Unilateralist Options

John Dunn

  • How to make up your mind about the Bomb by Robert Neild
    Deutsch, 144 pp, £2.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 233 97382 6

As with the sword or the bow and arrow, making up one’s mind responsibly about the Bomb is not an easy task. For anarchists or pacifists the exercise of violence by state powers throughout history has been intrinsically regrettable. But any style of political assessment which weights consequences more heavily than these do must recognise practical connections (sometimes of a surprising kind) between the history of civilised social life and that of repressive force. Exponents of most modern political theories do, it is true, at least affect to believe that the dependence of civilised social life upon physical repression has diminished, and is diminishing; and some even suppose that it can reasonably be expected in due course to vanish painlessly away. There is perhaps some inductive support in recent historical experience for the judgment that it has diminished, but little, if any, for the judgment that it is still diminishing. Grounds offered for the conviction that it might in future vanish silently away must necessarily be more sparely theoretical and the best that can be said for them is that, thus far, they have been intellectually perfunctory.

One of the striking differences between nuclear weapons and those of their historical predecessors which for decades have been massively deployed in the military apparatus of state powers is that nuclear weapons (unlike tanks, or armoured cars, or even, on occasion, fighter aircraft) can scarcely in principle form part of a domestic apparatus of political control. What they are for is to threaten other states. Like their historical predecessors, they can perform the tasks for which they are militarily adequate (whatever these may be) for desirable or undesirable ends. But unlike most of their predecessors’, their destructive character is so utterly appalling that the prospect of their being in fact used for desirable ends is certainly an extraordinarily unlikely eventuality and perhaps even a self-contradictory idea. Good nuclear weapons have to be weapons which are feared so deeply and so steadily that there is never a real danger of their being used. But weapons of which there is literally no danger of their being used cannot rationally be feared at all. Hence, even if there were no danger whatever of such weapon systems being triggered by human or mechanical error, and even if they were politically intended by their possessors exclusively for threat rather than use, they would always display strategic instabilities and internal tendencies to mutate into less pure forms. A graphic example of this tendency is the shift in American nuclear policy from the pure threat strategy of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ towards a counterforce strategy which at least flirts with the idea of fighting and winning a nuclear war, a war in which American nuclear weapons would be used (after provocation) to attack and destroy Russian nuclear weapons, in the expectation that civilisation would survive the encounter.

The single most unnerving consideration about nuclear weapons so far, besides the sheer fact of their existence, is that, while there is good reason to believe that a pure threat strategy, in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, has done something to render the conduct of military and diplomatic relations between the USA and the USSR more prudent than it would otherwise have been, there is also good reason to believe that in the meantime, with the change in character of the strategies employed by each power, it has left behind it an increasingly dangerous relation of military force between the two sides and a misplaced public confidence, premised on a situation which no longer obtains. Not only do human beings now possess, for the first time in their history, the capacity to destroy their habitat in its entirety: the particular form in which they hold this power is becoming likelier rather than less likely to generate this consequence, while they have grown accustomed to possessing this power without seriously supposing that it may ever be used. It is a disastrous situation; and, like most disastrous situations, it could be magically rectified if only the world and its history, or human beings, were to be made quite different. But as matters stand, few, if any, human beings are in fact well-placed to alter it in an intended manner.

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[*] Cambridge 283 pp., £5.95, 30 July, 0 521 28239 X.