Analysis / Strategy

Time for Nuclear Straight Talk: Words Matter, and So Do Deeds

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Photo courtesy of US Air Force:

President-elect Trump’s December 22 nuclear tweet sent shockwaves through the nuclear policy community. The reaction makes one thing abundantly clear: For the benefit of allies, adversaries, and the American people, the time is now to rethink how U.S. leaders publicly justify the purpose, size, and character of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has left much of the conversation about nuclear policy to a cadre of nuclear experts who speak largely to one another using their own complex, nuanced, and intellectually elitist language. The limited public dialogue has focused on the need to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons and to provide assurances of their diminished salience to U.S. national security, while rarely broaching the reasons why the United States continues to have a nuclear arsenal at all. For a quarter century—through changes in administrations and political leadership, Republican and Democratic alike—a clear, direct, and positively framed explanation of the role and purpose of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security has been strikingly absent.

President-elect Trump’s tweet turned this context and conversation on its head. It has prompted worldwide dissection of the words “strengthen” and “expand,” raised passions and fears about the potential for a renewed arms race, and reminded everyone—policy wonks or not—of the importance of words when the world’s most powerful nation speaks about its most powerful weapons. His 23-word statement, however, also serves up a second essential reminder: a direct, but accessible and inclusive, public conversation about nuclear weapons—their importance, their impacts, and their costs—is desperately needed.

A November 2016 report from CSIS, titled The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative, proposes a clear and direct rationale for why the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains essential to the post-Cold War strategy of the United States and to the security of the American people. It also presents recommendations for better communicating that rationale. Though the report focused primarily on the need to have this conversation with the U.S. military and civilian personnel responsible for maintaining and operating the nation’s nuclear weapons, many of the conclusions from the report bear on the broader public conversation as well.


The American people do not hold a shared understanding of the threats faced by the United States today, nor about the role nuclear weapons play in confronting those threats.

That is in part because the rationale for U.S. nuclear weapons has long emphasized a deliberate diminishment of the nuclear arsenal’s role, reflecting a downturn in nuclear dangers since end of the Cold War. It is also the result of time and separation. Cold War generations understood the reality and stakes of a nuclear arms race in a world where nuclear conflict seemed a near and present danger. But more than a third of the U.S. population today was born after the Cold War, and more than 70 percent after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This generation, facing myriad problems for which nuclear weapons are less relevant, does not take assumptions at face value about the role of nuclear weapons in national security or about the role of the United States in the world.


Conversation is Needed


A direct, but accessible and inclusive, public conversation about nuclear weapons—their importance, their impacts, and their costs—is desperately needed.

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Recommended Changes

At a critical juncture for modernization, deterrence, and nonproliferation, President-elect Trump must balance the demands of today’s security environment and related choices about how best to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. He will need to articulate the role and purpose for U.S. nuclear weapons with a message that will resonate with U.S. allies and adversaries, and the American people, while also avoiding any impression of a return to the Cold War. Doing so will require a middle path between 23-word tweets and the Washington policy elite’s insular jargon: an explanation that is short but precise, and designed to address the security environment of today and tomorrow rather than of days past. This will not be easy. The explanation for U.S. nuclear policy will need to account for a shifting and increasingly complex threat environment, frame the role of nuclear weapons as limited but essential, and message U.S. resolve in preserving stability, while flatly rejecting a renewed arms race.

The authors of The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative proposed several principles to follow in developing such a rationale:


  • Develop a rationale that is affirmatively, rather than negatively, framed.
  • Use language that is clear and direct and does not require a sophisticated understanding of nuclear policy.
  • Use topline messages that can be employed consistently with a wide range of audiences (the public, the Congress, the armed forces) but can also be tailored to various audiences through additional specificity.
  • Look to the future, not the past, as the source of challenge and opportunity.
  • Remember that words accompanied by meaningful and appropriate actions are always the most effective message.


  • Use jargon or theoretical language.
  • Appear nostalgic about the Cold War or suggest the future lies in a return to the past.
  • Criticize the audience in terms of knowledge, education, or interest.

In following their own “do’s and don’ts,” the report’s authors proposed an articulation of the rationale, which sought to answer four essential questions about the U.S. nuclear arsenal:

What is the fundamental purpose or role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the United States’ national security strategy?

In a world with nuclear weapons, U.S. nuclear forces provide a critical foundation for U.S. power and influence. U.S. nuclear weapons serve as a powerful insurance policy by ensuring that, no matter how threats or enemies change, the United States has the freedom of action to defend itself. The nuclear arsenal underwrites national survivability against the greatest threats, providing the only credible defense against nuclear destruction and ensuring that no enemy sees benefit in attacking or holding hostage the U.S. homeland. U.S. nuclear forces, therefore, act as a backstop to conventional power, allowing their conventional brethren to operate overseas.

Nuclear weapons provide world-altering, destructive power and bring with them awesome responsibilities. The United States will shoulder these responsibilities and serve as the nuclear counterweight to those with malicious intentions. Failure to do so would leave the world a far more dangerous place.

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How do the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its associated infrastructure and delivery systems fulfill this role?

U.S. nuclear weapons perform these essential roles by forcing any adversary to consider that the costs of attacking the United States far outweigh any possible benefits. It “raises the bar,” creating risks and costs so much greater than any possible gains that restraint becomes a better option. The extension of U.S. nuclear protection to allies strengthens those ties and forms the basis of the underlying security relationships, making the United States an essential provider of global stability. U.S. nuclear weapons empower allies to go without nuclear capabilities while also feeling secure—further binding together the U.S. alliance system and serving as a cornerstone of the nonproliferation framework.

As a nuclear power, the United States holds itself to the highest possible standard for responsible stewardship. U.S. nuclear weapons are entirely defensive in character, designed to prevent attacks, not to initiate them. This shows the U.S. commitment to leading in international efforts to establish and enforce norms in protecting nuclear materials and working to reduce the dangers posed by existing nuclear arsenals.

What size, shape, distribution, and readiness of nuclear forces is necessary for them to fulfill their role and perform their functions?

U.S. decision-makers must feel confident that nuclear weapons provide the president with a range of suitable options that meet the needs of the situation and discourage, rather than encourage, continued aggression. U.S. nuclear weapons must inspire confidence in leaders and allies, and fear in adversaries. These requirements call for forces that are credible, flexible, survivable, responsive, and persistent.


Confidence and Fear


U.S. nuclear weapons must inspire confidence in leaders and allies, and fear in adversaries.

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When faced with difficult trade-offs, are policymakers willing to make the difficult choices necessary to demonstrate commitment through the allocation of time, attention, and resources? How is that commitment demonstrated?

U.S. nuclear forces cannot perform their mission without the investment of time, resources, and attention by leadership at all levels. These investments involve sacrifice, but these sacrifices can and will be made when the nation’s fundamental security hangs in the balance. We can do no less.

Nuclear policy cannot and should not be made in 140 characters. But discussing how to have this conversation through new and more accessible forms of dialogue will be critical. Social media and other personalized communication tools, which have thus far remained mostly outside the nuclear policy toolbox, are an important part of outreach. President-elect Trump’s administration must use these new tools wisely and with discretion to share a message that speaks to allies, adversaries, and Americans at home.

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Cite this Page

Rebecca Hersman and defense360, "Time for Nuclear Straight Talk: Words Matter, and So Do Deeds," Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 4, 2017, last modified January 4, 2017,