colonialism on the global nuclear order.

Global nuclear politics

Anne Sisson Runyan examines the gendered effects of uranium mining and nuclear waste dumping on North American Indigenous women, showing how the nuclear cycle tends to have a disproportionate effect on certain communities but also that the area of disposal remains problematic.

This is a global problem – for example, the Royal Navy has yet to successfully dispose of a single redundant nuclear-powered submarine and is rapidly running out of space to store further vessels.

Hebatalla Taha goes back to the early years of nuclear development and, using Egypt as a case-study, her article argues the early visualizations of the atomic age were fluid and ambivalent. She concludes – perhaps controversially – that feminizing nuclear politics and nuclear images will not lead to disarmament but rather reinforce the nuclearized world. The piece is a welcome addition to the emerging field of visuality within international relations.

Gendered images, symbols and metaphors play a key role in narrating, imagining and criticizing, but also sustaining, the nuclear-armed world.

Hebatalla Taha, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Department of Political Science, American University in Cairo

Anand Sreekumar brings together feminist and Gandhian thinking to suggest a way for Narendra Modi’s government to move beyond the possession of nuclear weapons as symbols of power. In doing so, he also critiques the binary labels of ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ that often frame our understanding of the world.

Lorraine Bayard de Volo revisits the Cuban missile crisis – a point in time where nuclear war looked likely. She compares the actions of Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy and finds the pursuit of masculinity led to the rejection of approaches considered more feminine, such as diplomacy and negotiation – the crisis was exacerbated by what might be referred to now as toxic masculinity.

Sweden’s and Finland’s recent application to join the nuclear alliance NATO lends a particular urgency to Emma Rosengren’s article on the original Swedish decision to renounce the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Her article concludes much of the emphasis on power in international relations has contributed to a gendered and racialized nuclear order.

Similarly, Laura Rose Brown and Laura Considine’s article on the Non-Proliferation Treaty finds that ‘gender-sensitive’ approaches focus almost exclusively on women’s inclusion as opposed to feminist policy analysis. They end by making recommendations for future policymaking.

Finally, Rebecca Hogue and Anais Maurer look at the anti-nuclear poetry of Pacific women. This article raises fundamental questions about what is currently considered to constitute evidence. They point to the role of oral history in many communities and the tendency of policymakers and social scientists to ignore this source of understanding.

National politics with international implications

This edition’s ‘Editor’s Choice’ is Jeffrey A. Friedman’s article which questions whether US grand strategy is dead in a post-Trump world. Running counter to much of the existing literature, he suggests there is a strong bilateral commitment to existing partnerships and alliances within the US political establishment.

Bipartisan support for deep engagement is at least as strong today as it has been at any other point since the end of the Cold War.

Jeffrey A. Friedman, Associate Professor of Government, Dartmouth College; Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Toulouse

Following the US Supreme Court decision over Roe vs Wade, it is important to note the issue of abortion rights can have an international dimension. Megan Daigle, Deirdre N. Duffy, and Diana López Castañeda reveal that, although Colombia now has the most progressive legal framework for abortion in Latin America, intense backlash persists as legacies of the civil war overshadow the issue and lead to barriers to safe abortion care.


Ric Neo and Chen Xiang look at Chinese public opinion and finds that citizens can be upset by foreign policies of other states even when they have no impact on their daily lives. It reminds us of the potency of nationalism and the importance of who controls the prevailing narrative.

It was not the Chinese party-state’s grand strategy, or even a purposeful effort, to indebt Zambia.

Deborah Brautigam, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy and Director, China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Deborah Brautigam examines China’s role in creating Zambia’s debt crisis, arguing this has not been brought about by a centralized master plan which would give China control over Zambia. Instead, the crisis has been caused by the failure of Chinese bureaucracy with too many state organs offering funding in an uncoordinated fashion.

Security and defence

Using Iran as a case-study, Henrik Stålhane Hiim argues the development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles is a key indicator when looking for potential nuclear proliferators.

Eray Alim demonstrates the impact of an external great power interacting with local states. Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war has allowed it – sometimes through restrictive and punitive measures – to ensure Turkey and Israel do not harm its interests in the region.

Nina Wilén draws on fieldwork in Niger to study how Security Force Assistance (SFA) impacts on Niger’s security sector and compares this to global trends in security. She finds these developments contribute to blurred borders and confusion regarding labour division in the security sector and points to wider questions for intervenors in developing local units.

A feminist and postcolonial approach to nuclear politics

James Barnes and Samuel M. Makinda examine the impact of Australia’s decision to walk away from its submarine deal with France and instead sign the AUKUS treaty with the UK and US. They argue it shows the impact of this perceived act of betrayal went beyond bilateral relations to undermine trust in international society more broadly.

All articles mentioned above are available to download in the July 2022 issue of International Affairs.

International Affairs was started at Chatham House in 1922 to communicate research to members who could not attend in person. Over the past 100 years it has transformed into a journal that publishes academically rigorous and policy relevant research. It is published for Chatham House by Oxford University Press. Read the latest issue.