Coming to Terms with Nuclear Terms

Developing a shared nuclear language is the first step to understanding, controlling, and eliminating nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama chairs a meeting of the
UN Security Council on September 24, 2009.

(Src: Bomoon Lee/IPS)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”[1]

In these lines from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which tells the story of members of two warring families, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, Juliet explains that names are meaningless. She loves Romeo—the person who is called Montague, not the Montague name.

In international politics, as in love, what things are matters more than what they are called. But what things are called does matter because words carry meaning and convey messages. Poor understanding of words disrupts communication and can lead to confusion, disputes, or even disaster. History is replete with instances of wars breaking out as a result of miscommunication or misunderstandings.

Careful use of language and skillful communication are thus essential to successful policymaking. With the advent of the nuclear age after World War II and the growing risk of global nuclear annihilation resulting from the spiraling US-Soviet arms race (exemplified during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), US and Soviet policymakers eventually realized the urgency of reaching agreements on strategic terms and of establishing permanent lines of communication to avoid misunderstandings. And so nuclear language was born.

The nuclear lexicon was not developed without hiccups. Today, the phrase “arms control” is well understood and widely used by the international policy community. But when US nuclear strategists coined it in the 1950s, it raised concerns among both US adversaries and allies. Because of the connotations of the Russian word “control” (“регулировать“), Soviet policymakers thought that the United States wanted to literally control arsenals, i.e. collect information through inspections, and potentially use that information against them if it so chose. The phrase also raised issues in French policymaking circles, until it was understood that the word “control” was best translated by the word “maîtrise” (“management”), not “contrôle” (“inspections”).

Overall, however, the development of the nuclear lexicon proceeded smoothly because the primary policy goal was straightforward: make mutual deterrence between the two nuclear superpowers work, thereby avoiding not a plague, but nuclear catastrophe on both their houses. It was merely a matter of creating a language (and a methodology) to solve the Clausewitzian problem of how to rationalize the use of force into a viable policy instrument or, simply, how to integrate politics and war.

But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, arms control has grown more complex. With the rise of China and the emergence of new nuclear-armed states (India and Pakistan), it has ceased to be strictly bilateral and has become multilateral.

China and, for that matter, the United Kingdom and France, all developed nuclear weapons during the Cold War. At the time, however, the nuclear arena was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, new and more intricate webs of relations have developed between nuclear-armed states, and not all of them are based on traditional deterrence.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report, for instance, refers to “strategic stability” to describe US relations with Russia and China. This phrase is broader in scope than “deterrence” and stresses the potential for cooperation over the potential for conflict with these states.

Then there is the goal of nuclear disarmament, which has grown in importance in relations between nuclear-armed states. This has yielded a new disarmament diplomacy and, with it, the need to understand the relevant (and new) terms, such as nuclear limitations, nuclear reductions, or warhead dismantlement, among others.

Similarly, with the rise of compliance challenges to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT (in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Syria) and the launch of new nuclear energy programs, the number of nonproliferation and nuclear safety and security measures has multiplied, further enriching the nuclear lexicon with new terms and concepts, as in the nuclear forensics domain, for example.

These developments make it paramount for all nuclear-armed states to reach a common, updated understanding of nuclear terminology, and ensure that these definitions are properly appreciated in the relevant languages. This is all the more important as the number of nuclear-armed states has increased and, as a result, so has the potential for misinterpretations.

This urgency has been acknowledged by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e. the “Permanent Five” or “P-5” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China), the only legally recognized nuclear-armed states under the NPT. As part of a diplomatic process established in 2009, the P-5 have created a working group to produce “an agreed glossary of definitions for key nuclear terms.”[2]

Although this effort only includes the P-5, it is a step in the right direction to increase understanding and facilitate discussions among five key nuclear-armed states. Particularly significant is that this working group is led by China. Among the P-5 members, China has been the most secretive about its nuclear arsenal, and it is the only one that is both expanding and modernizing its nuclear stockpile, raising numerous concerns. Beijing’s decision to shoulder the responsibilities for this group may help achieve progress toward strategic reassurance among the P-5.

Despite popular thinking, Romeo and Juliet were never “star-crossed” from the start. They were not fated to die together because the stars had pre-determined their future (because Romeo was born a Montague and Juliet a Capulet). A careful read of Shakespeare’s play shows that the two lovers failed to seize opportunities to take control of their destiny. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that the United States and China, China and India, or India and Pakistan, for example, are fated to only rarely work in a constructive manner on nuclear issues. Despite the very real disagreements and opposing power forces often at play, much can be done to enhance cooperation and reduce inhibitions.

The first step is for them to speak the same language. Track-two discussions on nuclear terminology between the United States and China have already demonstrated their value to deepen mutual understanding and avoid misperceptions.[3] Building upon this effort at the official level, first among the P-5, will help facilitate dialogue among nuclear-armed states and pave the way for transparency and confidence-building measures, ultimately leading to more stability.

These efforts will not eliminate all sources of tension. But they will enable nuclear-armed states to learn how to coexist more peacefully by nurturing habits of talking and working together, as was the case for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

David Santoro is the Senior Fellow for Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the Pacific Forum CSIS.


[1] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II.
[2] P-5 Statement by Ambassador Susan F. Burk to the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee, paragraph 5, May 3, 2012.
[3] Building upon the English-Chinese Chinese-English Nuclear Security Glossary (2008) drafted by the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control of the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament and the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Pacific Forum CSIS hold regular track-two dialogues between U.S. and Chinese nuclear scholars to discuss key nuclear definitions and concepts. The latest dialogue report is available.

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