Skip to content
frank herbert dune and nuclear weapons

Imagine This: Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and Nuclear Use

Pictures: Eddie Stigson

Imagine This is a brief series about fiction and policy. Works of fiction, because their worlds are constructed by people, reflect often implicit assumptions about our own world. These assumptions allow fiction to feel ‘real’. They also provide good grounds for discussing issues with a degree of distance that — hopefully — allows us to challenge our approach.

First up in Imagine This, I want to talk about Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The 1965 science fiction novel has provided the basis for a 1984 film, a 2000 television series, and now an upcoming film series to be directed by Denis Villeneuve. (And I also just plain like it.)

“Dune,” to give a near-criminally cursory overview, follows the young Paul Atriedes as his family’s political and territorial influence is wrested from them. Paul finds himself hunted before seeking vengeance on those who wronged him. It’s a familiar plot done well. And (to me at least) the book never loses the sense of tragedy, even as Paul’s revenge is realized. I find that, unfortunately, to be a quality sorely lacking in many works of fiction. While I could go on and on about the importance of tragedy in a tale of revenge, that’s not what I want to actually address. Instead, I want to talk about the book’s portrayal of nuclear weapons.

“Dune” treats nuclear weapons in a way that, certainly for 1965, is pretty radical. Their use against human life is subject to a formal ban (referred to as the ‘injunction’ and contained in the Great Convention, the “Dune” universe’s bedrock legal document) under penalty of complete annihilation of the attacking party’s planet. Crucially, this is backed by the continued possession of nuclear arsenals by each of the semi-autonomous fiefdoms in “Dune.” This deters each fiefdom from employing nuclear weapons in violation of the injunction. In practice (albeit, y’know, in a work of fiction), this results in a no-use policy even between the fiercest of competitors.

After the fact, Paul argues that his use of nuclear weapons didn’t technically break the ban because they targeted a geographic feature rather than a human population.

Naturally, however, nuclear weapons do get used. Paul Atriedes, our hero, is the one who actually makes the decision to use them — and he gets away with it too. Here’s how that happens. (Spoilers, obviously.)

Paul amasses an army and wages a guerilla campaign against his foes. This compels his adversaries to shelter their forces behind the protection of the Shield Wall, a rocky geographic barrier. Paul then uses nuclear weapons to destroy the Shield Wall. His army overwhelms the adversarial forces and secures an end to the conflict on favorable terms. This all happens pretty quickly.

After the fact, Paul argues that his use of nuclear weapons didn’t technically break the ban because they targeted a geographic feature rather than a human population. This is accepted, but not because of the legalese. For Paul’s opponents, it’s an act of necessity: Paul’s territory — the territory they would be targeting in a retaliatory nuclear strike — is the sole home of spice, a unique and essential resource in the “Dune” universe, making it too important to nuke. Crucially, Paul knew this before deciding to use nuclear weapons. This allows him to conclude that he need not fear the otherwise anticipated retaliatory nuclear strike. In essence, Paul is unconstrained by a credible threat that would compel him to abide by the de facto no-use policy surrounding nuclear weapons.

Paul’s story can help us draw three core assumptions about nuclear weapons:

  1. Banning the use of nuclear weapons, in part or in whole, is not enough to prevent their use;
  2. The use of nuclear weapons is only prevented by the credible threat of retaliation; and
  3. Claims of violating rules or norms will be contested wherever possible.

These assumptions — drawn from 1965, mind you — aren’t necessarily true. But I argue it’s still worth talking through the potential impact on policy they could have if they were. It’s a thought experiment, which helps to uncover issues that could arise as unintended consequences of policy choices. Hopefully, this allows either for those choices to be reevaluated, or, for their implementation to hedge against potential side effects.

Let’s shift from the universe of “Dune” back to the one we inhabit. Consider the push for a world without nuclear weapons, endorsed by President of the United States Barack Obama and for which the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the 2017 Noble Peace Prize. The prospect of creating such a world is contingent upon two things: first, how to get countries with nuclear arsenals to disarm and, second, how to ensure that no country develops its own nuclear capability once disarmament has been achieved.

Getting countries to disarm is generally the issue that gets the most attention. Organizations like ICAN and Global Zero have made it their core issue. The second issue, however, is generally less well addressed by advocates for the eradication of nuclear weapons. This is increasingly problematic when the assumptions we’ve lifted from “Dune” are taken into account.

Here’s what “Dune” suggests might happen. First, a ban on nuclear weapons — even one supported by monitoring and verification programs with robust surveillance and inspection measures — would need to be paired with a credible threat to have any hope of ensuring compliance.

Sanctions wouldn’t be enough. North Korea, after all, has expanded its nuclear weapons program in spite of the international sanctions it has faced since the adoption to United Nations Security Council resolution 1718 in 2006. So what’s left? Military force?

For the threat of military force against a country developing nuclear weapons to be credible, there’s really got to be a belief that, if push comes to shove, the international community will endorse it. That’s a pretty direct extension of the second assumption from “Dune,” that use of nuclear weapons is prevented only by the threat of retaliation. The kicker is that our third assumption from “Dune” suggests that a country developing nuclear weapons would vehemently deny it was doing anything improper.

By the time the evidence that a country was pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities was insurmountable, it would likely already possess nuclear weapons. This parallels arguments surrounding the Iran Deal. One side argues the Deal gives inspectors the insight needed to hedge against the country continuing the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the other that Iran lied about its program before and will do so again to catch the world unprepared. But we’ve actually already seen a more extreme example: POTUS reportedly didn’t believe North Korea had a missile capable of reaching the United States even after they’d tested it for all the world to see. Point is, it’s a real concern. Ludicrously real, in the latter case.

And all that’s just on the issue of proving the existence of a nuclear program. There’s still the issue that a nuclear power, without a balancing nuclear deterrent, would be free to use its nuclear arsenal. To me, this decreases the chance that a nuclear weapons ban could be enforced through the threat of military force, as countries would be reticent to risk the use of nuclear weapons against them or their militaries – and this is supposing an ironclad political commitment to the use of force against a nuclear aspirant.

Still, it’s possible that these challenges can be worked through. But that’s only true as long as we acknowledge them as issues to be addressed. The alternative – leaving them unaddressed and hoping for the best – could potentially unleash a nuclear-armed power unconstrained by a credible threat. “Dune” provides a tangible (though fictional) point of reference for a discussion of how this could happen. Per the ‘thesis’ of this series, I hope this approach can lead to a more nuanced discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in international relations and, through that, policy choices that yield a safer and more stable world. It’s not like we have another one to fall back to.

Cameron Trainer


Cameron Trainer is a Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is a graduate of the University of St Andrews, where he studied International Relations and Russian.


Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.