Peace Science Digest

In Nuclear Disarmament Campaigns, the Messenger Matters

Photo credit: The United Nations

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Senn, M., & Elhardt, C. (2014). Bourdieu and the bomb: Power, language and the doxic battle over the value of nuclear weapons. European Journal of International Relations20(2), 316-340.

Talking Points

  • When considered competent, respectable, and honorable, nuclear abolition advocates trigger increased attention and debate on disarmament issues.
  • When considered competent, respectable, and honorable, nuclear abolition advocates are able to gather more peer support for their campaign.
  • When considered competent, respectable, and honorable, nuclear abolition advocates can impact policy from the outside of political offices.
  • Nuclear abolition campaigns are more successful and reach larger audiences when campaign leaders are perceived as legitimate authorities on the issues they are campaigning for.


Resonating with security elites, obtaining goals and spurring debate—if only all nuclear disarmament initiatives were effective on these levels. They are not. In this article, the authors apply philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory to gain insight into how the perceived legitimacy, power, and language of certain people can influence our thinking and impact policy concerning nuclear disarmament efforts.

The authors analyze the nuclear disarmament initiative by former United States statesmen, Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn. From 2007 to 2011, the statesmen worked together to advocate for nuclear disarmament through interviews, high-profile speeches, an op-ed series in the Wall Street Journal, and other media sources. By analyzing text from the statesmen’s initiative, the authors study how and why their campaign stood apart from nuclear nonproliferation initiatives by other prominent public officials. To identify the kind of influence the initiative had, the study looked to three effects: (1) the number of published academic articles and books on the topics of nuclear disarmament before, during, and after the initiative; (2) the “peer-endorsement” of the statesmen’s push for nuclear disarmament; and (3) the policy impact of the statesmen’s initiative.

Examining the published articles and books, the authors’ analysis of publication activity from security scholars between 1990 and 2011 showed a significant increase following the statesmen’s initiative. Over half of the nuclear disarmament related books and articles were published following the initiative, suggesting that their plea attracted attention and spurred debate in the academic community. Comparing the publication rate of this time period to the years following other major nuclear disarmament efforts (McNamara, 1992; Butler, 1996; Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, 1996; Goodpastor, 1995; Nitze, 1999; WMD Commission, 2006), the sustained scholarly debate was much more pronounced after Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn’s push.

Second, “peer-endorsement” was examined by looking at the written support of other states(wo)men and political leaders who publicly responded to Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn’s initiative. In the statesmen’s second article in the Wall Street Journal, the main outlet of the initiative’s public declaration, the statesmen provide a list of former U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense and National Security Advisors (including Albright, Allen, Baker III, Cohen, McNamara, Powell, and many others) supporting their initiative, as well as supporters from outside the United States (including Gorbachev, Hurd, Schmidt, and others). The list of supporters for the statesmen’s initiative was larger and more significant than those found in previous initiatives.

Finally, policy impact was measured by analyzing the sitting U.S. President’s support for Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn’s initiative. Notably, in the 2008 primary campaign, candidates McCain and Obama endorsed nuclear abolition. Once president, Obama paid tribute to the four statesmen by meeting with them at the White House, embracing the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world in a 2009 speech in Prague. Nuclear disarmament was included as an overarching goal of U.S. nuclear policy in the official 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. While other sitting U.S. presidents have paid lip service to the idea of nuclear disarmament, at the time, Obama’s public rhetoric and action were noticeably more proactive in support of this goal.

“The extent to which an utterance has an effect in the world depends not only on its intrinsic qualities, but also on the symbolic power of the speaker” (Bourdieu, 1991: 107–116).

Symbolic Capital and Symbolic Power: French Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu refers to symbolic capital as accumulated reputation for competence, respectability, and honorability. Symbolic Power is considered the power to make people see and believe certain visions of the world rather than others.

The effects examined above led the authors to believe the nuclear disarmament efforts of Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn were more significant and better received than other prominent anti-nuclear weapons initiatives. The authors suggest that possible factors contributing to this significance may have included the end of the Cold War conflict, the growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and public frustration with the slow progress of nuclear nonproliferation/disarmament (following weapons tests by India, Pakistan, and North Korea, and growing knowledge of weapons programs in Iran and Israel)—all of which led to an environment that was receptive to a disarmament initiative. The authors also point to the statesmen’s high symbolic capital, afforded by their roles as political and nuclear experts, which enabled their initiative to stand apart from other advocates and commentators on nuclear issues. Finally, the authors suggested that by using commonplace understandings of global security threats and by framing nuclear abolition as “a possible way out” of the existential threat nuclear weapons pose to all nations, the statesmen’s narrative was more appealing to security elites than other efforts. These factors suggest that the favorable historical conditions during the era of their plea and the high symbolic, political, and social capital of the statesmen were crucial factors in accounting for the support received by the statesmen’s initiative.

Contemporary Relevance

In the contemporary context, nuclear abolition advocates, most notably represented by 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), have far more symbolic capital than do the advocates of nuclear weapons proliferation. U.S. President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric on the use of nuclear weapons is recognized widely, adding to much of the international community’s lack of respect for him and the low level of competence they attribute to him. In other words, as far as nuclear weapons are concerned, Trump lacks the symbolic capital to command the respect and authority needed to make progressive change. Yet his symbolic power—his ability to make his followers see and believe certain views—sets a dangerous stage and puts humans at serious risk of nuclear war.

It therefore becomes important to examine the current context—just like the elder statesmen Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn did—and determine who can threaten Trump’s symbolic power and offer an alternative vision of the world that constructively involves Trump’s supporters, while also exposing and educating about the risks of nuclear war. This task will be ongoing but one that nuclear weapons abolition advocates must not shy away from. By looking at symbolic capital and power—and transforming it when necessary—nuclear abolition advocates can make advances in “preaching beyond the choir.”

Practical Implications

Who are the best messengers to convey the dangers of nuclear weapons? What messages are most important to convey? These are core questions nuclear abolition advocates struggle with on an ongoing basis. First, there is no “one-size-fits-all” template for communicating the dangers of nuclear weapons. What this research has shown, however, is that certain narratives of nuclear abolition campaigns can grasp the attention of nuclear weapons and security experts, thus elevating the entire debate to a more prominent and mainstream level. In this context, successful campaigns use commonplace understandings of security and geopolitical issues to frame abolition as a necessary condition for the future of all nations. While the geopolitical security framing might not be the preferred one for grassroots nuclear abolition groups, it offers these groups an opportunity to step into an elevated environment of raised awareness on nuclear weapons and provides access to key players that may have otherwise been out of reach. Moreover, abolition groups can use this opportunity to challenge larger defense and security agendas by offering alternative conceptions of security within the framework of the nuclear weapons debate.

We have to recognize that as important as nuclear abolition activists are, sometimes it is more effective to have mainstream foreign policy figures who can sway those who are unlikely to take “traditional” anti-nuclear/peace activists seriously. These statesmen had a sort of symbolic capital (with certain audiences) that anti-nuclear activist groups like ICAN did not.

The authors of this study also highlight the importance of timing and the social environment most conducive for a successful abolition campaign. In 2017, debate on issues regarding nuclear weapons has arguably been at the highest level since the end of the Cold War, elevating the world’s awareness of the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. Using the authors’ factors of a successful abolition campaign, the contemporary threat of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States has created an environment where the historical context and “timing” is primed for a successful abolition campaign.

Continued Reading

Resurrection Politics and Banning the Bomb By Maryann Cusimano. Love for Peace Policy. 2017.

Toward a World without Nuclear Weapons Op-ed series by Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, & Nunn. Nuclear Security Project.

Nuclear Tipping Point Documentary movie by Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Keywords: nuclear abolition, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, symbolic capital, symbolic power

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Special Issue: Nuclear Weapons, of the Peace Science Digest.