THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that nuclear arms rank among the most destructive instruments of human ingenuity ever devised; there is no doubt that any global war involving their widespread use will either enslave the handful of survivors or be so lethal as to ensure there are none. The best possible intentions envisage a world without nuclear weapons, but the real world and its realities dictate that only a fool would ever attempt to realise such an objective.
I have been reading a story from the Fairfax press today, which reports on a meeting of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative in Hiroshima; this event was attended by the foreign ministers of 12 non-nuclear countries, and unsurprisingly featured survivors of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 as advocates for the outright banning of the possession of nuclear weapons worldwide.
Their call failed to elicit a commitment from the delegation to such an end; thank goodness it did.
I think nuclear weapons are horrific instruments of warfare; it is virtually impossible to use them without killing thousands — perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands — of innocent civilians every time such a bomb is deployed, even if the intended military or strategic target is destroyed.
I also generally believe that nuclear-armed nations should refrain from any first use of nuclear weapons.
There are exceptions: during the first Gulf War, US President George H.W. Bush issued a barely veiled warning to Saddam Hussein that any use of chemical and/or biological weapons on Allied troops would elicit a nuclear response on Baghdad; in the wake of the terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, many commentators (including me) openly advocated nuclear retaliation if the attacks could be conclusively linked to either a foreign government or state-sponsored terrorist attack (they couldn’t).
But these are rare (and thankfully isolated) instances of unprovoked aggression warranting a nuclear response that, fortunately, failed to materialise, and I contend that provided there is enough restraint on the part of nuclear-armed powers to refuse to be the first to launch, this at least is one safeguard against the prospect of general nuclear warfare that would decimate civilisation as we know it.
Where the equation starts to blur is around notions of deterrence and nuclear blackmail; the weapons don’t need to be actually used to either safeguard their owners from attack or to achieve sinister objectives under duress. I don’t even think lunatics like the regime in North Korea envisage nuclear retaliation for an unprovoked atomic attack raining down upon it with any relish; it is fair to say that even the most hardened despots find the prospect of their own nuclear annihilation abhorrent, even if their regard for that of others is cavalier at best. Thus, the irony is that it is on the very questions of deterrence and blackmail that the root of the debate over nuclear arms resides.
The conference in Japan to which the Fairfax report pertains — staged, as it was, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine — even noted that the Russian action may not have occurred had Ukraine not ceded the nuclear arsenal it inherited upon the collapse of the USSR back to Russia in 1992: I’d say it’s a very fair assumption to make, given nobody would have intervened in the interests of either side had a localised Russia-Ukraine nuclear exchange erupted over Crimea. (Yes, I am aware of the issue of fallout such a regional conflict would impose on surrounding countries. My point is that those countries and their allies would hardly worsen the problem by inviting the spread of the conflict itself onto their soil).
Whilst that scenario is obviously a hypothetical one, a live version of it was played out early last decade between belligerently nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; these are countries whose religiously based hatreds run deep, and whose military planners for a long time viewed nuclear weaponry as simply the latest — and most potent — thing to lob at each other should they return to a state of war, most notably over the disputed border region of Kashmir.
At the time, wiser heads prevailed upon both sides to cool the tensions that led perilously close to war. But the undercurrents that remain could as easily be stirred anew: shortly after the last explosive crisis was defused more than a decade ago, India’s nationalist, right-wing BJP government was defeated by the Centrist Congress Party; that wheel has now turned full circle, with the BJP expected to return to office in a landslide in elections underway as we speak after two terms in the wilderness. And Pakistan is hardly a country noted for its stability or security, and in which a hardline military junta could seize power at any time — just as it did in 1999. Unlike the hypothetical Eurasian scenario, the variables in this regional powderkeg remain just as volatile, and heavily armed with nuclear weapons to boot.
One of the reasons there is no serious talk of military assistance to Ukraine and against Russian aggression is because Western powers know it is action they cannot take: nuclear-armed Russia might respond by engaging in conventional warfare. But there is no guarantee that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t select the nuclear response available to him, either.
I can hear my critics. Doesn’t all of this speak for — rather than against — the abolition of nuclear weapons?
Margaret Thatcher once said (of a proposal by President Gorbachev for the USA and the USSR to unilaterally disarm, which Ronald Reagan contemplated agreeing to) that you could no more “disinvent” nuclear weapons than you could “disinvent” dynamite: from her perspective, which was that of the Anglo-American alliance, if others had them, then Britain and the US must have them as well.
She was absolutely right, much to the horror of the CND activists who momentarily believed their wildest dreams would come true.
For one thing, for the abolition (or banning, elimination, whatever you want to call it) of nuclear weapons to be feasible, there must be trust among the stakeholders involved; I point directly to the Kremlin, noting that the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine — whilst not involving nuclear weapons, or at least, not yet — are evidence enough of the repercussions in such situations where one side simply disregards the imperatives of the other.
Does anyone seriously think that if Russia agreed to unilaterally destroy its nuclear arsenal that it would honour the deal? It might permit international inspectorates to monitor the dismantling of x number of warheads. But Russia — not to put too fine a point on things — has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Who would risk the security of the entire free world on a potentially empty promise from its government?
For another, there are those states that either refuse to officially confirm the existence of their nuclear arms (Israel) or refuse to sign instruments aimed at the control of nuclear weapons and curbing their proliferation (India, Pakistan, North Korea). North Korea in particular is unlikely to ever voluntarily surrender what limited number of warheads it possesses; it also has a recent history of being led by lunatics hellbent on inciting anti-US hatred among its population. A denuclearised America would face the very real prospect of a North Korean container ship being sailed into San Francisco Harbour, and…kaboom.
It is well known that China’s military mischief in recent years — principally over matters of disputed territory that it pushes claims over with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam — have been constantly ratcheted up and underpinned by the nuclear muscle to settle any or all of them at a stroke if required; one of the realities that constrains China from doing so is the fact Uncle Sam would retaliate in kind and in such a fashion that there simply wouldn’t be a China (a scenario which also raises — depending on whose version of geopolitical allegiances you listen to — the prospect of Russia coming to China’s aid against the US).
In all of these cases, the very existence of nuclear weapons on one side of a given equation is a balance and a restraint on the other from using its own. It isn’t an ideal situation by any stretch. But it has prevented nuclear conflict since World War II, and certainly since the USSR achieved an offensive atomic capability of its own to match the United States in 1949.
And there is no guarantee whatsoever that the scenario regularly presented by the younger President Bush — that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists, whether sold by a rogue government or stolen, that can then be used against countries like the USA and its allies — will never happen. In fact, an international disposal operation of tens of thousands of warheads would increase the likelihood of precisely that occurring, given the heightened difficulties in accounting for every warhead during such a massive undertaking, and verifying and documenting the dismantling and destruction of their components.
We’ve only touched on a handful of the world’s hotspots and the hypothetical scenarios and permutations they conjure up. There is no shortage of others. But to fundamentally alter the uneasy nuclear balance that has evolved over almost 70 years is, to my mind, to fundamentally undermine international security and heighten — not eliminate — the risk of an unprovoked nuclear attack occurring somewhere in the world.
Do I deny the risk of nuclear accidents? Of course I don’t.
Do I deny the possibility of a sneak nuclear attack occurring as things stand? Of course not.
Do I deny the horrific suffering inflicted on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945? Of course I don’t.
And — except for the attacks in New York in 2001 — I don’t think any of the world’s conflicts since 1945 should have been settled using nuclear weapons; 2001 is a moot point, as there was no identifiable enemy against whom to retaliate in such a tangible fashion.
(And anti-Iraq War people: don’t read more into that than it says at face value; Hussein had to be overthrown and the US was right to do it, even if the “intelligence” provided by the Blair government that justified the operation subsequently proved to be largely incorrect).
Even if the eight known nuclear-armed countries pledged to irreversibly dispose of their nuclear arsenals (and even if, by some miracle, North Korea actually did it) there are three considerations that cannot be discounted, and the existence of any of them should be a bar at least to our friends in the US and the UK, in our interests and theirs, from dismantling their arsenals.
1. Someone might hold out: someone might retain a “secret stash.” It’s not impossible by any stretch.
2. Someone else might have nukes and/or sell them to stateless third parties who then act independently to launch against a disarmed Western country stripped of the deterrent of the US-UK nuclear umbrella.
And (most importantly) 3. Destroy the warheads by all means, but the technology would still exist. There are already those, such as rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who have proliferated this technology to North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and God alone knows who else. The knowledge is too widespread to be wiped from existence, and too valuable not to be preserved. It will always exist. Any belief to the contrary is, frankly, so intellectually negligent as to defy belief. And for as long as it exists, the threat posed by nuclear weaponry will exist as well.
The “goal of a world free of nuclear weapons” is a noble one, but it can never happen: in this vein, the foreign ministers at the Hiroshima conference were right to resist the call to ban nuclear weaponry outright, and it is a matter of some small mercy that its recommendation to ban the production of “fissile material for nuclear weapons” will carry so little weight as to never be enacted.
In Fairyland, there will never be nuclear war. In the real world, the prospect of it can never be entirely discounted. The hard, cold reality is that deterrence is a better option than a state of disarmed helplessness. Only a fool would suggest the latter is in any way preferable.