"How terminology skews the nuclear weapons debate"

By Rob van Riet
Independent consultant
on arms control and disarmament issues
Revised version April 2021


"How terminology skews the nuclear weapons debate"

In July 2016, I wrote an article entitled ‘How terminology skewed the Trident debate’, which reflected on the UK Parliament’s debate and vote on renewing the four submarines that carry the Trident missiles fitted with Britain’s nuclear warheads (a programme collectively known as “Trident”). Today, almost five years later, the motivations that prompted me to write that article have resurfaced. This time it’s in response to the government’s significant changes to the UK’s nuclear posture, which increases the country’s nuclear warhead stockpile cap and expands the policy stipulating under which circumstances the UK could use or threaten use of nuclear weapons. There is plenty to say about how worrying these developments are, and fortunately some of my colleagues have written excellent pieces on this, but I wanted to highlight something that often goes unnoticed: the way in which terminology skews the debate on these weapons. Having followed the debate in parliament on these controversial changes to the UK’s nuclear weapons policy, as well as its coverage in the media, it’s evident that the central theme put forward in the article below, which has been revised to fit the current context, is as relevant now as it was then. 


George Orwell famously wrote in his novel 1984 that, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, the words we use can shape ours and others’ thinking. We are all bound by the language we use and so we best make sure that the words we use accurately convey our intentions and thoughts and are as reflective of reality as possible.

Last week, the UK published its Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, entitled Global Britain in a Competitive Age. The Integrated Review serves as an expression of the Johnson government’s aspiration to become “Global Britain” after Brexit, and to that end makes much of how the UK will boost international trade and deploy a wide range of soft power tools over the next decade. On the issue of nuclear weapons, the review brings worrying changes to the UK’s nuclear posture. It re-affirms the role of UK nuclear weapons to address chemical and biological weapon threats as well as nuclear threats, affirms new policy broadening the role of nuclear weapons to include the possible threat or use of nuclear weapons to address emerging technologies such as cyber attacks, and increases the cap on the number of nuclear weapons in the UK arsenal from the 180 planned by the mid 2020s to 260. This forty percent increase marks the end of three decades of gradual disarmament by the UK since the end of the Cold War. 

There is something very disquieting about reading a document that on the one hand boasts that the “BBC is the most trusted broadcaster worldwide”, that the English football league “broadcasts to 188 countries worldwide”, that “(o)ne in eight music albums sold around the world is by a UK artist” and that “(e)xhibitions from [British] museums and galleries reach over 500m people every year”—all heralded as key manifestations of British soft power—and then a few pages later coolly and matter-of-factly introduces these consequential changes to British nuclear weapons policy. And all of that packaged as signalling a decade of “British Leadership” and engagement in global affairs. This is particularly cynical as the vast majority of the world’s peoples and nations are desperately looking to the UK and the other eight nuclear-armed states to finally remove, what former US President John F. Kennedy called, “the nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over our shared future.

Even though there was some coverage of, and commentary on, this dramatic policy shift on British airwaves and television screens and in its newspapers (printed and online), it quickly got lost in the daily barrage of COVID-19 reporting. While there was some excellent analysis and scrutiny of the review—noting how it reverses 30 years of gradual disarmament; querying whether nuclear weapons meet the UK’s security needs in the 21st Century or whether they, in fact, contribute to its insecurity; lamenting the lack of reasoning and explanation given by the government for this dramatic shift in posture; highlighting the exorbitant spending on nuclear weapons at a time when economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic should put human needs and livelihoods front and centre; and underlining how it could spell trouble for the UK justifying this move at the upcoming Review Conference of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, where it is supposed to demonstrate the progress it is making in implementing the core treaty obligation of disarming its nuclear arsenal—what once more became clear is that some of the terms used to talk about nuclear weapons skew the debate.

Talking about nuclear weapons in the established fora and publications is done in a specific jargon—one marked by acronyms, numbers, politicised terms that have accumulated meaning over the seventy-seven years since the advent of the nuclear age, and sanitised terminology from the domain of defence and security. 

Yet for all the weighing and careful selection of terms in the debate on nuclear weapons, there are quite a few that on the surface might seem quite accurate, yet upon deeper scrutiny are revealed to be misleading. The widespread usage and dissemination of these terms has been an effective tactic for those invested in preventing or slowing down progress on nuclear disarmament. Some of these terms need to be challenged or exposed, while others need to be recaptured to represent their true meaning or rethought to better reflect today’s reality. Let’s look at several such terms and consider how they skew the nuclear weapons debate—both in the UK and more generally.  Continue reading...


Rob van Riet holds an LL.M., cum laude, in Public International Law from the University of Amsterdam. From 2010 to 2018, he directed the Disarmament Programme of the World Future Council. Mr. van Riet also served as Associate Member on the Legal Team for the Marshall Islands in their cases against the nuclear-armed states in the International Court of Justice. From 2018 to 2019, he was Director of the World Future Council’s Climate & Energy Programme. Mr. van Riet is currently an independent consultant on issues related to arms control, sustainable development and climate & energy. He continues to serve as a Senior Advisor to the World Future Council and Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. He lives in the United Kingdom.  For more information, click here to contact Rob van Riet.