Power, Masculinity, and the Nuclear State – by Katy Constantinides

On October 25th, 2020, the New York Times published an article written by Rick Gladstone discussing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty recently passed the ratification threshold after receiving its 50th signature from Honduras, a significant milestone in the international community’s pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. This agreement is “aimed at destroying all nuclear weapons and forever prohibiting their use,” and will take effect for states that have ratified it on January 22nd, 2021 (Gladstone 2020). The international community overwhelmingly supports this treaty, with 84 signatories and 50 ratifications from state legislatures. However, the world’s eight nuclear powers have refused to sign the treaty and boycotted the negotiations that created it three years ago. Officials from the U.S. have called the accord “a dangerous and naïve diplomatic endeavor that could even increase the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used,” and the former Trump administration sent letters to the treaties’ signatories urging them to reverse their decision (Gladstone 2020). The refusal of these eight states to engage with the TPNW is emblematic of their desire to retain the masculinized power granted to them by the possession of nuclear weapons, a power that is both literally and metaphorically constructed in the highly phallic and masculinized rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons. 

The phallic language surrounding nuclear weapons has been well-documented, most notably by Carol Cohn’s 1987 piece “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” By spending time with men working in nuclear defense during the Cold War, Cohn discovered the extent to which phallic rhetoric permeates the discussion of nuclear weapons, such as continuous references to “penetration,” language such as “vertical erector launchers” to describe equipment, and descriptions of the “hardness” of missiles (Cohn 1987, 693). Within this sexual imagery is the implicit assumption of masculine power; those who possess this power can exert dominance over their foes, while those without it are feminized potential victims of nuclear “penetration.” 

A more recent example of the phallic rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons is in the continuing nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. In a tweet sent in January of 2018, President Donald Trump stated that “someone should inform [Kim Jong Un]” that he too has “a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one.” The U.S. has been a prime example of this type of phallogocentric rhetoric from the start of their nuclear weapons program, exemplified by the names of the bombs dropped in Japan during World War II – “little boy” and “fat man.” Since this TPNW is focused on the complete destruction and disarmament of nuclear weapons, it poses a threat to this potent symbol of the masculinized power of the U.S. Considering this, as well as their significant history with nuclear weapons and the role of nuclear proliferation in establishing the U.S. as a world power, it is unsurprising that the U.S. is unwilling to engage with the TPNW. 

Nuclear power and its masculine associations are also a signifier of modernization, as discussed by Rob Nixon in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon focuses on the work of Arundhati Roy, in which she analyzes what it means to be “a major modern nation” in the context of India’s development (Nixon 2013, 158). Nixon discusses how the testing of nuclear bombs in India and Pakistan were received domestically with a “virile jingoism” through statements such as “we have proved we are not eunuchs anymore,” and “we have superior strength and potency” (Nixon 2013, 158). This rhetoric is nearly identical to that observed by Carol Cohn in the U.S. during the 1980s and possesses the same implicit assumptions of a violent hegemonic masculinity as the peak of national power. There is also the inherent tie of masculinity and weapons development to modernization (specifically western modernization) and a desire for proximity to hegemony through the possession of nuclear weapons. 

Discussions surrounding de-nuclearization in the international system are also highly gendered, as evidenced by the unwillingness of nuclear states to engage with non-nuclear states on this issue. In his article, Gladstone states that the U.S. is calling for a “trilateral arms control negotiation” with Russia and the People’s Republic of China. The U.S. also claims that “doing so will do more for advancing the cause of nuclear disarmament than the TPNW ever will” (Gladstone 2020). The masculinization of states in possession of nuclear weapons did not happen in a vacuum. As a consequence of binary gender norms, states that do not have nuclear weapons have consequently been feminized. This feminization comes with a mentality that these states are not important for the work of de-nuclearization and have little to contribute to the cause of ensuring peace and security. A former State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, explicitly stated this in her reiteration of U.S. opposition to the treaty: “the TPNW will not result in the elimination of a single nuclear weapon, enhance the security of any state or contribute in any tangible way to peace and security in the geopolitical reality of the 21st century” (Gladstone 2020). By positioning a treaty formed and supported by non-nuclear states as weak and ineffective, Ortagus’ statement effectively feminizes these states and belittles their contributions. States themselves are gendered in the international system, especially in the context of nuclear weapon possession, and this has significant material impacts for who is included and who is relegated to the margins in negotiations surrounding the regulations of these weapons. 

Ortagus’ statement shows that conceptions of national “peace and security” are inherently gendered as well. When the U.S. states that the TPNW, a treaty created and ratified by feminized states without nuclear weapons, will not make a significant impact on de-nuclearization or international peace and security, it is making an explicit connection between masculinity and national security. The idea that nations will be “secure” only through continued possession of nuclear weapons—a highly masculinized form of power—implies that other approaches to achieving peace and security are discarded as naïve, useless, and effeminate in the face of the phallic power of the masculine state. By refusing to even partake in the negotiations surrounding the TPNW, the U.S. and other nuclear states send the message that this issue will only be taken seriously if the nuclear (and thus masculine) states are the dominant figures in the conversation. Anything less would be an affront to their hegemonic masculinity.

Gladstone’s discussion of the unwillingness of current nuclear powers to engage in de-nuclearization shows that, along with the phallogocentrism embodied by nuclear weapons themselves, the possession of such objects of masculine terror are an essential part of the state’s pursuit of hegemonic masculinities. The U.S. established its economic and military hegemony during and after World War II and entrenched it through raw displays of power in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the following Cold War. This set a precedent which other states have since tried to emulate through the acquisition of their own nuclear arsenals. States who possess these weapons are then masculinized and acquire power through their proximity to the hegemonic masculinity of the U.S. If the U.S. were to support this treaty and give up its nuclear arsenal, it would be functionally emasculated under the current norm of violent hegemonic masculinity. The risk of losing such a potent symbol of masculine power, especially to a treaty formed by non-nuclear, and thus feminized, states is unthinkable in this highly gendered global order. 

Through a careful reading of Gladstone’s article and an understanding of the highly masculinized and phallogocentric rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons, it is clear that the possession of nuclear weapons is closely tied to states’ pursuit of hegemonic masculinity and thus, power in the current international regime. The TPNW represents significant potential for a shift towards de-nuclearization, but it also presents a threat to the hegemonic masculinity of states already in possession of these symbols of phallic power. Arguments against the adoption of this treaty are, unsurprisingly, made only by states who already possess nuclear weapons, under the guise of concerns about “peace and security.” While the U.S. argues that this treaty will not only be ineffective but potentially “increase the possibility that nuclear weapons will be used,” proponents have stated that it sends a strong message by challenging the legal status of nuclear weapons in international law (Gladstone 2020). The long history and present continuation of highly masculine rhetoric surrounding nuclear weapons shows that possession of these weapons contributes to the masculinization of the state. Nuclear weapons—as potent symbols of phallic and masculine power—have bolstered and formed the violent hegemonic masculinity held by the U.S. and pursued by its allies and competitors alike. It is this highly gendered form of hegemonic masculinity which has been granted power and respect by the international community in recent history; whether it persists remains to be seen.


Cohn, Carol. 1987. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.” Signs 12 (4): 687–718.

Connell, R.W, and James W. Messerschmidt. 2005. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society 19 (6).

Gladstone, Rick. 2020. “Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons Passes Important Threshold.” The New York Times, October 25, 2020, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/25/world/americas/nuclear-weapons-prohibition-treaty.html.

Nixon, Rob. 2013. “Unimagined Communities: Megadams, Monumental Modernity, and Developmental Refugees.” In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.

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