The hidden stumbling block to progress on nuclear weapons

By Ward Wilson, September 16, 2020

The brick wall of a fallout shelter A fallout shelter in Baltimore. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes people draw the wrong conclusion from failure. Imagine you tried to take your pants off 20 times in a row and failed every time. You might conclude that it’s just going to be impossible to get that particular pair of pants off. But, if you’d been trying to do it by pulling them off over your head, maybe you shouldn’t rush to conclusions.

Of course, eliminating nuclear weapons is a little more complicated than removing a pair of pants, but the analogy is sound. Policy makers in the United States first set about trying to eliminate nuclear weapons in 1946, when the Truman administration brought the Baruch Plan to the United Nations. Since then, efforts to reach toward global nuclear zero have mostly met with failure. For some, that implies that the challenge is impossible. But maybe they’ve been trying to pull their pants off over their heads.

Eliminating nuclear weapons is an especially important subject these days because there’s a confrontation brewing. The United States and the other nuclear-armed states are upgrading their weapons (and some are even increasing the size of their arsenals). But many non-nuclear-armed states seem to be taking the opposite position. In 2017, the United Nations passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and more than 60 percent of the world’s countries voted for it—122 nations in all. The treaty will go into effect when 50 nations sign and ratify it. Today, there are 84 countries that have signed and 44 that have ratified. With only six more countries to go, entry into force will likely come in 2021 or, at the latest, 2022.

Once the treaty is in effect, elimination will become the center of a contentious worldwide debate. The majority of the world will have a new legal argument for pushing toward global zero, but the nine nuclear-armed states are sure to resist. So it makes sense to think a little about whether eliminating nuclear weapons is even possible.

Their dual nature. The reason the world hasn’t been able to make much progress in negotiating an end to nuclear weapons is that policy makers have been going about it in the wrong way. Nuclear weapons have a dual nature; diplomatic efforts have tended to emphasize one aspect of them, while the other is actually more important.

Nuclear weapons are both weapons and symbols. In that way, they’re a bit like electrons, which are both waves and particles. And like electrons, the two different forms of nuclear weapons are very different from each other. A particle, after all, is a thing that exists at a particular spot. A wave is a shape, a form of motion. Particles and waves have little in common. Similarly, weapons and symbols have almost nothing in common.

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Weapons are essentially tools to achieve a particular task. The effectiveness of a tool is objective and quantifiable—how well does it get the job done?

Symbols, on the other hand, are psychological. They can inspire and change beliefs. A soldier waves the regimental flag during a battle, it rallies the troops, and they change the course of the war. The flag didn’t actually do anything. It’s just some cloth. But somehow it touched off feelings and associations, it generated memories, and it connected with beliefs that in some mysterious way changed the behavior of the soldiers on the battlefield.

Symbols have extraordinary power, but it is difficult to measure. The impact of a symbol varies from person to person and from day to day, and the process by which it works—inspiration, association, memory, reinforcement—is internal.

Nuclear weapons, in their incarnation as symbols, act in just this way. They conjure emotion, they awaken memories, and they call to mind beliefs. Of course, they are not alone in this regard; other weapons—such as chariots, armored knights, and battleships—have all had secondary lives as resonating symbols. Sometimes their symbolic power interfered with thinking about their usefulness as tools.

Powerful symbols, useless weapons. Imagine that you’d decided, for some reason, to try to talk the Marines into eliminating the ceremonial swords that they wear with their blue dress uniforms. If you argued with them that the swords were poor weapons, that they wouldn’t be very useful on a tour of duty in Afghanistan, as a practical matter, you would be completely right. But you would probably fail to convince them; the Marines keep the swords not because they’re useful weapons, but because they bring meaning as symbols.

They are weapons, too, of course. They could be used in combat. But Marines value them for their symbolic power. Swords remind the Marines of the whole history of war; they represent tradition, they bring to mind bygone deeds of courage, and they stand for a set of values. If you try to convince them to get rid of the swords using arguments about their utility as weapons, you’ve misunderstood the essential role that the swords play in the life of a Marine, and you will fail.

Nuclear weapons are, in some ways, like these ceremonial swords. Their symbolic value is more important than their military utility. For example, one of the roles of nuclear weapons is as a symbol of prestige. The weapons also buttress alliances, but that buttressing is symbolic. Within NATO, for instance, the United States bases only a token handful of tactical nuclear gravity bombs in Europe. And, most important, nuclear-armed countries use the weapons to deter attacks—a quintessentially symbolic activity that relies on the images, associations, and memories they prompt in the minds of adversaries. Nuclear weapons are both weapons and symbols, but the aspect of them that matters most is their symbolic value.

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The difference between nuclear weapons and ceremonial swords is that, with the swords, there’s no confusion about the military utility. Everyone knows that swords are obsolete weapons. But in the case of nuclear weapons, the two different aspects seem to get confused. The people who make nuclear weapons policy seem to believe that they have enormous power, conflating their symbolic meaning with their practical usefulness.

But in reality, nuclear weapons are not terribly valuable as weapons. They have not been used in war for more than 75 years. And although numerous occasions have arisen since 1945 when their use was considered, each time, decision makers declined. For example, President Eisenhower came into office with an inclination to use nuclear weapons in Korea. But, as the historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote in his 1987 book The Long Peace,

there could be no assurance, whether in Korea, Indochina, or the Taiwan Strait, that the use of nuclear weapons would produce decisive military results. Their ineffectual use, moreover, might compromise the over-all deterrent: If the bomb was seen to have no dramatic effect upon the North Koreans, the Chinese Communists, or the Viet Minh, then how could it be expected to impress the Russians, or to reassure endangered allies?

Peeling back the symbolic layer. Often, when a person confuses an object’s symbolic value with its pragmatic value, they do so unconsciously. Confronting this superstitious belief directly and insisting on reality can sometimes shake them out of their bewitchment. If soldiers seem to be infusing a flag with quasi-magical powers, reminding them that it is just cloth can often dispel this kind of talismanic thinking. The same approach should work with nuclear weapons: when people become carried away with awe and wonder, an insistence on reality might bring them back to earth.

People who work on nuclear weapons issues are sometimes discouraged about eliminating nuclear weapons. But even though prior efforts have failed, that goal is not impossible. The problem is that policy makers have been framing the issue incorrectly. The true obstacle to reaching global zero is not the military value of the weapons, but the feelings, associations, and beliefs that they create as symbols.

Once the symbolic layer has been peeled away, the remaining task will be to evaluate the military utility of nuclear weapons objectively. If it becomes clear that nuclear weapons are dangerous and have almost no military uses, it may be much easier to take the pair of pants off.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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Julius Mazzarella
Julius Mazzarella

Great article. The author is very good explaining the situation. And I was not aware only six countires to ratify a nuclear weapons ban. I hope I live to see it. They may very well be symbols but over 2000 of these symbols have been detonated since 1945. There is nuclear waste that needs to be acounted for most of which has a 24,000 year half life. We won’t mention the untold cancers and birth defects from the production, detonation and maintenace of nuclear weapons systems. The author has a kind heart and is being lenient for the remaining straglers… Read more »

John Reuwer, MD
John Reuwer, MD

Very good point about the power of symbolism. It is not hard to find footage of crowds of Chinese, Pakistanis, or Indians cheering the announcement of their nations’ first nuclear explosion. I feel hope that when the TPNW comes into force that it will help us change the global view of nuclear weapons from symbols of pride and power to symbols of malfeasance and shame.

Deetje Boler
Deetje Boler

I thought that anyone and everyone who is and has been concerned to get rid of nuclear weapons is perfectly well aware that they are actually useless — at least if there is any hope of survival by any side of a nuclear attack or exchange. I don’t believe military minds are suicidal. I’m sure that (sane) civilian minds are not. So the challenge is simply to make it absolutely clear that the use of nuclear weapons is utterly suicidal and that continuing to threaten one another with their use is empty blathering. Is there no remaining belief in the… Read more »

Robert Anton O'Brien
Robert Anton O'Brien

WELL SAID, ALL! And I would add Love for the Earth and all that is on it as another important rationale to reject, dismantle and abolish nuclear weapons forever. On the subject of the Earth and all that exists on it, a desert, relatively uninhabited (by human life forms), was selected for the test detonation of the very first atomic bomb. In his poem “Creation,” BenjaminAlire Sáenz wrote of the bomb’s aftermath:             “….We rose, surveyed the aftermath of our great           experiment. There was not much damage:            rearranged sand, uprooted bushes, a few dead            rabbits. This… Read more »


Nuclear weapons are far more than a symbol. In a world where world powers have the ability to destroy civilization, (through many other means than nuclear weapons) retaining the threat of use is an important deterrent to these attacks.

Ryan Alt
Ryan Alt

Nuclear weapons are incredibly valuable for deterrence, and that isn’t going to change.

bobby joe
bobby joe


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