DAVROS vs. Dr. EVIL

1 December 2006

[I]t is a constant failing of the disarmament lobby to try to ascribe values of reasonableness, tolerance, goodwill and peaceful intent to states under the control of despots, fanatics and dictators.

Thus Julian Lewis lambasts the disarmament lobby.  Only threat of deadly overwhelming retaliation could stop a despot launching a massive attack upon us.

How strong is Lewis’ point?  Hitler, trapped in his Berlin bunker as the Red Army approached, thought the failure of his ambitions indicted the whole of Germany and that the punishment should be destruction.  If he had had nuclear weapons at this point he would have launched them, and welcomed the retaliation: this is incontestable.

So the deterrent doesn’t work against really mad Dictators.  And against the more reasonable Dictator, most interested in screwing over his own population to keep the country’s debt payments flowing (the sort entertained by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), there’s no need for a deterrence.  What can we say about the middle ground?

The sort of dictator who would be deterred by Trident will be:

– interested in conquest

– seriously thinking about using nuclear weapons

– oblivious to public health risks of his people should they be downwind of the proposed target

– not amenable to rational persuasion that launching the nukes in the first place would not really be cricket

– concerned for his self-preservation (or that of his compatriots).

A 1980s biography of Qaddafi that I read implied that he might be such a person. According to the author of the biog, Qaddafi sent officials around the world to acquire a nuclear weapon without a clear idea of just how serious a weapon it would be, and was rebuffed.  It was claimed, if I remember the book right, that he was thinking of nuking Israel (though it may have been Egypt). 

So perhaps here we have our candidate.  It is a very serious matter to impute such ignorance and such evil intent to another human without hard evidence (Hitler, at least, put his auto-genocidal thoughts on record).  The question is: if Qaddafi had got a bomb, would it only have been the thought of nuclear retaliation that would have stopped him using it.  His diplomatic record throughout the 80s is diabolical, but can (maybe) be read as a rational pursuit of extremely sectoral interests in Libya – and if it is rational, then perhaps rational considerations about retailation would have stopped him using it.

The fact that he didn’t get the Bomb, though, is either testimony to the NPT, which we would be effectively be giving up if we replace Trident; or testimony to the fact that the groups he approached to get the bomb were so convinced of his irrationality that they thought that the thought of nuclear retaliation would not deter him.  If the former, then that tells in favour of losing Trident but and strengthening the NPT; if the latter, then we’ve not yet found a real candidate of someone evil enough to think of using the bomb, but rational enough to be scared off by the consequences.

Which other mad dictators should we consider instead?

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UK Independence

1 December 2006

A terrible letter to the Independent earlier this week complained about the awesome destructive capabilities of Trident.  The author could only assume that Trident was a dreadful weapon of revenge, but so dreadful that no one would be able to assume the moral burden of unleashing it.  Perfectly correct points – but the letter put them in the wrong part of the argument.  A better (pro-Trident) letter pointed out two days later that the whole point of Trident is that it is dreadful.  It’s not meant to be used: it’s meant to deter people from attacking us in fear that it should be used.  The active part of Trident is the fear. This correspondent concluded that the UK would be unwise to give up its weapon of fear in such an uncertain world climate.

This might be a good point if we could somehow abstract the UK from the rest of the world, if all the uncertainty in the world could be shown to be utterly independent of our own actions, while still being something that we should guard against.  But there is no such independence.  Our actions are partial causes of the global climate, and our actions can contribute to its transformation.  The hope is that by giving up Trident we might persuade some other nuclear-seekers to give up likewise.  Whereas if we keep it we in effect say to the rest of the world that we’re looking for trouble; trouble which will – if the nuclear non-proliferation treaty breaks down entirely – not be so long in coming. 

Ben Young


Trident versus Foxes

17 November 2006

The two most popular petitions on the new “petition the Prime Minister” website are to reverse the fox hunting ban, and not to replace Trident.  Right now, the anti-fox lobby has four times as much support as the anti-nuke lobby, but one thousand people signed the anti-Trident petition in the first 24 hours, so this is going to change.

I put up the anti-Trident petition, and it is based on the ideas we’ve explored in this blog.  I don’t agree with the argument that Trident should be abandoned because the money will better be used for development: this is a side track.  And I reject arguments that it should be got rid of because it is secretly being controlled by the US: even if this was true (and I don’t think it is), it would be at best irrelevant.  I am not even sure about arguments that Trident should be got rid of because it is immoral: it is arguable that Trident is just a tool, and that a tool has no intrinsic moral properties; for another, it seems possible that the moral course of action can lead to a situation which is worse for all.  Might it be that by rejecting Trident the UK would sacrifice actual security for the sake of the moral high ground?  Actually, I don’t think this is the case – but the UK would have to do more than just get rid of Trident: we would have to get rid of it, and then proselytise widely for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Ultimately, I think that by getting rid of Trident we will make the world a safer place.  For the world does not see the UK the way we see ourselves.  On the whole, UK citizens think the UK is essentially responsible, moral and pursuing the greater good.  Others look at our weapons, our support for the Iraq war, our luxury and over-development, and think otherwise; some arm themselves in fear of us.  In fact, looks like a new nuclear arms race has begun. 

I want the UK to live up to the ideals that I have of it.  I think that we are responsible and moral and I do basically have faith in the way our democracy works – bruised faith, right enough, but still there.  I think we can prove this to the world: we can get rid of Trident, and then – as smug as we like – become world ambassadors for the non-proliferation treaty. 

If you agree, please sign the petition!

And if you don’t agree, go ahead and sign the counter petition!

Ben Young


Giving it up: The case of South Africa

10 October 2006

North Korea going nuclear should be an occasion to reflect that plenty of countries have given up the Bomb: South Africa, for example, had built six nuclear bombs under apartheid, and now has none.

Speaking on the BBC Word Service this lunchtime, Professor Renfrew Christie (University of the Western Cape) described the circumstances through which South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons programme. For one thing, the ANC didn’t want the weapons; for another, the US had carried out a “Hostile Nations Contingency Planning Exercise” which had decided that Nelson Mandela would pass nuclear secrets to Gaddafi in Libya. Christie commented that this was nonsense, proposing that the US’s real concern had been to prevent the Bomb falling into “non-white hands”. “The West would not support a democratic settlement [in South Africa] unless the Bomb was not there.” This suited the ANC, which didn’t want the Bomb anyway.

This seems at odds, though, with ex-AEC head Waldo Stumpf’s statement that “official date of implementation of the termination of South Africa’s weapons program” is 26th February 1990.

Ben at Ken Yersel


Edinburgh Book Festival: Mark Thomas is wrong about Trident!

20 August 2006

Mark Thomas, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, said that he thought the decision to replace Trident had already been taken. I don’t think this is a helpful comment; nor do I think it’s true.

Even if the decision had been taken it would be possible to reverse it, so it would be worth pursuing the arguments against replacement anyway. But why should we think it has been taken at all? One reason might be that Gordon Brown said he backed replacement in his speech at Mansion House on the 21st June 2006.

There was a huge outcry in response to this. In fact, it galvanised the anti-nuclear lobby, boosted CND membership (out of the doldrums) and prompted influential people to speak out against it (in Scotland: the two principal religious leaders, the Cardinal and the Moderator). People couldn’t believe the gift Brown had made to the cause of disarmament.

Does Gordon Brown’s speech provide any actual evidence that he is in favour of Trident replacement? Being bound by Cabinet Collective Reponsibility, he cannot say anything else, so we might think (in a Chomskian mode) that his statements in favour of it are predictable and carry no real information.

We might go further: perhaps it is possible that Brown anticipated the response that his announcement would elicit; if he did, then perhaps this was a preemptive challenge to the disarmament lobby (a view expressed here).

But might it have been something else? Perhaps he actually wanted to provoke greater anti-nuclear political activity. It’s a fair bet that Brown will become Prime Minister soon, and when he does, presiding over disarmament would be a way for him to make his stamp on history – something on which he has already been shown to be keen. A strong and coherent disarmament movement might be the excuse he needs to assert a break with the past, prove that he listens to the public and make his mark on history.

This could be speculation pushed too far; but it should at least give pause to those who think that Trident replacement is a done deal. My view is that the evidence is unclear, and that given this we should pursue meaningful debate in the hope that there is still everything to play for.


UK Independence

17 August 2006

International Affairs (vol.82, no.4 July 2006) has published a collection of papers entitled “The future of United Kingdom nuclear weapons: shaping the debate”. Michael Quinlan’s paper in the collection surveys the arguments over replacement, concluding that there is no clear cut argument either way, and that the decision should turn on a detailed cost-benefit analysis – an analysis, however, which it is not currently possible to perform due to the dearth of information from the UK Government about what options are being considered.

Amongst other things, Quinlan discusses the claim that that the UK does not possess an independent nuclear deterrent because its weapons are essentially dependent on the US. He considers three ways in which this claim might be made out:

(1) it could be argued that the UK does not have an independent deterrent because the nuclear weapons are bought from, and serviced by, the US. The latter is true, but, he argues, it does not show that they are “dependent” in the relevant sense: if I buy a car from a Ford garage, and sign a service agreement with Ford, this does not make my use of the car dependent on Ford.

(2) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are operationally dependent on the US because they could not be launched without targetting information which can only be provided by the US. He says that the best available evidence is that this is not true (citing oral evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee, 28th March 2006, questions 152-160).

(3) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are politically dependent on the US since no UK government could act against the US’ wishes in using them. He rejects this, saying that there is no sanction that the US could employ to influence the UK’s decision on something as grave as the use of a nuclear weapon.

This third argument could be elaborated: if the claim is that the UK’s weapons are dependent on the US because the US might be able to stop the UK using a weapon when the UK wanted to, then this is not something that anti-Trident campaigners should be against! I would be quite happy if the US had this power over the UK! So the relevant claim must be that the US might be able to make the UK use a nuclear weapon against the wishes of the British government of the day. Quinlan can’t see any way in which this could happen.

Arguing against Trident on the basis that it is dependent on the US makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of a mistake that some alterglobalisationists make when arguing against privatisation of public utilities: I’ve heard it implied that privatisation is bad solely because the company might fall into the ownership of a foreign national. This seems dangerously parochial; similarly, to object to Trident on the grounds that someone else apart from the UK might fire it seems to miss the point. We don’t want anyone to fire it!


Chill out and have a drink

13 August 2006

On Saturday lunchtime I was desperate for a plate of couscous, and I was just about to go into Edinburgh’s best cafe (“Uncle T’s”) when a big antiwar march steamed past and I was carried away.

It wasn’t entirely clear what the march was about: many people there were just pro-peace in general. Others went further, some making the strikingly false claim that “we are all Palestinians”, others complaining about the insufficent radicality of other marchers.

I couldn’t find a marcher who was pro-Trident, even though Trident is claimed to be a way of perpetuating peace; but the march was nonetheless a good chance to air the fundamental issues.

The deterrence argument for keeping Trident got short shrift: marchers argued that nukes can’t deter conventional weapons attacks, since any nuclear response would be disproportionate (and since non-state actors don’t present easy targets or worse come from the cities of the very state they are attacking). So they can only deter nuclear attacks from other nuclear powers. Well, it looks like this is as good a reason as any to keep them! But there is something fishy here.

If it is true that a nuclear power can’t launch a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear one, then getting rid of Trident would be the best deterrent. So it must be that people who are pro-Trident are seriously envisaging that there will come a time when a nuclear power will be thinking about launching a nuclear attack on the UK.

I wonder whether extreme scenarios like this should even be considered when making public policy. Think of a parallel: philosophers often discuss the possibility that they have had their brains removed and placed in fish tanks and that this whole world is an illusion – but they never suggest that consideration of these extreme cases is meant to be an actual guide to life. They are purely thought experiments; and if you find yourself getting too caught up in them you ought, David Hume suggested, to invite a few mates round, have a drink and play a few board games.

Maybe something similar could hold for defence policy too: once you’ve started scaring yourself with nuclear attack scenarios, a nuclear deterrent is going to seem essential. Maybe the answer is just to chill out a bit — and this could apply to people on peace marches too.