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About this book

This book explores the global politics of disarmament through emerging international relations (IR) theories of discourse and imagination. Each chapter reflects on an aspect of contemporary activism on weapons through an analogous story from literary tradition. Shahrazade, convenor of the 1001 Nights, offers a potent metaphor for the humanitarian advocacy seeking to moderate the behaviour of violent people. The author reads Don Quixote in Cambodia’s minefields, reflects on Lysistrata at Greenham Common and considers how tropes in The Tempest were enrolled in both Pacific nuclear testing and efforts to resist it. The book draws on ethnographic fieldwork in communities affected by weapons and disarmament advocacy at the UN and calls for a re-enchantment of IR, alive to affect, ritual and myth.

Table of Contents


Act 1. Shahrazad: Disarming Charm

Each night, to save her own life, Shahrazad is spared by her discursive skill, able to persuading a murderous ruler to stay her arbitrary execution. This ancient story, from the 1001 Nights, is a potent metaphor for disarmament advocacy, which seeks to persuade violent people to moderate their behavior. Traditional international relations (IR) scholarship has focused on the role of “hard power”—military and economic might—as the driver of change in the global system. However, academics and practitioners are increasingly realizing the role of narrative, stories and imagination in shaping what is seen as possible. In demonstrating the power of disarmament activists’ persuasion, this chapter highlights and reviews the insights of the “discursive turn” for IR.
Matthew Breay Bolton

Act 2. Quixote: Tilting at Landmines

Given the scale of global weapons stockpiles, unarmed disarmament campaigners may seem deluded. However, advocacy campaigns disrupt how we perceive specific weapons, transforming them from “protectors” into “monsters” that are mala in se—“evil in themselves.” They do this through the “magic” of symbolic interventions and performance. To understand this ritual dimension of disarmament, this chapter draws on themes in Cervantes’ Don Quixote to frame a discussion about seemingly “hopeless quests.” Reading Don Quixote in the minefields offers insight into revolt against depersonalized killing. It shows the transformative potential of “magical thinking” and absurd gesture, which undermines the rationalist assumptions of international relations (IR) scholarship.
Matthew Breay Bolton

Act 3. Lysistrata: Meaningful Human Control

The causes of the Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece have long obsessed international relations (IR) scholars, who often claim that Thucydides’ proto-realist History offers the definitive ancient account. But not everyone in Athens agreed with Thucydides’ bleak view that fear of the Other inevitably leads to violence. This chapter reflects on Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, which depicts the war between Athens and Sparta as rooted in political processes dividing people along gender and cultural lines. Themes in Lysistrata illuminate the role of protest, economic divestment and social non-cooperation in disarmament campaigns, including on killer robots and nuclear weapons. The chapter draws on the insights of feminist IR theory and the story of women’s occupation of the Greenham Common nuclear weapons base.
Matthew Breay Bolton

Act 4. Caliban and the Nuclear Ban

The humanitarian discourse used to ban indiscriminate weapons has colonial undertones, suggesting that “civilized nations” abstain from “barbaric” ways of killing. This same “standard of civilization” language was used to justify conducting nuclear testing in Pacific communities. Portraying Pacific peoples as “primitive” and nuclear weapons as evidence of a country’s “civilization,” colonialism and nuclear testing were intricately intertwined. This chapter uses Shakespeare’s The Tempest to demonstrate how a demeaning “tropical island imaginary” shaped colonizers’ interactions with Pacific peoples. But in the character of Caliban, one sees possibilities of “talking back” to the oppressor. In pursuing nuclear disarmament, Pacific intellectuals, diplomats and advocates have flipped the “standard of civilization” script. The chapter questions the territorialist assumptions of international relations (IR), exploring the contributions of post-colonial theory.
Matthew Breay Bolton


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