How terminology skewed the Trident debate

George Orwell famously wrote in his novel 1984 that, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Indeed, the words we choose can shape our thinking. We should therefore make sure that our language accurately conveys our intentions and thoughts and is as reflective of reality as possible.

Ever since former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in a cynical attempt to exploit divisions in the Labour Party, announced less than a fortnight ago that the House of Commons would vote on the renewal of the four submarines that carry Britain’s nuclear warheads (a system collectively known as “Trident) on 18 July, debate about Britain’s future as a nuclear-armed state has filled the country’s airwaves and newspapers (Parliament voted in favour of renewal by a majority of 355). This, in itself, is a good thing as a robust public debate on such an important issue is needed. However, some of the terms used in this debate are inaccurate or misleading.

Let’s look at three such terms and consider how they have skewed the Trident debate.


One of the most misleading terms used in the debate on nuclear weapons is “deterrent” to describe a nuclear weapons capability or system. The term comes from the belief that nuclear weapons deter against aggression or a nuclear attack through the promise of retaliation—a security doctrine known as “nuclear deterrence”.

Although the primary geopolitical circumstances for its existence have ceased with the end of the Cold War (when nuclear deterrence took on the shape of “Mutually Assured Destruction”), the doctrine continues to permeate strategic thought in the nuclear-armed states and allied states covered by “extended nuclear deterrence”. For many in the defence and security elites in these states the doctrine is sacrosanct.

Incessant use of these terms in previous decades has meant that few people nowadays question the appropriateness of using “deterrent” as a synonym for any given nuclear weapons system. Every single British news gathering source—print media, broadcast news and online sources—covering the Trident debate referred to the weapons system as the UK’s “nuclear deterrent” or “deterrent”.  Interestingly, and revelatory of just how successful the defence and security elites have been in controlling the terms on which the debate is had, even commentators with reservations about the Trident programme, or opposed to it, often use the term.

The problem is that the term “deterrent” is infused with meaning. The designation of a nuclear weapons system as a “deterrent” is invariably accompanied by the implication that it indeed does what the term suggests—that it deters. By using such terms, we tacitly acquiesce to this belief and invest considerable purpose and meaning into these inanimate instruments.

Yet, we cannot prove deterrence works. The fact that there has not been a nuclear war or a major war between the nuclear-armed states does not prove that deterrence work.

The contrary argument—that nuclear weapons and deterrence-fuelled nuclear brinkmanship has a considerable probability of triggering conflicts, possibly of the nuclear kind—is equally difficult to prove. However, there is considerable evidence within historical occasions where nuclear deterrence did not prevent war, as well as occasions where nuclear war was only narrowly avoided. There is further credible analysis that the deterrence doctrine has lost any relevance it may once have had in today’s multipolar world and changing security landscape.

As such, the use of “deterrent” to describe a nuclear weapons system is a sly way to shape people’s thinking on the utility, legality and acceptability of such a system. Just consider the difference in the following two ways to ask about Trident: (1) Should the UK give up its nuclear deterrent?; (2) Should the UK give up its thermonuclear bombs? The use of “deterrent” makes the former practically a leading question, while the latter is factually more correct. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume more people would answer “Yes” to the second one.

Nuclear weapons are instruments of terror and mass destruction. That’s what we should call them.

Furthermore, we should remind whomever attempts to get away with shrouding them in terms such as “deterrent” or “strategic stability” of the catastrophic consequences their use would cause and the risks inherent to their existence.


Newly minted Prime Minister Theresa May opined on the eve of the debate that voting against Trident renewal would be “A gamble with the safety and security of families in Britain that we must never be prepared to take.” She, and many of those who voted in favour of Trident, also called the nuclear weapons system the UK’s “ultimate security guarantee”.

She, quite simply, has it backwards.

She was repeating a well-rehearsed mantra. The primary reason given for retention of nuclear weapons is that they are regarded as a vital part of a nation or alliance’s security. What defenders of nuclear weapons often fail to realise is that their country is of course not alone in caring about its security and the more they tout the indispensible role of nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantor, the more they are in the business of convincing other countries to acquire these weapons. No nation or group of nations can have a monopoly on “security”.

Luckily, the vast majority of states recognise that their security is better served by renouncing nuclear weapons. Indeed, through national and regional nuclear weapon-free policies, the entire southern hemisphere, as well as parts north of the equator, have sought security without nuclear weapons.

So, whose security are nuclear weapons supposed to serve? They don’t serve planetary security; they don’t serve human security; instead, they are used by a few to advance narrowly devised national security interests or those of military alliances. But even that is a false security. Recent research into the ever-growing list of cases of near nuclear use has revealed the kaleidoscope of risks inherent in nuclear operations.

The truth is that because the effects of use of nuclear weapons cannot be controlled within space or time and their employment in operations and deterrence policies are vulnerable to errors, their wielding by a few comes at the price of insecurity for the rest. This is a blatant form of inequality and injustice.

We thus have to recapture the meaning of security.

Through fear-mongering and misinformation, nuclear weapon advocates have permeated our collective thinking with the dangerous notion that these weapons have kept us safe and that their disarmament will bring with it insecurity and risks. It is imperative that we turn this on its head: nuclear disarmament comes at the benefit of our shared security. Greater security, not insecurity, for all lies in prohibiting and eliminating these instruments of terror. The security challenges coming from interconnected threats such as climate change, environmental degradation, demographic changes, resource scarcity and pandemic disease cannot be met by nuclear weapons. If anything, the adversarial deterrence policies in place are a great obstacle to achieving the unprecedented cooperation needed to address this host of transnational threats.

Crispin Blunt MP, one of the few Conservatives who voted against renewal had it right when he said in the debate yesterday:

“I oppose the renewal of Trident because I care about the security of my country. I’m not prepared to be party to the most egregious act of self-harm to our conventional defence. This is a colossal investment in a weapons system that will become increasingly vulnerable and for whose security we will have to throw good money, after bad – in fact tens of billions of it more than already estimated – to try to keep it safe in the decades to come.”


In the Trident debate, it was regularly suggested that the UK should continue to “possess” nuclear weapons. Merriam-Webster defines “possession” as “the condition of having or owning something”, which would undoubtedly apply to UK and other nuclear-armed states. But the term falls woefully short of accurately describing the nuclear enterprise.

The reality is that these weapons are being used every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day.

Merriam-Webster defines “use” as “the act or practice of employing something”. With regard to nuclear weapons, “use” is generally understood as the actual detonation of a nuclear warhead. But their threatened use is part and parcel of the policies of the nuclear-armed states and nuclear alliances.

Indeed, this “threat to use” underpins the deterrence doctrine. Nuclear deterrence relies on a perceived willingness to use these weapons, without which the credibility of the doctrine would implode. Nuclear weapons are thus best understood as continually “employed” by possessor states to project threat and power.

An analogy with firearms is enlightening in this respect. Falling short of actually pulling the trigger (thereby using a gun in the strictest sense of the word), pointing a gun at someone to secure a certain decision or type of behaviour or advance your own interests should surely also be regarded as use of said gun. Consider, for example: “He used a gun to rob me!”

The reality is that the nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear-armed states are not like a gun locked away in a cabinet at home or even holstered on the person. They are not residing in inert stockpiles. Rather, they are at all times employed in dynamic military policies and exercises to intimidate, coerce and extort.

They thus more resemble the drawn gun pointed at someone. As I write this, thousands of nuclear weapons are aimed at cities, with some of them on “hair-trigger alert”, ready to be fired at a moment’s notice. It is a “security system” predicated on the constant readiness and preparations to wage all-out nuclear war, which is riddled with risks, including unauthorized launch, mistaken launch on warning, accidental detonation and inadvertent escalation.

Talking about countries that “possess” nuclear weapons runs the risk of depicting a static situation that is under control. It lulls people into a false sense of security. It is our responsibility to remind people that “possession” actually entails a dynamic enterprise that breeds an existential form of insecurity for all, including their possessors.


There is no greater tactic of exclusion and obfuscation than bombarding (for lack of better word) someone with technical terms. For too long, those in the establishments committed to continue brandishing nuclear weapons have successfully employed this tactic. It has further allowed them to sanitise a discussion that should be had primarily on humanitarian grounds.

The widespread usage and dissemination of terms that, rather than state the facts, manipulate thinking, is all too prevalent in the nuclear weapons debate.

Some of these terms need to be challenged or exposed, while others need to be recaptured to represent their true meaning.

Instead of describing the systems and policies that rely on nuclear weapons in terms of “deterrent” and “strategic stability”, we should expose the risks they are rife with and underline the catastrophic consequences any use would have.

Instead of letting a few monopolise and corrupt the concept of “security” in narrowly devised goals that come at the detriment to the security of the rest, we should recapture the meaning of security as one that recognises that human and planetary security are better served through the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Ultimately, words don’t even begin to capture the horror of nuclear weapons. Anyone shown what these instruments of terror do—the destruction, the death, the burns, the birth deformities, the tumours—should be at a loss for words…