Undergraduate Module Descriptor

POL3054: Nuclear Weapons in International Relations

This module descriptor refers to the 2017/8 academic year.


NQF Level6
Credits15 ECTS Value7.5
Term(s) and duration

This module will run during term 2 (11 weeks)

Academic staff

Professor Patrick Porter (Lecturer)





Available via distance learning


This module examines the international political significance and the ultimate destructive technology of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are unique not only because of their lethality, but also due to their capacity to inflict genocide instantly. Military force is supposed to be an instrument of policy, linking means to ends. However, it is hard to conceive of a proportional use of ‘nukes’ short of a scenario of existential war. And ever since the Soviet Union conducted its first successful test, the prospect of a nuclear 'exchange' has haunted humanity, making a rational use of nukes even harder to imagine. Thus, nukes pose a radical and unprecedented challenge to the logic of strategy, traditionally conceived. States have predominantly treated nukes as assets that are used without being detonated, for deterrence, for example, or prestige purposes. 'Threatening genocide to prevent genocide' is hardly a satisfying status quo in international affairs, but every approach confronts complex dilemmas.

This module examines the evolution of ideas, doctrines and strategies that humanity has devised to cope with the nuclear revolution. Why do states pursue or resist nuclearization?  Why do they disarm or enter arms races, and is eventual 'usage' just a matter of time? This module surveys three phases of nuclear history: the era of U.S. monopoly; the 'Second Age' dominated by the bipolar competition of the Cold War and gradual proliferation; and the 'Third Age' and its nightmares of nuclear terrorism and proliferation to non-state actors, nuclear accidents, and competition between nuclear powers that lack stable 'deterrence' and 'crisis management' relationships. It critically compares different ways of handling the nuclear problem: arms control, the movement for disarmament towards a 'zero' nuclear world, to controlled proliferation, and to the creation of a 'taboo.'

No pre-requisite or co-requisite modules are required in order to register for this module. It will provide you with a basic introduction to the problem of the nuclear revolution and what it means for international relations. It will also consider the implications of nuclear weapons for international relations theory. As such, this module is suitable for both specialist and non-specialist students who are interested in studying international security from multiple perspectives, thus, rendering it suitable for interdisciplinary pathways.

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