Recent strategy documents assert that the United States has entered an era of renewed great power competition. Responding to a more competitive environment, Washington still has a continuum of alternative policy options at its disposal, ranging from more competitive to more cooperative approaches, to maximize U.S. national security. Structural factors and individual traits, namely the gendered nature of the nuclear strategic discourse and President Donald Trump’s dominating masculine ideal, however, introduce a “competition bias” into U.S. nuclear policy. This bias interferes with the United States recognizing and realizing opportunities to reduce risks, uncertainty, and threats to national security through cooperative measures. And while it is hardly the sole determinant of nuclear policy under Trump, ignoring the gendered origins of the competition bias critically limits the ability of analysts, scholars, and policymakers to gain a full understanding of what drives current U.S. decisionmaking on nuclear weapons.
As a businessman and now as President of the United States, Trump has regularly sought to display and assert his manhood through the domination of others. He leverages “hegemonic masculinities” to exercise power and control his environment by perpetuating and exploiting social inequalities. The concept of hegemonic masculinity was pioneered in the 1980s by Australian sociologist R.W. Connell, who described it as the pattern of practices that allows some men’s continued dominance over women and subordinate masculinities. Particular masculinities become hegemonic when they come to embody, through culture, institutions, and persuasion, the most honored way of being a “real man.” Accordingly, the relative social status of different notions of manhood is fluid and dynamic as it may change with time and context.
“[T]o overcome the specter of femininity—the fear of being the un-masculine man,” as University of Southern Maine sociologist James Messerschmidt observed, Trump has portrayed himself as the embodiment of assertiveness, strength, and success in opposition to other “weak” men. At other times, he donned the compassionate, yet heroic protector of the vulnerable American people fearing “dangerous” immigrants. The Access Hollywood tape further revealed his proudly predatory proclivities. What remains common across the hegemonic masculinities Trump leverages, though, is his cultivation of dominance over others to serve his personal needs and domestic agenda, and as a particularly militaristic brand of foreign policy.
In addition to the president’s individual traits, the competition bias also results from the gendered structure of the nuclear strategic discourse. Carol Cohn, the director of the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights at the University of Massachusetts Boston, examined in her 1987 paper “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” how this community uses gendered concepts to police the discourse. “The culturally pervasive associations of masculinity with dispassion, distance, abstraction, toughness and risk-taking, and of femininity with emotion, empathy, bodily vulnerability, fear and caution, are embedded within the professional discourse,” determining which and whose contributions are being valued. Importantly, concepts of masculinity and femininity are not equal to essentialist notions of “man” and “woman” as men can display stereotypically female characteristics—like Trump’s compassionate hero persona—and vice versa. The simplistic argument that a greater number of female policymakers automatically produces a more peaceful foreign policy is therefore false. But as an intellectual space that is still largely inhabited by men and defined by the above-mentioned notions of manhood, policy proposals emphasizing caution and cooperation are at a disadvantage within the nuclear strategic discourse because they are viewed as “un-manly” and thus inappropriate for an environment that prizes assertiveness and competition. This harms the discourse’s intellectual and gender diversity.
Between Trump’s dominating masculinity and the exclusive nature of the nuclear discourse—in terms of both people and ideas—U.S. nuclear policy is more likely to err on the side of competition over cooperation. Even in the context of great power competition, cooperative approaches to individual challenges will sometimes provide relatively greater security than pure competition. On average, proposals to compete, however, will advance through the policymaking process more easily because they are more closely aligned with Trump’s dominating masculine ideal and face less scrutiny within the gendered discourse. Options associated with feminine stereotypes, facing more scrutiny, are quickly rejected. These dynamics are mutually reinforcing: masculinities exemplified at the top will be replicated at lower tiers, further stacking the deck against feminized approaches advancing through the policymaking process. The resulting competition bias hinders the ability to holistically assess all alternatives in confronting nuclear challenges. As paradoxical as it may seem given the increasingly competitive environment, the United States might end up “overcompeting,” heightening the security dilemma and ultimately leaving it less safe.
The following two examples, drawn from recent U.S. strategy documents and nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, illustrate how Trump’s dominating masculinity and the gendered nuclear discourse have produced a nuclear policy which avoids interrogating and correcting, and sometimes embraces, its bias toward militarized competition.
The Trump administration was widely applauded for putting “great power competition” at center stage and emphasizing lethality as it detailed its approach to foreign and defense policy through successive strategy documents. The 2018 National Defense Strategy stated that the Pentagon would shift its focus from peripheral wars, which the military had long been ambivalent about, toward the peer-competitors China and Russia. After all, as a senior Defense official told the New Yorker, “[r]eal men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars.” The subsequent Nuclear Posture Review echoed these sentiments. Yet, as Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of history at Boston University, notes, “preparedness to fight is not the only way to prevent war, is certainly not the cheapest, and may not be the most effective.” While the international environment may well have become more competitive, the competition bias prevents the United States from recognizing opportunities to reduce risks, uncertainty, and threats to its security through cautious and cooperative measures, like preventative diplomacy and taking seriously the benefits of America’s extensive alliance network. Instead, competition as understood and pursued by the current administration feeds into Trump’s desire for domination and perpetuates the hegemony of militarized masculinity at enormous cost to society.
The most obvious example of Trump’s nuclear policy being the product of gendered discourse and dominating masculinity, though, featured in the ongoing effort to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Following “fire and fury,” Trump let North Korean leader Kim Jong- un and the world know that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works.” While easily dismissed as just another impulsive and juvenile act by the president, this episode stresses how anxious Trump is about being seen as less of a man even when dealing with critical national security issues. To appear decisive, Trump then quickly agreed to meet with Kim in Singapore in June 2018 and again in Hanoi in February 2019. While neither summit produced tangible progress toward denuclearization, they gave Trump the opportunity to portray himself as having wrestled Kim to the negotiating table. Kim, without giving up much in return, gained recognition as a leader on a par with the U.S. president by exploiting his susceptibility to flattery. Although disappointing in terms of denuclearization, Trump has not followed through with his warning to “totally destroy North Korea” either. However, should the costs of sustaining the pretense of denuclearization grow and it becomes increasingly clear that he is not a master dealmaker, Trump might seek to reassert his dominating masculinity through punitive military strikes or denuclearization of North Korea by force. The nuclear strategic discourse as embodied by the current National Security Council should not be expected to act as a restraint in such a situation. Gendered factors would then have helped create both the conditions for cementing North Korea’s status as a nuclear power and dangerous incentives for U.S. military action.
Gender is hardly the exclusive driver of current U.S. nuclear policy. Yet, these two examples highlight the utility of an analytical approach that takes seriously the gendered power dynamics within the nuclear strategic discourse and notions of masculinity to examine policymaking in this realm. Ultimately, one cannot gain a full understanding of international politics without recognizing the role of gender in shaping international outcomes and behaviors.
The gender lens also brings into focus a pattern that does not bode well for the future of nuclear arms control. Negotiated under then-U.S. President Barack Obama, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) commits Russia and the United States to limit their respective strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,550 warheads each. It also sets ceilings for the number of delivery vehicles and provides the two countries’ intelligence agencies with unparalleled insights into each other’s nuclear postures, enhancing predictability and thereby strategic stability. The treaty is set to expire in 2021 but can be extended. While its benefits clearly outweigh its costs, the competition bias makes extension less likely than objective analysis would warrant. Trump’s affinity for militarized competition over cooperation and his desire to negate the legacy of the country’s first African-American president stand in the way. By underscoring that for Trump displaying masculinity through pageantry is regularly more important than delivering substantive progress, the fruitless nuclear disarmament summits with North Korea, furthermore, suggest that a new comprehensive and mutually beneficial arms control agreement with Russia is unlikely to materialize. The prospect that Trump could agree to a deceitful proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin to elevate his personal status vis-à-vis a man who he has repeatedly shown to admire while throwing U.S. national security under the bus in the process, is at least as worrisome.
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