Nuclear Weapons as Symbols: The Role of Norms in Nuclear Policy Making

IBEI Working Paper No. 2006/3

19 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2007

See all articles by Karsten J. Frey

Karsten J. Frey

Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals - IBEI

Date Written: October 2006


Throughout history, nuclear weapons have been considered to be the ultimate weapons. This understanding largely detached them from the portfolio of conventional military means and assigned them a symbolic meaning that influenced the identity and norms creation of nations. In most countries today, the development of nuclear weapons is considered morally prohibitive, incompatible with a country's identity and international outlook. In some states, however, these negative norms are overridden by a positive set of norms, causing nuclear weapons to become either symbols of invulnerability to perceived threats or the regalia of major power status. Main purpose of this paper is to explore on the conditions that cause most states to develop a moral aversion to nuclear weapons, yet effectively lead to their glorification in others. Many studies on the normative understanding of nuclear weapons consider the existence of a negative normative predisposition, often referred to as 'nuclear taboo', as a major factor in preventing their acquisition and use. Other studies acknowledge the existence of a nuclear taboo inhibiting the use of nuclear weapons, but point to the existence of the opposing effect of norms, frequently referred to as the 'nuclear myth', when it comes to the acquisition of nuclear weapons. This myth emerges when certain symbolic meanings are attached to nuclear weapons, such as a state's identity, self-image, and its desired position in the international system. With 180 odd countries in the world abstaining from the acquisition of nuclear weapons and 8 countries in possession of them (with two further countries assumed to have pursued their acquisition), one might consider the dominance of the nuclear taboo over the nuclear myth to be the rule. The core question is thus why and how this relationship reversed in the case of defectors.

Keywords: Nuclear Weapons, International Security, Nonproliferation, Foreign Policy, Norms in International Relations

JEL Classification: F31, H56, K33, N40, N45, N75, O53, Q48

Suggested Citation

Frey, Karsten J., Nuclear Weapons as Symbols: The Role of Norms in Nuclear Policy Making (October 2006). IBEI Working Paper No. 2006/3, Available at SSRN: or

Karsten J. Frey (Contact Author)

Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals - IBEI ( email )

Ramon Trias Fargas 25-27
Barcelona, Barcelona 08005

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