Michael KreponAn Abundance of Shoulds

Two of the best surveys of steps required to eliminate nuclear weapons were honchoed by the Carnegie Endowment (Universal Compliance, 2007) and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission chaired by Hans Blix (Weapons of Terror, 2006). Both compendiums use the words “should,” “need,” and “must” over 400 times. It is undeniably true that hundreds of steps are required for the world to be completely disenthralled with nuclear weapons. These two surveys identify them in a comprehensive and highly professional manner, but the abundance of “shoulds” drives me nuts.

We’ve all been told by parents and authority figures what we should, need, and must do. The more we hear these words in our personal lives, the more most of us are inclined to tune out. So why, when it comes to public policy, do we often employ words that undermine our powers of persuasion?

The public arena has no shortage of scolds and nags. Want your daily dose of shoulds? Try the New York Times editorial page. Sample: “Pakistan After Bin Laden,” May 13, 640 words, five shoulds, four needs, and one must. Neocons in the George W. Bush administration flourished and flamed out over the worlds should, must, and need. Shoulds are the stock-in-trade of politicians, second-guessers, talking heads, op-ed writers and, yes, think tanks. I’ve written my share of shoulds. But the thinner my hair gets, the less I use the word should. Now I find myself bypassing authors whose stock-in-trade is shoulds.

Shoulds often become the ammunition of those who stay far away from the front lines. I’m way more interested in how than in should. All too often, shoulds become a substitute for how. If those who use the word should engaged more in the actuality of how, they would dispense more useful advice and we’d learn more from their writing.

Back when I was grading papers on my computer at the University of Virginia, whenever a plethora of shoulds, musts, and needs appeared in a student essay, I’d put them in bold and then type in capital letters THESE ARE NOT ANALYTICAL WORDS. A hard habit to break.

My research assistants and interns at Stimson are thankfully drawn to Washington to improve U.S. national security policy. Invariably, my least favorite words appear as they start drafting short writing assignments. We work on excising these words from their vocabulary. Aspiring wonks: my suggestion is to first demonstrate through value-added research why your elders “should” pay heed to your advice. And then, after doing so, continue to suppress the impulse of using the words should, need, and must.

Scolds and nags do serve a useful purpose by demanding higher standards of those who work on the front lines. But righteous indignation will wear out your welcome pretty quickly. Shoulds usually serve the psychic health of the disapprover more than the policy changes the disapprover wants. When the answer to how is should, outrage chases its tail. True prophetic voices are very rare. One way to identify them is the use the words “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not,” which is far more of an attention getter than “should.”


  1. Taylor (History)

    Okay, two thoughts:

    1) Among liberals and humanists and atheists and Democrats and others on the left, most everyone agrees about what “should” be happening with regards to nonproliferation and nuclear technology – global zero. So you make a fair point: those who hold this near-unanimous opinion need to move the discussion to “how.”

    2) This need to shift the discussion is amplified by the fact that the “shoulds” are getting less and less unanimous and persuasive, both among those on the left, and of course, among the rest of the population. Time is the enemy.

    Even the fiercest hawks have recently been known to wax poetic about getting to global zero…at some inevitably distant point in the future. But now those hawks are turning their hawk-eyes from Russia to China as justification for our next “refurbishment program,” the next build-up to preempt an arms race that some would argue is already quietly occurring with the rising dragon.

    Summary: Yes, we need to get people talking about next steps and we need to do it now, before China does something scary and the Republicans convince everyone that nuclear weapons will forever keep us safe from them.

  2. sanman (History)

    Dr Krepon,

    You’ve written more than your fair share of statements urging what India “should” do, but have provided little consideration of the consequences for India, should it act on your advice. Perhaps a branch-chain analysis that discusses the various scenarios that would likely result from key decisions would help.

    I still don’t understand why you’re surprised that Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. Far too many people have been hollering for the longest time that this was the case, while being ignored. I know I wasn’t surprised.

  3. cd (History)

    It might be something akin to the internetworking world’s usage, as laid out in RFC 2119.

  4. Lugo (History)

    The “is / ought” dilemma is not exactly a new one. David Hume, 1739:

    “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.”

    So we should not be surprised that it’s hard to derive “is zero” from “ought to be zero”, nor that the Left prefers to remain in the comfy safe waters of “should be zero” rather than founder on the reefs of how to get to zero in reality.

  5. Scott Monje (History)

    “Thou shalt”? Is that how we avoid the role of scolds and nags?

    What if we just say s****d?

  6. Adil (History)

    Michael – one more reason why you “need” to and “should” continue to write.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks, Adil.
      For you, I will double my allocation of shoulds.
      Best wishes,

  7. sanman (History)

    Here you go Dr Krepon, perhaps you’ll be willing to publish this one, since you won’t approve any of my other posts. At any rate, here’s something you might find worth watching.

    In the aftermath of the attacks on Pakistan’s Mehran naval base in Karachi, talkshow hosts and panelists wail over why Pakistan is in its predicament, and what to do about it:


    Pakistan always seems to be one major disaster away from introspection. Perhaps you should consider it too.

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