If you encounter news about nuclear weapons in one of the mainstream newspapers, or online, or see them mentioned briefly on TV, most likely the focus will be on Iran – which has no nuclear weapons – or on North Korea, which possesses fewer than ten.
We’re warned, by politicians and the mainstream media, of the great danger Iran poses (or would, if it had any nukes), and the existential threat we face from Kim Jong Il’s regime, and the need to maintain crippling economic sanctions against both countries. Think of the grave danger their nukes present! The Iranians have none. The North Koreans have eight, maybe, but no reliable delivery system. While the United States has four thousand viable nukes, almost two thousand of them on operational alert.
So we live in fear.
But fear of what? Fear of imaginary or hypothetical dangers? Or fear, perhaps, of our own political class and military-industrial complex — that they may not be able to maintain their “balance of terror” much longer, and that the nuclear war-fighting structure they have built with our money may yet end up being used.
A nuclear war sparked by accident, by a computer error, or through exasperation and in defense of “credibility” by fallible, not-too imaginative humans, is possible. An English government spokesman put it thus:
“North Korea seem to think possessing a nuclear
weapon makes them safe. In fact it’s the opposite.
Having a nuclear weapon makes them a target.”
That was the then-foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, commenting on a North Korean weapons test. But his statement applies to England too – a major nuclear target for her “enemies” because of her inventory of nukes and the presence of American military bases in the UK.
England’s nukes are aimed, one assumes, at Russia. The Russians know this (almost certainly they know more about English nuclear weapons and war-fighting plans than the English public does), and so they have presumably targeted air bases, power stations, and population centers in Britain, with thermonuclear bombs.
Rich nations which have substantial armed forces and face no danger of foreign military invasion. So they have brought danger on themselves, of an even worse kind, by developing nuclear weapons. As Strath observed, it might only take a dozen bombs to cause societal collapse, a small investment of Russia’s total nuclear capital.
Nuclear weapons invite war in three ways: by their use, by accident, and as targets for other nuclear weapons. As the British foreign minister said, possession of nukes invites preemptive strikes by one’s enemies.
Why do we have enemies? On a personal level I have very few, in fact I cannot think of one. If I encounter people of whom I don’t approve, I move on. There are so many nice people in the world! Why do nations have to have enemies? It might be argued that nations are not people, and can’t be dealt with on the same terms. I would agree: part of the problem is when societies fall for the notion of national “character” and end up acting like a bully or the neighbourhood sociopath.
President Kennedy said:
“No government or social system is so evil that its people
must be considered as lacking in virtue. In the final analysis…
we all breathe the same air… and we are all mortal.”
No nation is inherently bad. When politicians expend energy demonizing a foreign country, intelligence agents and media concubines go to work. Destabilization campaigns – like many government projects – take on a life of their own, and continue long after the politician who initiated them is dead, or in prison. Consider US Caribbean policy: the overthrow of the governments of Cuba, or Nicaragua, were long term projects with military and political support, involved alliances with drug dealers and other mafiosi, and required many media hours and written pieces demonizing the small country’s government, and by extension the country itself.
Fortunately neither Nicaragua nor Cuba was or is a hair-trigger-alert nuclear power. Let us consider Russia: a larger nation with vast resources and its own industrial base. Russia has a much smaller military than the United States, but compensates by possessing nuclear weapons equal to those of the Americans, and 25 times larger than anybody else’s.
Who threatens Russia? Only the United States. And the US’s allies in NATO – nuclear powers Britain and France, plus Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who store American nukes, plus Poland and the new NATO countries bordering Russia, where the US “Strategic Defense Initiative” is being deployed.
Who does Russia threaten? All of the above, presumably.
Who else do the US and NATO threaten? Pretty much every other country in the world, in the light of the Bush Doctrine, by which President George W. Bush reserved the right to use any and all weapons, preemptively, against any adversary. But this was likely always the case. And in reality the US and NATO are unlikely to attack Venezuela, or Argentina, or most other countries, with atom bombs. China is a different case, given her great size and economic power, and her territorial claims to Taiwan and elsewhere, which the US disputes. China has a slowly-growing nuclear weapons force, not on hair-trigger alert. China’s possession of nukes is presumably for “credibility” – possessing 200+ nuclear weapons of her own, she is less likely to submit to nuclear blackmail, even by a greater power.
Who threatens Israel, possessor of 80 to 100 nukes? A current nuclear threat to Israel is hard to conceive of. Will other Middle Eastern states acquire nukes to counter a perceived Israeli advantage and assert their “credibility”? Saudi Arabia has close ties to Pakistan and its nuclear-armed military. While western journalists focused on Iran, the Emirates have been developing their own nuclear power capability.
Who threatens India, and Pakistan? Both countries have similarly-sized arsenals, with which they threaten each other. In October 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aitzaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Pakistan was prepared to use “tactical” nukes in a conflict with India. And in April 2016, the Indian Army conducted massive war games – designed to counter nuclear bomb attacks – in the desert bordering Pakistan.
It all sounds so terrible and doom-laden… until you step back and realize that we are only talking a handful of nations here. Some very big nations are included, but there still aren’t very many nuclear-weapons powers.
The majority of countries do not own nuclear weapons and don’t seek to acquire them. It’s possible to be a highly successful and productive nation state without them: Canada, Scandinavia, Japan, Brazil and South Korea all manage this.
“Ah, but Japan and South Korea are protected by the US nuclear umbrella!” This theory as threadbare as the nuclear triad theory or the domino one. Who threatens Japan and South Korea? Presumably China and North Korea. Has the US “umbrella” prevented China and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, or has it encouraged them to do so?
In every case, acquiring nukes or basing your policy around their use makes you a target. It does exactly what you don’t want — it encourages your enemies to acquire nuclear bombs.
Two last ditch arguments in favor of nuclear weapons: Rogue States, and Terrorism.
Kim Ryan and I went to see the Conservative Party shadow defense minister back in New Labour days. He bought us a canteen lunch in the House of Commons and we asked him why London wouldn’t show the way by dumping Trident, taking the high road, saving a lot of money, etc. His answer: “Saddam.” That was the official thinking. What if some foreign dictator got their own nuke, and we had none? They could blackmail us!
This was not profound. It is still very difficult to create a nuclear bomb. This is one reason only national governments with advanced technology have them. Satellites and other intelligence operations give intelligence agencies a very good idea of what is going on, all over the world. It would be impossible for a “rogue state” to develop a nuclear weapons industry from scratch, in secret (unless they already have a nuclear power industry, in which case it’s much easier — as we shall see). And if some foreign tyrant were able to secretly build a nuclear bomb, he or she would still need a delivery system for it to reach its target.
But what if “Saddam” succeeded? What if his boffins built a dirty bomb, and brought it over in a shipping container, and exploded it in one of our cities, like in that Ben Afflick movie, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS? Well, it would be horrible – much worse than the Hollywood nuclear-terror-lite Ben had to stumble through. But it would be a one-off. And the retaliation against the perpetrator state (even absent nukes, the US military would still be the world’s largest, by a massive proportion) would be devastating, non-nuclear or not.
What about nuclear terrorism, then? What if terrorists built a bomb?
Again, building an atomic bomb is very difficult. A greater danger is that a nuke might be stolen, or acquired on the black market — something which can’t happen once they are decommissioned. And again, how does possession of nukes prevent one from being attacked with nukes? In the event of a terrorist attack, possession of nukes by the victim state is a propaganda victory for the terrorist, underlining the nuclear power’s impotence — how can it respond proportionately, using its nuclear might, against a non-state actor?
Nukes are city-busting weapons. They are inappropriate and useless against small networks of individuals who don’t stay in one place or respect borders.
To raise the rogue state or terror argument is to make the case for nuclear disarmament.
(Today the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced it was moving the hands of its “doomsday clock” half a minute closer to midnight.)
ADDENDUM TO PART II
The press has just reported a June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida, which went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, fired a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.
Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.
The Guardian defense correspondent, Ewen MacAskill, writes (Jan 22 2017), “the case made by proponents of the nuclear weapon is that any attack on the UK will result in inevitable retaliation. The whole basis of the argument is undercut if the UK cannot guarantee that it is capable of hitting the right target or even the [right] country.”