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?

Jack McConnell’s views on Trident replacement

15 September 2006

As the Long Walk for Peace set off from the Faslane Naval base (home of the Trident nuclear weapons system), Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell engaged in an impromptu debate on Trident replacement with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. 

Given McConnell’s background (Scottish, for example), and in the light of his choice of phrases at First Minister’s Question time, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that McConnell is personally against Trident replacement; but naturally he’s restricted in what he can say as head of the Scottish Labour party. 

His view is that there should be a public debate, and that there are three options of which only two are viable: (1) keep Trident; (2) use the possibility that the UK might not replace Trident as a bargaining tool in persuading eg. Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons programme; (3) just not replace Trident.  He called the third option “irresponsible and pre-emptive”, and attacked the SNP for countenancing giving up something for nothing.  He seemed to prefer option (2), which earned him a predictable attack from the Scotsman newspaper which found someone in Westminster who was willing to insult McConnell off the record, calling his second option “stupid” and “completely ridiculous”.

In fact, it is not stupid or completely ridiculous.  As Julian Lewis argues, the only rational reason to possess nuclear arms is to dissuade others from attacking one with nuclear force; if Britain had no nuclear weapons, Iran (say) would feel marginally less threatened and would be marginally less likely to pursue weapons development (if it actually is).

McConnell’s idea is not ridiculous, but still there are some problems with it.  For one thing, as any fule no, the UK’s nuclear weapons are only for defence, so Iran ought not to feel threatened by us in the first place.  Sadly, though, many people have difficulty telling the UK’s foreign policy apart from the US’ (a point lamented by Jimmy Carter the other night), and, since the US apparently now countenances premptive strikes, some might need an actual gesture of disarmament to convince them of the UK’s peaceful intent.

It might also be objected that McConnell overstates the UK’s significance in the world.  Julian Lewis is probably right that our not replacing Trident would not directly lead anyone else to curb their nuclear ambitions.  However, there could be an indirect benefit: by dropping its nuclear weapons, the UK would distance itself from US foreign policy, and enter into the club of middle powers which are allies of the US while being able to criticise it where necessary.  This would be a small but important step towards creating a more balanced distribution of power in the world.

This is a benefit which accrues to the UK whether or not it explictly uses non-replacement as a chip in negotiations with others.  There is, then, no scenario in which the UK gives up something and gets nothing in return, and so McConnell’s options (2) and (3) amount to the same thing.  So thus I think he, too, is anti-Trident. 

Is anyone in power REALLY in favour of it?

Julian Lewis’ nuclear arguments

3 September 2006

Julian Lewis MP‘s article in International Affairs 82 (4) July 2006, p.667-673 (but also available here) contains an extremely clear and forceful presentation of the arguments against disarmament. Part of its power lies in the historical detail and speculation which makes the reader feel the fear that militates in favour of a deterrent; but here’s a summary of some of his main claims:

1. No tool has intrinsic moral properties, therefore there is nothing intrinsically immoral about nuclear weapons. Morals come into the picture only when we consider the uses to which a tool is put, and though it is wrong implicitly to threaten others with destruction, this wrong is justified by the much greater wrong which it averts (namely, an attack by massive weapons of destruction on the UK).

2. There is a need for a general and flexible deterrent like Trident, because wars break out unpredictably and we can’t know where or when the new threat will arise. We can understand where a war came from in hindsight, but can’t predict it.

3. The disarmament lobby underestimates how dangerous the world is: “it 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.”

4. There is no causal link between our possession of nuclear weapons and another country’s desire to acquire them: so the purpose of wider disarmament will not be furthered if the UK gives up its nuclear weapons. In fact, it will encourage other countries to attack us.

These arguments seem compelling, but (as argued by KCA77 in the previous post) their logical conclusion seems to be that every state should possess a deterrent – but this is an outrageous conclusion since then acccidental detonation or accidental war would be a near-certainty. Lewis might argue that to avoid this state of affairs, the peace-loving nuclear weapons states should club together to prevent other states getting nuclear weapons! – Exactly what was meant to be happening, before the NPT fell apart.

What do you think? Please comment!

Ben @ kenyersel