Undergraduate Module Descriptor

POL3054: Nuclear Weapons in International Relations

This module descriptor refers to the 2023/4 academic year.


NQF Level 6
Credits 15 ECTS Value 7.5
Term(s) and duration

This module will run during term 1 (11 weeks)

Academic staff

Dr Edward Howell (Convenor)





Available via distance learning


This module examines humanity’s ultimate destructive technology – nuclear weapons – and their international-political significance. Nuclear weapons are unique not only because of their lethality, but also in their capacity to inflict unbearable suffering even on the ‘winners’ of a conventional military conflict. Military force is typically conceptualised as 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 the achievement of strategic advantage through detonation of such weapons even harder to imagine. Thus, atomic weaponry poses 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; to deter aggressors, for example, or to gain prestige. ‘Threatening genocide to prevent genocide’ is hardly a happy 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? Can atomic weaponry by justified morally? And are nukes ultimately a cause of peace or a motivator of conflict in world politics? This module surveys  the evolution of nuclear history from the first use of atomic weapons in 1945 through to the contemporary situation, with 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 associated deterrence, and to the creation of a social ‘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, thereby rendering it suitable for interdisciplinary pathways. 

Module created


Last revised