I’ve been studying nuclear weapons for a number of years now. Far from an expert, I would at least call myself familiar with the topic. I’ve read everyone from Kahn, Schelling, Sagan, and Vaynman to Pollack, Cirincione, Bell, and Williams. I’m currently pursuing a PhD in the field. I even (semi-) regularly engage with the nuclear policy Twitter community.
But I still have no idea how to spell “nonproliferation.”
This may be another instance of an American transplant struggling to rightsize UK and US English (don’t get me started on “defense” vs. “defence”). After all, the UN uses the hyphen — à la the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons—and claims to adopt UK English as its standard (although confusingly supports only US English in its website search queries). But the US State Department recklessly uses both spellings. Why the discrepancy and lack of clarification?
Turns out it doesn’t really matter — nuclear wonks will just abbreviate it anyway. Whether it’s cutting the treaty down to ‘NPT’ or using ‘nonpro’ shorthand, we nuclear nerds speak in abbreviations and jargon almost exclusively. That’s a problem considering the topic we study — one that affects people far beyond the walls of government offices, think factories, and ivory towers.
The public is an oft-overlooked actor in nuclear weapons discourse despite its pivotal role in the field. Civilian populations not only elect decisionmakers in nuclear democracies but also serve as target numero uno for nuclear attacks (at least in countervalue targeting, but there I go with the jargon). There’s a reason headlines cite Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and even our non-capital favorites like Los Angeles and New York as likely targets when nuclear fever breaks. Holding population centers at risk of total destruction is a key ingredient in the deterrence formula.
There’s a reason headlines cite Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and even our non-capital favorites like Los Angeles and New York as likely targets when nuclear fever breaks.
Yet the nuclear weapons discourse leaves the public out of the conversation. The exclusionary language of abbreviations and specialization — technostrategic language, if you will — is just one way this manifests. CVID this, TPNW that, how is the public meant to follow along, let alone participate?
Some say it doesn’t matter if people keep up. After all, government officials — that’s singular in the US case — decide whether to use nuclear weapons or not. Even more, the public doesn’t influence foreign policy, so why bother taking the time to explain complicated and contentious policies, strategies, and technologies to an unreceptive audience?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that’s rubbish (yes, some British words are easy to adopt). More optimistic scholars have been making the case for decades as to how publics can — and do — impact foreign policymaking. And when it comes to nukes, the case for including publics in the nuclear dialogue is even more obvious. It rests in — and stands to solve — the discipline’s perennial debate between deterrence and disarmament.
Both camps claim to hold the public interest at heart. Deterrence advocates argue threatening the total destruction of an adversary’s population is the best way to protect its own population, to address public fears and anxieties surrounding nuclear weapons and ensure the safety and security of the homeland. Disarmament advocates counter by claiming the best way to protect the global public from the existential threat of nuclear weapons is to eliminate those weapons altogether. Through different lenses, the public is at the root of both arguments and serves as justification for each side claiming superiority over the other.
So why then has neither camp genuinely involved the public itself in the conversation, equipped the public with the tools and knowledge needed to help define its interest and find the best way to make that interest reality? Maybe it’s because they too can’t spell “non-proliferation” and want to keep relying on their shorthand. But there’s likely more to the story (read: it’s easier that way).
The public has a tremendous stake in nuclear weapons issues and holds great—but hitherto untapped—power to have a strong voice in the conversation. If either the deterrence or disarmament camp wants to uphold its narrative, it better start recognizing this power dynamic and strive to include the public in its internal dialogue. It might even get us nerds to talk with one another in the process.
And the public? They can help move things along by asking nuclear wonks to land on a spelling of that word once and for all.
Jamie Kwong is pursuing her PhD in War Studies at King’s College London where her research focuses on the public’s engagement with nuclear issues. She is also a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI.