For decades, nuclear weapons have been portrayed as essential to the security of the few states that possess them, and as a very ‘normal’ part of national and international security. These states have engaged in enormous programmes of acquisition and development, have disregarded the humanitarian implications of these weapons, and sought to persuade their publics that national security was dependent on the promise of killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians. The term ‘nuclearism’ has been used to describe this era, and several elements of nuclearism are explored here to identify how these states have been able to sustain their possession of nuclear arsenals. By perpetuating a discourse of ‘security’ which avoided international humanitarian law, by limiting decisions on nuclear policy to small groups of elites, by investing vast amounts of resources in their nuclear programs, and by using the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to perpetuate their privileged status as nuclear states, despite their promises to disarm, the great powers have been able to sustain a highly unequal – and dangerous – global nuclear order. This order is now under challenge, as the Humanitarian Initiative explored the implications of nuclear weapons’ use. Its sobering findings led non-nuclear states, supported by civil society actors, to create the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, making these weapons illegal, for all states. The Humanitarian Initiative has posed a challenge to all the elements of nuclearism, and has resulted in a significant rejection of the existing nuclear order. The treaty will not result in quick disarmament, and it faces several hurdles. It is, however, a notable achievement, delegitimizing nuclear weapons, and contributing to the goal of a nuclear-free world.
creating a treaty delegitimizing nuclear weapons under international law need not wait for the permission of the nuclear weapon states. Indeed, achieving such a treaty would be easier without these states. Taking action outside the NPT could proceed, if a sufficient number of states wished to do so, and regardless of whether certain other states participated. Had the nuclear weapon
to delegitimize nuclear weapons, seen as an essential step in the process towards the eventual elimination of these weapons. This was something that, despite their best efforts over three decades, the non-nuclear states had been unable to achieve via the nuclear NPT. Humanitarianism has been clearly incorporated into the TPNW, with its Preamble noting that states have acted
nuclear weapons are viewed and held. Previously unable to shape the contours of this order in any significant way, non-nuclear states have now exercised a degree of power (Johnson and Varano 2015 ; Hanson 2022 ) and agency by delegitimizing nuclear weapons, for all states, equally. The new treaty roundly rejects the notion that any special class of states should be permitted to hold these weapons or that