Friday, January 30, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament

Why does Britain need to invest in a new generation of nuclear weapons? There is no conceivable circumstance in which these weapons will ever be used, even in self-defence.

The old argument was that the possessors of nuclear weaponry would use their power wisely to deter other nations from developing such weapons. This has clearly failed. There is no credible threat of ever using nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea, let alone any non-state terrorist organization; the fact of proliferation is therefore completely uninfluenced by the fact that the Western powers have some expensive and untested nuclear warheads corroding in a bunker somewhere.

The supporters of multi-lateral disarmament say that it would be an excellent thing if everyone were to abandon nuclear weapons at the same time. But they don't believe that Britain's taking a unilateral move away from the possession of nuclear weapons will persuade any other country to disarm. Therefore we must continue to develop ever more advanced nuclear weapons. I heard the Foreign Secretary David Miliband putting this argument on the BBC News this evening.

Unilateral disarmament is traditionally associated with liberal philosophers and left-wing Christians - from Bertrand Russell to Bruce Kent. However, an increasing number of military top brass are openly questioning the acquisition of nuclear weapons that can never be used. [Generals in 'scrap Trident' call BBC News 16 January 2009. General calls for Trident rethink, BBC News 29 January 2009]

In the past, some supporters of unilateral disarmament have put forward the view that we don't have to wait for others to disarm, we can set a moral example. Once we lay down our arms, other countries will be shamed into doing the same.

Supporters of multilateral disarmament believe this is unlikely, and perhaps they are right. But they go on to draw a fallacious conclusion - that because our abandoning the bomb would have no effect on other countries, therefore there is no purpose in our abandoning the bomb, therefore we should keep it.

In other words, they are still hoping to use the bomb - not as a way of killing millions of innocent citizens but as a bargaining chip in some game of international politics. Keeping the bomb allows us a seat at a diplomatic table at which no meaningful agreement is ever going to be reached. What a wonderful way of spending $20bn of taxpayers' money.

See also

Jeremy Bernstein, Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete? (NYR Blogs, April 2010)


Robin Wilton said...

And what's the point of procuring 2 capital ships which we could never safely deploy, because we don't have enough other assets to surround and protect them with...? Or any planes to launch off them. Belief-beggaring stroke of genius: get rid of Harriers and *then* order new aircraft carriers... [sigh]

Richard Veryard said...

Obviously there are many stupid decisions in Government procurement - both military and civilian - and Robin points to another example.

But I think there is an important difference between his example and mine. Robin is not saying it's a bad idea to have ships, merely that it's bad planning to have ships without all the other assets to make them work. With Trident, the argument (put strongly by military top brass as well as by pacifists) is that it's a bad idea in the first place, no matter how well planned.

As it happens, I'm in the middle of re-reading Churchman (Systems Approach and its Enemies). Churchman identifies three types of planner.

1. The goal-planner takes the goals as given, and would be perfectly capable of procuring a ship if that was the goal, without considering what else the ship might need.

2. The objective-planner would at least put the ship into some kind of use-context and perhaps avoid the planning error Robin describes.

3. The ideal-planner is the only one of the three to ask what purpose something serves.

On this blog I'm particularly interested in the question of purpose. So I am not just complaining that Trident is a waste of money, but that it is a purposeless waste of money. I think there's a difference.