Law as Discursive Resource: The Politics of the Nuclear/Non-Nuclear Distinction in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty



Sidra Hamidi, CISAC, Stanford University

Date and Time

November 29, 2018 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room, Encina Hall, 2nd Floor, 616 Serra St, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: The purpose and force of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hinges on a legal distinction between "nuclear weapons states" and "non-nuclear weapons states." But rather than being a self-evident distinction based entirely on material differences, the distinction is constructed and negotiated—not just by the conventionally powerful but by disempowered states. This article argues that the NPT is a discursive resource for states that the treaty does not legitimate. The NPT’s power comes from the legal categories it institutionalizes and perpetuates. In order to understand the origins and effects of dividing the terrain of nuclear politics into nuclear and non-nuclear states, I analyze the meeting documents of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC) which negotiated the treaty from 1962-1969. I find that the “non-nuclear” states used the designation as an identity that set them apart from nuclear states. Using these categories like identities is not without political consequence—for example, India’s unique diplomatic approach toward the NPT shapes both the discourses it advances and policies it pursues.  In contrast to existing approaches that examine the distinction primarily through material terms, this article turns to state practice to reveal how being nuclear or non-nuclear is used as a legitimating tool in nuclear politics. The article also shows that, while most approaches to international law presume that the law either constrains state power or has no effect on it, the case of the nuclear/non-nuclear distinction illustrates that international law does matter, but perhaps not in the way assumed by IR realists or institutionalists.

Speaker Bio: Sidra Hamidi is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC. She completed her PhD in Political Science from Northwestern University in 2018. Her research explores the role of identity and discourse in contemporary and historical nuclear politics. Specifically, she studies the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear states in technical, legal, and normative contexts. She locates the politics of this distinction in the diplomatic practices of Israel, India, and Iran. She completed her MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago. Her commentary has appeared in The Washington Post, Duck of Minerva, and E-IR. She is also interested in international relations theory and political science conceptualization and methodology.