Bombs, Brexit Boys and Bairns: A Feminist Critique of Nuclear (In)security in the Integrated Review

Claire Duncanson and Catherine Eschle.

The recent publication of ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ has caused quite a storm, and for good reason. The vision put forward by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government for a post-Brexit revitalisation of the UK’s role in the world marks a clear departure from past British policy on nuclear weapons. The announcement of a 44% increase in the cap on its warhead stockpile from 180 to 260 is widely considered in breach of the UK’s obligations to work for disarmament under Article 6 of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]. It thus breaks international law, as well as flying in the face of the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And it is accompanied by an expansion in ‘the number and type of potential threats’ against which the UK would consider a ‘nuclear response’, alongside a policy of greater secrecy around stockpiles and deployment. All this in a context of an ongoing public health crisis caused by Covid-19, looming ecological catastrophe and cuts of over £4bn in the overseas aid budget.

This change in nuclear policy can be criticised from many perspectives, but we want to sketch out here what a feminist critique can add to the mix. Feminists start from an emphasis on gender: a socially constructed set of expectations for appropriate masculine and feminine roles and behaviours that intersect with race/ethnicity, class, and sexuality. Gender is, moreover, more than identity; it is also a power relationship, hierarchically organised to elevate hegemonic masculinity, and those who can fulfil its demands, over subordinated masculinities and femininities. Finally, and crucially, gender is a symbolic system, through which ideas about normative masculinity and femininity shape much of social and political life, including nuclear weapons policy. Feminists show, for example, how policy options linked to perceived masculine traits such as toughness, rationality and independence are likely to be perceived as superior to those options linked to ostensibly feminine traits of compromise, empathy and interdependence. We suggest that it is only with an eye on such gendered logics that we can fully explain the British government’s decision to raise the ceiling on the nuclear warhead stockpile, increase the reasons that could justify their use, and refuse transparency about deployed warheads; all whilst cutting aid to the world’s poorest countries. In what follows, we identify three ways gender is at work in the Integrated Review.

Brexit Boys and Techno-kings: If You’ve Got it, Flaunt it

We start with the association of nuclear weapons with masculine status and power. In the past, the penchant of nuclear decision-makers for phallic imagery made all too obvious their preoccupation with masculine virility. More recently, when then-US President Donald Trump boasted about the size of his nuclear button, Carol Cohn observed that he ‘makes the job of a feminist security analyst almost too easy. No subtle teasing out of subtexts required with this guy’. In contrast, with the possible exception of one photograph of the towering space satellite antennae at Goonhilly, the Integrated Review eschews the phallic comparisons that sexualise nuclear weapons. This is perhaps surprising for a government led by a man notorious for his provocative rhetoric, for his membership of the elitist, macho Bullingdon Club, and as a ‘philanderer’ who is ambiguous about his full number of children. However, it is in line with the emergence in the UK of the more restrained and rationalistic nuclear discourse that we previously traced under Tony Blair’s Labour Government.

Nonetheless, just as when that Labour Government initiated the renewal of the Trident missile system, the association of nuclear weapons with the masculine-coded domination and prestige of superior firepower remains intact. Indeed, we suggest it has intensified, shorn of Blair’s performative lawyerly reluctance to shoulder the burden of nuclear leadership and bolstered by two developments in hegemonic masculinity.

The first could be dubbed the rise of the ‘Brexit boys’. It is well known that debates about Brexit have been inordinately dominated by men and indeed by a group of elite white men, some of whom attended the ‘same schools and have been competing with each other since adolescence’, joined by millionaire commodity traders, bankers and businessmen. This is part of the context in which certain cultural codes have risen to dominance: not only an unapologetic nostalgia for the UK’s imperial history, but also a ‘hyper-masculine’ foreign policy discourse in which business rhetoric and militarist language have merged to create a wheeler-dealer, action-hero realm of ‘deal or no deal’.

The second relevant development, we suggest, is the rise of the figure of the ‘Techno-king’. Considerable cultural kudos and airtime has been granted to the individual male tech entrepreneurs whose companies have reshaped the global economy in recent years and whose success is widely characterised in terms that eulogise rugged individualism and risk-taking, and that accept, or even excuse, the accompanying aggressiveness and bullying. In this way, technological innovation is tied to a particular model of abrasive, questing masculinity that is able to ride the wave of social change while maintaining privilege.

These developments have left their imprint on the Integrated Review, which confidently presents a masculinist, neo-imperial vision of a dynamic, technologically-dominant UK astride the world. ‘This is our opportunity to end the era of retreat’, as one commentator put it. In this vein, the Review declares the renewal of ‘British leadership in the world’, along with its ‘strength’, ‘freedom’ and ‘agility and speed of action’. Key here is ‘our ability to project cutting-edge military power’, our ‘world-leading defence and intelligence agencies’ and our proximity to becoming a ‘science and tech superpower’. Because of its military and technological supremacy, the UK will succeed in dominating not only inter-state, but also economic competition, in ways that ‘boost our national prosperity and strategic advantage’. And as the final line of the Prime Minister’s foreword makes clear, nuclear weapons will play a crucial role in securing the international political and economic system, and ensuring UK dominance of it, because they are fundamental to ‘our ability to project power’. Thus nuclear weapons are an essential symbolic prop to this swaggering vision of masculinist dominance.

Deflection and Doublespeak: Hiding the Real Costs of Nuclear Weapons

Such posturing is only one way in which the Integrated Review elevates masculine traits. Another can be found in the deployment of the euphemisms, abstractions and jargon that Carol Cohn long ago identified as typical of the masculinist ‘technostrategic’ discourse deployed by nuclear scientists and decision-makers. Examples pepper the Integrated Review, in the form of phrases such as ‘precision strike weapons’, ‘CBRN resilience’, ‘minimum destructive power’ or ‘optimise the Defence Nuclear Enterprise’. As Cohn explains, such language presents nuclear weapons and their impacts as clean, futuristic and highly controlled. As such, it serves to deflect attention from the human bodies that would experience (and already have experienced) death, disfigurement, displacement and ongoing ill-health from the blast wave, intense heat, and radiation and radioactive fallout that follow nuclear weapons use. As Cohn insists, technostrategic discourse leaves out ‘the emotional, the concrete, the particular, ….all of which are marked [as] feminine’ and thus become unsayable within the dominant frameworks for discussing nuclear weapons. There is certainly no consideration of such messy and troubling concerns in the Integrated Review.

Indeed, it seems to us that the Integrated Review goes beyond euphemism to exhibit a striking degree of Orwellian ‘doublespeak’, or what Ray Acheson calls ‘magical thinking’. ‘The fundamental purpose of our nuclear weapons is to preserve peace, prevent coercion and deter aggression’, we are told. But from a feminist perspective, nuclear weapons actually ‘pose grave threats to the security and well-being of all people’, function as a major obstacle to peace conceived as ‘the undoing of all forms of violence’ and help to perpetuate ‘a patriarchal status quo founded on colonial inequalities’. Or to take another example, the nuclear weapons arsenal of the UK is repeatedly described as a ‘minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent’ – when it is far from minimal in its enormous destructive power (which the Review proposes to increase), not independent given UK reliance on the US and NATO, and not a deterrent but a spark to further escalation of nuclear threats. Perhaps most egregiously, the report declares its strong commitment ‘to full implementation of the NPT in all its aspects, including nuclear disarmament [and] non-proliferation’ whilst simultaneously committing to policies that will certainly undermine the NPT.

Bairns not Bombs: Contesting Masculinist Visions of Security

This brings us to the third and final gendered logic in the Integrated Review. For feminist critics, the claims above are not only discursive peculiarities or outright falsehoods, but also emblematic of a flawed vision of security based on masculinist values.

To begin with, the Integrated Review can be interpreted as an example of the ‘logic of masculinist protection’, in which apparently benign paternalistic policies function as a kind of ‘protection racket’. On this view, state leaders claim to be protecting their citizens from barbaric outsiders, expecting grateful obedience and loyalty as a result, whilst in fact doing the very things that make citizens (and particularly women) less secure. Given that the cost of implementing the nuclear element of the Integrated Review will be billions, considerable resources are likely to be diverted from measures that would make a more meaningful contribution to the safety and prosperity of women and men in the UK – particularly in the context of widening class, racial and gendered inequalities during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis.

Moreover, the Integrated Review conceptualises security within the context of an ‘old logic of existential competition’ that is deeply gendered. For all the references in the Review to cooperation in international institutions, there remains a strong emphasis throughout on finding ‘strategic advantage’ and the idea that the UK must become ‘match-fit for a more competitive world’. The overwhelming impression is of a world made up of entirely autonomous, narrowly rational states, freely pursuing national interest and capitalist advantage in competition with others. This is a vision derived from the experiences of elite white men, and one that transposes onto states the traits of homo economicus, resulting in a conflation of security with autonomy of action as well as with military might, and with the acquisition of resources irrespective of ecological constraints. Within such a discursive framework, the occasional mention of investment in gender equality appears as mere window-dressing, while the more extensive discussion of climate security remains highly circumscribed by its reliance on technological, militaristic and entrepreneurial solutions.

Feminist visions of security are very different. Feminists are attentive to women’s diverse experiences as mothers and carers, and build their theories of the world from an acknowledgement of the fundamental interdependence of humanity. They thus view security as inhering in the quality of relationships, as something that can only be achieved with others, and as akin to human flourishing. In this vein, the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon contrasted the Scottish Parliament’s vote to incorporate the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scottish Law with the plans for nuclear expansion announced in the Integrated Review, concluding ‘never has the ”bairns not bombs” argument been made so stark’. In addition, feminists are attentive to the interdependence of humanity with the natural world, seeing security as intertwined with ecological justice. Such an approach challenges technocratic solutions to the climate crisis, as well as to insecurity more generally, insisting instead on the more fundamental transformation of political and economic structures. Nuclear weapons, then, can have no role in feminist visions of security. As Carina Minami Unchida concludes, from the perspective of an intersectional ‘feminist foreign policy’, ‘The UK must simultaneously abandon nuclear weapons and the current threat-based understanding of masculinised security’. Unfortunately for us all, the Integrated Review is a move in precisely the opposite direction.

This article was originally posted by BASIC on the BASIC website, and can be found here.

Catherine Eschle teaches on the Politics & International Relations and Gender Studies programmes at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. Her research explores feminist debates and dynamics in the context of broader social movement politics, and she has published widely on the global justice movement, on the gendered politics of protest camps, on debates within feminism about co-optation and solidarity, and on feminism, nuclear policy and anti-nuclear politics. With Shine Choi of Massey University, she coordinates an international research network on ‘feminist interrogations of global nuclear politics’ and is currently preparing a Special Issue on this topic for the journal International Affairs.

Claire Duncanson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. She has published widely on issues relating to gender, peace and security, with a particular focus on gender and peacebuilding. Her current work aims to bring a feminist analysis to the political economy of building peace. She is the author of Gender and Peacebuilding (Polity Press, 2016), and a range of publications on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and on gender in militaries. Claire works with Carol Cohn at the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights on the “Feminist Roadmap for Sustainable Peace and Planet” Project ( ), co-authoring “Whose Recovery? IFI Prescriptions for Postwar States” in Review of International Political Economy (2019) and “WPS in a Changing Climate” in the International Feminist Journal of Politics (2020). Claire is an active member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and has co-authored with fellow WILPF member Vanessa Farr on the implementation of the WPS agenda in Afghanistan for Sara Davies and Jacqui True’s Oxford Handbook on the WPS Agenda.

Views expressed belong solely to the original authors of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC and genderED.