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Where You Stand Is Where You Sit: Language and Perception in the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities

The Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities (NR), jointly developed in 2016 by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham, is a facilitated dialogue approach to help identify thethe responsibilities of states and other actors around nuclear weapons‘. It challenges the language and meaning of a ‘responsible nuclear state‘, used frequently by nuclear weapon possessors as an outward projection of self-image. In the Programme’s view, the term ‘responsible nuclear state’ ‘immediately polarises debate’ (from conversations with the authors of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities) and ‘makes claims to a singular identity,’ regardless of whether actors are actually responsible or irresponsible in practice. It asks instead for introspection — that those proximate to nuclear weapons understand and articulate the repercussions of their relationship with these weapons on other relationships — whether with peoples, states, or organisations. 

I find the Programme’s cleverest tropes are its use of language and perception as tools for dialogue. Narrative-building through language is an important aspect of foreign policy-making and practice. Actors redefine or ‘recolonise’ words through their repeated use, in contexts that are favourable to them. There are many examples of such usage. The one most relevant here is that of a ‘responsible nuclear state’, deployed at the official level, and over time, assimilated into everyday parlance. The notion of nuclear-armed states as ‘responsible nuclear actors’ is employed uncritically — in officialdom, of course, but also by those that are outside of the establishment, such as journalists, academics, and policy analysts, such as myself. So while the Programme’s modification of ‘responsible’ to ‘responsibilities’ — from adjective to noun — seems straight-forward enough, it is a complex, systemic effort to change the discourse around nuclear weapons.

In my understanding, the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities seeks to move the conversation beyond a perfunctory statement of perceived fact — ‘I am responsible’ — to accounting for what it means in relation to specific actors — ‘these are my responsibilities to you’. The moment we arrive at establishing meaning, however, we are challenged by the possibility of multiple definitions; none necessarily wrong but several potentially in conflict with each other. We consider ‘responsibilities’ within specific idioms, and with our own idiosyncrasies. Our realities are mediated by filters of received wisdom as well as our own experiences. Meaning is thus rarely universal.

Indeed, the Programme uses the word ‘practice frequently, presumably by design: ‘What these responsibilities are in practice depends upon the actor’, or ‘It is sometimes said that the United States and Russia have the greatest responsibilities, though what this means in practice is the subject of the Programme’s enquiry’. The emphasis on ‘practice’ is significant. How words are deployed in speech and writing can subvert their original meaning. In some cases, having departed quite significantly from the original, meaning could mutate to the extent of being rendered ‘meaningless’. An example from international relations is the concept of humanitarian intervention, whose practical interpretations have evolved over time. A more commonplace example is the word ‘guys’. Used colloquially to refer to a group of people, it originated in the name of a single person, Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the attempted assassination of King James I of England in the early 1600s. Guy Fawkes Day memorialises the day he was apprehended, with his effigies—’Guys’—burnt every year on November 5. The word then began to be used to refer to ‘men of the lowest and most depraved kind; its meaning shifting over centuries to how we employ it today. Language is thus activated by use. This was demonstrated repeatedly in the four meetings the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) facilitated as part of our institutional collaboration with BASIC and ICCS over 2021.

The India meetings convened security and foreign policy experts from across the country to reflect on what nuclear responsibilities mean, what India’s nuclear responsibilities are, and to whom they are owed. These were interpreted variously. While a subset of participants agreed that India articulating its responsibilities would be a good decision, they didn’t all agree why. Some saw it as a rational choice — as good for New Delhi’s foreign policy objectives. Others took a more moral view. Employing the language of Indian exceptionalism, they argued that New Delhi should lead by example and enunciate its responsibilities as a nuclear state to other actors. Still others felt that as a democracy, India owed an enumeration of these responsibilities not only to other states but also to its/their publics.

There was also disagreement in these meetings on the nature of India’s primary nuclear responsibility to its people. Some participants believed this to be transparency in nuclear decision-making; some were of the view that a credible nuclear deterrent as a means to guarantee national security was India’s greatest responsibility to its citizens. Those who objected to India implementing NR challenged its conceptual logic. They argued that shared responsibilities were only meaningful among equals, and if only a normative framework, the chances of defection by states seeking to only pay lip service were high. They also felt such clarifications could run counter to nuclear deterrence if nothing were left to chance, and that in any case, in today’s geopolitical environment, a dialogue such as this was not realistically feasible. Clearly, even these four India-specific meetings showcased how context, identity, and world views can trigger multiple perceptions of one concept.

In seeking to map these perceptions, the Programme’s logic is similar to the logic of parallax, a method used to calculate distances between stars, and defined as ‘the observed displacement of an object caused by the change of the observer’s point of view‘. How one actor perceive itself and its environment and how another actor perceives the same things may be two radically different images. Perceptions can also be treacherous. I may deliberately signal a manipulated image to shape and control another’s perception of me. These views will inevitably feed into what I think my responsibilities to another are. The Programme’s aim ‘to bring these felt responsibilities from the unconscious part to the conscious part of the national psyche acknowledges the co-existence of such plurality.

The Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities is also ostensibly an attempt to shift the needle from ‘trust-building’, upon which dialogue between adversaries often rests, to ‘perception-mapping’ as a precursor. This is a thoughtful approach: while ‘trust’ requires some semblance of agreement on meaning before progressing to the next stage, perception relies on understanding. Two parties in disagreement would still profit from understanding what the disagreement is, and where it stems from.

While the Programme has already been initiated in and between certain countries, those of us who inhabit dichotomous camps within the nuclear policy field, with our ‘arms control folks’ and ‘the Ban Treaty crowd’—arguably the most polarising within the international relations discipline—could benefit from such introspection and facilitated dialogue. 


artworks 000099707675 bhbxq1 t500x500This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. 

Ruhee Neog is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), & Associate, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

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