The Apocalypse in Twenty First Century International Politics

In this article, the author provides a brief overview of the presence of the apocalyptic in twenty first century International Politics by looking at the particular case of the (ab)use of apocalyptic frames in US-originated discourses on nuclear weapons.*


By David J. Franco, 19th December, 2011

The Apocalypse in Twenty First Century International Politics

As often noted the apocalyptic has served as a source of inspiration in literature, philosophy, and culture. Why, then, would international politics be immune from this phenomenon? That apocalyptic thinking was much present during the Cold War has been widely acknowledged. However, apocalyptic rhetoric continued and in some senses increased in the post-Cold War era. As we approach 2012 (a year marked as apocalyptic by some Millennia movements) the apocalyptic continues to be present in international politics as numerous discourses are framed, with varying fortunes, in apocalyptic terms or tone. Thus, examples of apocalyptic rhetoric in twenty first century international politics include: global warming discourses, environmentalism, overpopulation warnings, global war on terror rhetoric, media coverage of the global economic crisis, nuclear weapons discourses, accounts of AIDS, feminism, and many others.

This raises important questions. Amongst these, two are worth exploring separately: Why do actors seek to frame their discourses apocalyptically? What are the effects or implications of using this type of frame and does a secular apocalyptic rhetoric have less negative implications than a religious one? At this stage it is worth noting that just as discourses are intersubjective and contingent to historical context, so too the apocalyptic, as a particular type of frame, is subject to changes in the historical context in which it operates. Hence, apocalyptic meaning and thinking has evolved significantly due to the impact on religion of enlightenment philosophy and the broader, gradual process of secularization. Any study on the apocalypse must therefore seek to reflect upon this historical evolution.

Case Study: The Apocalyptic in Nuclear Weapons Discourses

One particular area where apocalyptic frames are usually employed is in nuclear weapons discourses. Through the study of four different but interrelated discourses originated in the US** I identify three reasons why actors seek to (ab)use this type of frame: first, the choice for apocalyptic frames responds to a strategic move according to which actors seek to arouse and mobilize public support in a manner that would be less obvious with the use of less passionate and universalising frames. Second, apocalyptic rhetoric, especially in its secular or enlightened version, has the capacity to increase the perceived urgency of the threat. And third, apocalyptic frames, also in their secular version, are thought to have the capacity to mobilise men and women to change the course of history (mobilise in its active and passive meanings; that is, by doing something –i.e. taking action- or by not doing anything –i.e. not opposing action).

But apocalyptic frames risk having serious negative implications. Amongst these, I distinguish at least four: first, the risk of apocalyptic rhetoric turning into self-fulfilling prophecies; second, the possibility that an abuse of the rhetoric may lead to a decrease in the credibility of framers; third, the danger of fundamentalists seeking to push harder to see their prophecies fulfilled; and fourth, the risk that the rhetoric may help obscure political agendas. An additional negative implication is where apocalyptic rhetoric has the unintended effect of paralysing the audience (assuming this is not an intended purpose). Accordingly, although a turn to more secularised and less aggressive apocalyptic frames is something to be applauded and encouraged, such a turn does not completely solve or reduce the negative externalities of apocalyptic rhetoric. And this, I suggest, is as valid for nuclear weapons discourses as it is for other discourses found in twenty first century international politics.

The apocalyptic in IR: the need for more research on the functional and the symbolic

Arriving at this point we must ask why apocalyptic frames are still so popular despite their negative implications and their failure to help connect actors and audiences effectively (if they achieved their objectives nuclear weapons would have long been reduced to zero). Is it because there are no alternative frames available? Are there any other reasons besides those based on mere strategic rationale? Asides from a possible functional explanation, my view is that there may also be a symbolic or psychological explanation beneath the surface. It may be that apocalyptic rhetoric is driven by forces other than simply rational and strategic purposes. Accordingly, in examining the apocalyptic one should also seek to address the following questions: what role or roles, asides from a purely functional standpoint, does the apocalyptic play in human life? Does the apocalyptic respond to a mere rational choice or does it also play a symbolic or psychological role for either the messenger or the audience at which the rhetoric is directed (or both)? Is apocalyptic rhetoric expression, or satisfaction, or both, of a buried anxiety originated in past personal or collective traumas? Is it expression of an exacerbated destructive instinct found in human beings?

A comprehensive study on the presence of the apocalyptic in twenty first century international politics simultaneously addressing the functional and the symbolic is therefore necessary. In this regard, existing studies are out of date and only partially relevant. It is also my view that such a study should avoid being confined to the apocalyptic as expressed or projected only in, and by, Western circles or culture. Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud’s short (and failed?) attempt to address the question of “Why War?” in the 1930s should encourage scholars to carry out a similar task perhaps under the heading “Why the Apocalyptic in Twenty First Century IR?”. Ours in an age in which boundaries between disciplines help only maintain the status quo while curtailing the chances of better understanding the world we live in. This is often ignored by mainstream IR theorists who narrowly focus on the rational leaving aside the too often wrongly labelled irrational. My view therefore is that the myopic legacy of mainstream IR paradigms must be sidestepped when analysing the apocalyptic. It is our duty to tear down existing barriers and join disciplines. We can only benefit from such a task.


Western apocalyptic thinking and sensibility permeates numerous twenty first century international politics discourses. In particular, apocalyptic frames are recurrently used in US-originated discourses on nuclear weapons. This is due to the functional or strategic advantages that these type of frames are thought to generate. However, apocalyptic rhetoric, whether religious or secular, risks having serious negative implications for international peace and security.

Further, any study on the apocalypse that addresses the functional and fails to address the symbolic or psychological is incomplete. Accordingly, since existing studies fail to address both elements simultaneously I believe a full comprehensive study on this subject is necessary. Until that happens, I am afraid that any attempt to propose either a re-articulation of the current rhetoric or the use of alternative frames may be premature.

*This article is a summary of a 10,000 words dissertation. Please contact the author for further details or a full list of bibliographical references.

**These include the following four US-originated nuclear weapons macrosecuritisation processes: the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, first appeared in 1947; the Nuclear Threat Initiative launched in 2007 by former US service men; the anti-nuclear weapons campaign launched in 2008 by US social movement Global Zero; and President Obama’s 2009 public speech in Prague.


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