Skip to content

Nuclear blackmail? (Put down that umbrella!)

October 16, 2013
umbrella lightning rod

Image from

There’s been a lively discussion on the ICAN campaigners list the past couple of days about the kinds of words we use when we’re talking about nuclear weapons policy. The term that started us off was “nuclear umbrella states” — countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the NATO member states — who have what they call an “extended nuclear deterrence” arrangement with a nuclear-armed state.

All those words are loaded. An “umbrella” provides shelter from the rain; we “extend” a hand to those who need help. “Deterrence” is just a “strategy” for persuading someone that harming us will bring harm upon them, with the result that no one gets harmed. (“Denial” is just a river…oh, forget it.)

George Lakoff has explained that these are not merely annoying euphemisms, but framing words that, in this case, support and control a narrative about what nuclear weapons are and what they are for. If we use this language ourselves, we are stuck with the frame and will find it extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to get unstuck.

Another George—Orwell—made a similar observation in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946): “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better….What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. …[T]he worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”

So if we’re not going to “surrender” to the language of “deterrence,” what words could we be using?

Let’s take the so-called umbrella states. If we reject the absurd notion that  someone’s nuclear weapons can provide someone else with protective cover, then what’s our term for the States that have succumbed to this delusion?

Here are some of the suggestions that have been tossed around on the list:

  • nuclear dependent states
  • nuclear co-dependent states
  • nuclear bulls-eye states
  • nuclear lightning rod states
  • nuclear conspirator states
  • nuclear accomplice states
  • nuclear complacent states
  • nuclear trip-wire states
  • nuclear ostrich states
  • nuclear deluded states
  • nuclear suicidal states
  • nuclear collaborator states
  • nuclear enabler states

Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute has been using “nuclear dependent states” for some time; she likens it to “drug dependent.” Michael Christ of IPPNW suggested a variation—“nuclear co-dependent states”—which nicely connotes a need for group therapy.

We can have fun coming up with other possibilities (including in languages other than English) as alternatives to the euphemistic (and cynical) “umbrella.” (That’s an open invitation to join the brainstorming session.)

But there’s nothing especially amusing about  “deterrence,” the word that presents the biggest obstacle to achieving a world free of nuclear weapons. (“Free” is another good framing word.)

Phil Webber of Scientists for Global Responsibility UK, who sent around the e-mail that started this conversation, rephrased a typical statement about “extended nuclear deterrence” this way:

Australia supports the use of US nuclear weapons on its behalf to destroy the world ecosystem, kill hundreds of millions of people and create a world-wide famine threatening the survival of humanity itself in certain circumstances.”

That’s as straightforward as it gets, and it reminded me of something I wrote in a blog post back in February:

If you remove the layers of whitewash, however, ‘deterrence’ means…declaring your willingness to kill millions of people indiscriminately and to create nuclear graveyards where cities used to be; having the means at hand to produce that outcome; exposing your own people to the same outcome; and cultivating a well-practiced madhouse look should someone have the temerity to call your bluff. All to prevent, theoretically, the use of the very weapons you have all along threatened to use yourself. The real definition of “deterrence,” in other words, is global blackmail, with the entire world held hostage to a threat of omnicide.”

From now on, whenever I hear someone use the word “deterrence,” either purposefully or unthinkingly, I think I’ll say, “You mean nuclear blackmail, don’t you?”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: