Being the most powerful and destructive weapon ever conceived by human beings, able to annihilate entire populations, the nuclear weapon is a powerful symbol with multiple dimensions.
It is associated with images from Japan after the two were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, and of the atmospheric hydrogen bomb tests in the following two decades. It comes with a paradox: because of its destructive capability and the terror that accompanies it, the weapon is seen as an effective mechanism for maintaining security and stability.
Two key factors help explain the continued deployment of nuclear weapons: fear and necessity. But continued possession of nuclear weapons also brings fear of nuclear proliferation and terrorism, which has both reinforced the support for continued deployment of nuclear weapons, and motivated a renewed effort from within the community responsible for managing the nuclear age to attempt to bring about the conditions for a world free of these weapons.
Since the Second World War nuclear weapons have been at the core of strategic deterrent capabilities for the Great Powers. Deterrence is all about communication between adversaries, and the nuclear weapon capabilities key to threatening sufficient punishment that a potential aggressor will change their mind. For this deterrent effect to work the leadership needs to demonstrate sufficient resolve to use nuclear weapons in those instances where the aggressor would push the boundary. As such, the symbolism of nuclear weapons as a deterrent has in the minds of many been so powerful as to drive out the scourge of war between those states that possess them, leading some particularly optimistic devotees to advocate the further spread of nuclear weapons to those states that do not yet possess them on the basis that this will bring stability.
This deterrent effect takes on a more convoluted symbolism when extended to other countries in alliance. The nuclear state providing deterrence needs to indicate its willingness to risk strategic nuclear attack and retaliation on its own cities in defence of its allies. Those under the umbrella need to be assured of this political will. The context is such that assurance of allies is often far more challenging than reliable deterrence of adversaries, and the need for Alliance cohesion takes on a whole dimension of symbolism of its own. The deployment of US B61 nuclear bombs in Europe will require major capital investment by the United States in the bombs (likely to amount to over $10bn in the coming years), and by the host states in the aircraft that deliver them. This will happen despite the perception that these weapons have questionable military or deterrence value because their withdrawal from Europe may be perceived by Europeans and Russians as symbolic of a US lack of commitment to European security.
But there is more to the symbolism of nuclear weapons than their deterrent effect. They are perceived as a fundamental tool to retain influence on the international stage and an identity as a Great Power, or perhaps the ultimate means in the hands of some to challenge the existing world order ‘imperialism’. In the case of the British, the decision to develop nuclear bombs after they were blocked from nuclear cooperation with the Americans was strongly influenced by the desire for recognition as their most important ally. Similarly, a major motivation for the Israelis in acquiring these weapons was to leverage the supply of conventional weapons from the United States by ensuring US fundamental interests were linked with the defence of Israel (to prevent their using nuclear weapons). There was probably a similar calculation made in South Africa before the end of Apartheid.
The symbolism embodied within the catastrophic and disastrous effects of nuclear weapons is mirrored in other icons described in ‘The Book of Symbols’. Mt. Fuji in Japan is perceived as the ‘guardian of the nation’, embodying power and stability, whilst having the capability to destroy all life within a certain radius when it erupts. Destructive forces are revered and cherished.