Against Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament

Against Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament

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Only a heartless psychopath would take any joy from detonating an atomic bomb in an act of war. The destructive potential of today's array of atomic weaponry far dwarfs the two nuclear bombs that ended the Second World War. Nuclear conflict has the potential to literally turn millions or even billions of people to dust, and (if enough bombs are used) even to end civilization as we know it.

That said, I passionately disagree with Jeremy Corbyn's argument against using nuclear bombs, and his call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. In fact I tend to see nuclear weaponry as a key peacemaker, and a very major force in creating the conditions for the last seventy years of growth and prosperity we have seen since the end of that terrible war.

One major factor in this is because of the power of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent.

Simply put, nuclear bombs are a form of skin in the game for national leaders. Historically, national and military leaders the potential for millions of deaths did not discourage national and military leaders from going to war. But war against a foe with nuclear weaponry threatens something so terrible and almost inescapable — complete annihilation — that it seems to act as an effective deterrent. 

And so in the nuclear era, the great powers have not fought each other directly. Great powers may engage in proxy warfare with one another, such as the Vietnam war, the Korean war, and the present conflict in Syria. Yet — unlike prior to the invention of nuclear bombs, and the advent of mutually assured destruction — direct conflict remains a thing of the past. 

And the data bears this out. Worldwide war deaths are down substantially since the pre-nuclear era. There are still wars, but the effects are much less deadly:

Of course, mutually assured destruction is far from the only factor in creating these conditions. As Stephen Pinker suggests, we have seen very major cultural and social changes in the intervening years since World War 2, fuelled by mass communication technology, agricultural technology, medical technology, transportational technology, computing technology, and ethical and moral advances that have combined to pacify the developed world, and increasingly the entire globe.

But mutually assured destruction has been there in the background, the horror whose name we do not speak. And leaders who reject the use of nuclear weapons and embrace unilateral nuclear disarmament in principle as rejecting the benefits of mutually assured destruction in practice.

There are a few caveats to this. First, only nine nations today have nuclear weapons. And nuclear weapons have only existed for seventy years. This means that we do not have a very large sample of data.  The counterexample often cited by the neoconservative press would be Iran, whose leaders it is claimed hate Israel so much that they would be willing to turn the country into a suicide bomb in order to destroy the Jewish state. Now, I don't know whether this is really a reality-based argument, and I don't really want to turn this discussion into a psychoanalysis of Iran's leaders as seems to happen all too frequently. But I think it is a fact of probability that as the number of countries with nuclear weapons grows, and the number of years that pass increase, the chances of leaders actually pulling the trigger on mutually assured destruction rises.

Second, even without nuclear weapons, it is arguable that our militaries possess devastating enough technology today — for instance, chemical weapons, and very large conventional bombs — to still pose a threat of mutually assured destruction. Indeed, this may increase in the future as various drones and cyber weapons possess the potential to wreak great economic and social havoc without dropping any bombs at all.

Third, it is possible that while mutually assured destruction might hold off an atomic war between great powers, it may not be sufficient — if someone pushes long enough and hard enough — to hold off wide-scale conventional warfare. The post-WW2 period could certainly prove to be a temporary moderation that — like Bernanke's financial Great Moderation — ends with a bang, even with mutually assured destruction keeping nuclear conflict at bay. There are a number of flashpoints — for example, between China and North Korea the U.S. in East Asia, between the U.S. and Russia in eastern Europe and the middle east, between India and Pakistan, and between Iran and Israel that in the coming years look testing.

But these caveats are still not arguments for unilateral disarmament. They are arguments, instead, for a slow kind of multilateral disarmament by agreement. Because all unilateral disarmament does is hand our geopolitical adversaries — people like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un — a free club with which to beat us.


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