Nuclear weapons and the dialectic of universalism: The UN convenes to ban the bomb

The Oxford University Politics Blog

Kjølv Egeland

In late March of this year, a majority of the world’s states will meet at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to start negotiations on a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty. It will be a landmark event in international history. Not only have such negotiations never been held before—nuclear weapons remain the only class of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) not explicitly prohibited by international law—the process itself also marks a turning point in multilateral diplomacy.

Emerging as an element of the European “standard of civilization” in the 19th century, the laws of war were meant, in part, to distinguish “civilised” Europe from the “uncivilised” rest of the world. As the good news and its missionaries spread to ever more remote corners of the world, Europe’s traditional identity marker of Christendom no longer did the trick. In Hegelian terms, the development of the laws of war made it possible for the old European powers to maintain a common identity by negating the uncivilised “Other”.

Peoples deemed unable or unwilling to adhere to the European laws and customs of warfare were declared uncivilised by default. Classification as uncivilised, in turn, meant that the door to full membership of international society was closed; uncivilised polities could not create international law or participate in diplomatic conferences on equal footing with civilised nations. What is more, uncivilised lands could be conquered or otherwise exploited by the morally superior Westerners. And uncivilised peoples, moreover, were not owed the same standard of conduct as the civilised. These understandings mostly remained tacit, but were occasionally debated in public settings. At the Hague Conference in 1899, for example, the colonial powers debated whether to codify a ban on the use of expanding bullets against the soldiers of “civilised” nations while reserving the continued use of such ammunition against “savages”. For many states in the Global South, the legacy of the nineteenth century is one of collective humiliation and shame.


Read the entire article here.


Kjølv Egeland is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at Wadham College, Oxford, supervised by Professor Kalypso Nicolaïdis. Egeland focuses on the dynamics of multilateral disarmament diplomacy and international security. His doctoral thesis – working title ‘Institutional Development in Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament’ – explores how diplomatic practices and international institutions change over time.

Whilst reading for a doctoral degree in IR, Egeland is also a researcher at the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI) in Oslo, where he advises the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and contributes to the Institute’s publications and outreach work. Egeland has also contributed commentary to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Huffington Post, New Internationalist, European Leadership Network, and several Norwegian dailies.

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