Monday, 18 July 2016

The Philosophical Muser Goes Nuclear

MPs are set to decide on whether to renew Britain's nuclear weapons program (Trident) in a Commons vote. Jeremy Corbyn, the Green Party, the SNP and quite a few MPs scattered across the Commons are against the renewal, whereas everyone else in Parliament is for it.

It’s obvious that the world is a much less safe place with the existence of nuclear weapons – so obvious, that in actual fact it is probably untrue. When we consider which groups of people are most likely to commit mass harm with nuclear weapons, it seems fairly obvious to me that the existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of countries that are least likely to want to commit mass harm with them (Britain, America, France, China, India) are a significant deterrent against those groups that could one day want to commit mass harm with them (Pakistan, North Korea).

And that's not to mention the harm that numerous dictatorships and terrorist organisations would be able to cause with nuclear capability. Europe is still mourning the damage that one maniac did with a lorry on the streets of Nice. You just wouldn't wish to contemplate how much devastation he and his fellow terrorists would love to cause with the world's most powerful weapons. It doesn't bear thinking about.

On the issue of the world being safer with nuclear weapons - some will be eager to remind me that the only time nuclear weapons have been deployed was by America against two cities in Japan in the Second World War. This is true, but although it was a hugely devastating attack, it probably catalysed the reality we’ve seen in every subsequent decade since, that the last thing the world needs is any more nuclear attacks. To put it another way, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were probably the genies that kept the rest of the world’s nuclear war potential well and truly lodged in the bottle.

Nuclear weapons are relatively expensive, but not as expensive as the 500 years’ worth of time, effort, money and natural resources that went into creating all the world’s peaceful democracies. If there is one thing about which we can positively, definitely be risk-averse, it is this. While nuclear weapons aren’t without their problems, it is insensible to risk their discontinuation, given the cost if it all goes wrong.

We cannot prove that the existence of nuclear weapons in the hands of the world’s most stable democracies is the main reason why there have been no nuclear attacks in the past 70 years, but it’s a hypothesis we cannot afford to risk being wrong about.

Arms as the cause of war as well as the tools for war?
Last September I went away to an interesting festival in London where one of the speakers was the distinguished writer Alan Storkey. He's an interesting and very nice chap, and his basic thesis is that the market effect of arms sales, and propaganda, are the biggest drivers of war, and that excessive supply and excessive sales benefits self-interested groups like arms manufacturers, which leads to creating propaganda-based distrust between nations.

This then has the dual effect of enriching arms suppliers and creating tension between nations that makes war more probable, and consequently means the market for arms plays a huge part in creating wars and engendering mass loss of lives.

I think a lot of what he has to say in that thesis is correct, but what I think it doesn't consider is that the high-end market for arms trading (particularly the kind of sophisticated technology that can cause mass loss of life) is a fairly recent thing - only a few hundred years old - yet humans in their tribal and national groups have been warring and causing mass deaths for centuries, way before they had the sophistication to trade arms or do each other harm on a global scale.

So while it could be argued that the injection of market incentives thanks to self-interested arms manufacturers certainly has added a lot more woe to the situation, history makes it quite clear that humans have pretty much always had a tendency to be in conflict.

What about gradual multilateral disarmament?
In his book War or Peace (a play on words of War and Peace) Alan Storkey also propounds an idea for a world of peace through the vehicle of a gradual ten year, 10% per year, disarmament process involving all nations. After mobilising nations worldwide, what would follow would be UN legislation for full multilateral disarmament over a ten year period, with a 10% cut in military expenditure each year for a decade.

I’m afraid, though, that while it sounds like a nice idea, and may in fact be something that could be implemented in the future, I see many problems with this kind of idealism in the current climate, not least the fact that the chances of all nations multilaterally signing up to this project are slim. Moreover, how are we supposed to enforce it except by the means Mr Storkey is trying to diminish – by nuclear deterrent? I’m not sure it would be as straightforward as Mr Storkey imagines.  

I personally think there are too many nations that do not share this goal and are too unstable and have too much sectarianism for this to be realistically achieved. You have to remember that it took us several hundred years to get to go from feudalism to the advanced, stable, prosperous nation we are now, and it's quite understandable that the risk-aversion to even slight dangers are prominently part of a nation's national defence (plus I don't think the Americans would make it very easy for us to unilaterally decommission our nuclear capabilities, although that's a whole other complex issue).

I think a common goal of not having nuclear weapons in the world is a noble one, and not entirely unrealistic as we might evolve over the next century or so to a position where nuclear threats are a thing of the past. But it's one we are not currently ready to pursue in the manner that our anti-Trident friends wish us to.