On history and authority: the Cold War nuclear arms race and its importance for critical security theory

Rens van Munster, Casper Sylvest

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


    Since the late 1990s, the critical study of security has crystallised into a professional field of study–Critical Security Studies (CSS)–complete with theoretical schools, journals, and disciplinary narratives that recount its birth and development. The establishment of CSS as a separate field of inquiry distinct from conventional approaches to security is a remarkable achievement but has also come at a price. We argue that this is especially apparent in relation to the limited role Cold War history plays in CSS. Disciplinary narratives of the field tend to conflate the Cold War period with conventional security theory or strategic studies, thus downplaying the originality and importance of critical perspectives articulated during this protracted conflict. Emphasising the deep entanglements of the Cold War nuclear arms race with questions of ecological contamination, democracy, race, and decolonisation, we argue that these intersections are worth revisiting as intellectual precursors and foundations for CSS. We briefly illustrate this argument by highlighting important challenges to conventional security thinking that were formulated at three interconnected sites during the early Cold War: the 1955 Bandung Conference, Pan-African resistance to French nuclear testing in Algeria, and African-American anti-nuclear activism.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalCritical Studies on Security
    Issue number3
    Pages (from-to)157-171
    Publication statusPublished - 2022


    • Nuclear weapons
    • cold war history
    • colonialism
    • critique
    • environment


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    • Globality and Planetary Security

      Sylvest, C. & van Munster, R.


      Project: Research Councils

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