The voice of young liberal democrats

RE: Obama’s Policy on Nuclear Disarmament by londonliberal
October 21, 2007, 8:02 pm
Filed under: Foreign Affairs, Uncategorized


I am intrigued by your response and certainly eager to continue our debate in which I am thankful for your participation. I am writing this post having read, not just your last post, but also your post on the Liberal Democrats Trident policy too, so I shall attempt to address the arguments made in both. My points, however, will be the following: The nature of the Non-Proliferation Treaty makes any lasting ‘deal’ impossible; possessing nuclear weapons still holds immense strategic value, albeit more politically than militarily;not only does the uncertain balance of power necessitate the retention and upgrading of nuclear weapons, but also the development of nuclear missile defence; and finally, the sheer threat of total nuclear destruction is the one thing that stands to save the human race considering that conventional weapons are so advanced and powerful that a full blown ‘conventional’ war could potentially be as damaging, albeit over a much more protacted period of time, as a nuclear one.

1) The NPT is a farce. As I mentioned earlier, the way India, Pakistan and Israel got round the restrictions of the treaty was to not sign it in the first place. This is the ultimate flaw of pursuing disarmament through voluntary agreements which rely primarily on other states’s honesty. Any state that pursues disarmament with nothing more than their adversary’s word to go on is heading for a fall. You only need look back at the League of Nations to see how bad that fall can be.

Furthermore, the failing of the Lib Dems during the Trident debate was not their reluctance to take a ‘principled’ stance but to actually assert that the United Kingdom would lose the authority to pressure Iran and North Korea into disarming if it renewed Trident and expect the nation to take them seriously. This was a joke because authority, like legitimacy, is a product of sovereignty. In the conglomeration of nation states, regional blocs and military alliances that comprise the international system, only power matters. As a result, we hold absolutely no sway over the likes of Iran and North Korea because nothing we do or say really affects them or their interests. If, however, the Iranians thought we held enough influence to persuade Israel to disarm or the US to withdraw from Iraq, they would be much more willing to discuss nuclear disarmament regardless of what state Trident was in. 

2) Although I still hold that nuclear weapons are an important deterrent, they also hold immense strategic value on a political level. They enable a small country to punch above their weight and extract more concessions out of their rivals than they otherwise would and a powerful country to retain far greater influence over the rest of the world than they otherwise would. For example, it is unlikely that the coalition forces would be engaging as much as they are with Iran if they had no nuclear weapons programme which is why the US have constantly tried to discuss the nuclear issue seperately from the vast range of issues affecting Iran’s relationship with the West. In the same light, it is unlikely that the United Kingdom would still have a seat on the UN Security Council if they had no nuclear weapons to bolster their status amongst the world’s powers. 

As for the use of nuclear weapons to powerful states, Israel has only been able to control, and to an extent maintain, an uneasy peace in the Middle East due to their possession of nuclear weapons -not to mention a kickass army and airforce. Similarly, the United States, far from being hypocritical for combating proliferation whilst maintaining their own stockpile, would not be able to restrict the development of nuclear weapons at all unless they were themselves a nuclear superpower, the closest any state has come to exercising any kind of sovereignty over the international community -otherwise known as empire. 

3) Owing to the prisoners’ dilemna situation of one state breaking its word and keeping its nukes in the hope to gain an unbeatable advantage over all other powers engaging in disarmament that inevitably results from purely voluntary agreements, it is vital that existing nuclear powers retain their nuclear weapons to avoid compromising their security and international influence. Taking this into consideration, there are two particular points from your last post that I’d like to pay special attention to.

First: “Nuclear weapons of course are only a credible threat if the enemy believes they will be used and I find it inconceivable that any sane person would use a nuclear weapon to retaliate for another state obtaining them.” Although the election of George .W. Bush and the neo-cons is a clear example of how democratic elections are hardly a fool-proof means of providing sane leadership, it still stands that nuclear technology in the hands of ruthless dictators is a far more worrying prospect for anyone betting the bank on those states acting rationally. 

Second: “Despite the fact that these new nuclear states would not have the capacity to ‘win’ a nuclear confrontation with the US, nuclear weapons are more often acquired not as a means of attack but as a deterrent to a conventional invasion.” Perhaps. This indeed would seem to be the case with Iran. However, they are merely in the process of developing nuclear technology. A more apt example would be somewhere like China. Whilst they may not be a ‘new’ nuclear state, they don’t possess a much bigger, and significantly much more technologically advanced, arsenal than most ‘new’ nuclear states. They do, however, possess the most effective delivery systems for their nuclear missiles of all their ‘new’ counterparts.

What seperates China from, say, the US and Russia is that they have significantly fewer missiles, but also lack the technology to target individual missile silos so as to prevent or minimise retaliatory strikes, denying them the second strike capacity. In other words, if a nuclear war was to break out, the Chinese would probably have their entire stockpile wiped out. This, therefore, gives China, and any nuclear state in their position, an incentive to strike first, rather than second, converting nuclear weapons away from being a defensive weapon, as it was during the Cold War, into an offensive weapon now. Although, at the moment this is all purely hypothetical, as you pointed out in your post, at no period of time do we know what the future will hold in 20 years’ time.

This is why the US and NATO need to pursue nuclear missile defence with vigour. It should be pointed out though that only the proposed array of defensive missile sites throughout Europe that are currently placing an even greater strain on the West’s relations with Russia would work. Hopefully, most will now agree that an actual nuclear defence shield is totally unworkable. However, it is firmly my belief that making nuclear weapons useless today to those who would go to great pains to acquire them tomorrow is the best way to halt nuclear proliferation and achieve a lasting peace.

4) On this note, my final point is simply this. Had nuclear weapons not been around, I wonder how stable the bi-polar system of the ‘Cold War’ world would have been. Although the dictatorships sponsored by both blocs and the wars waged against their allies in remote parts of the world hardly make it an era to be proud of, it is not conceivable that a ‘conventionally’ superior Soviet Union would have attempted a mass invasion of the West at some point, especially leading up to its demise in the late 80s. However, I do not doubt that arming every country with nuclear weapons would lead to a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions, most likely by accident.


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