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.

Professor Robert Neild’s polemic is concerned with a more parochial topic than his title suggests: not with making up one’s mind about the Bomb but with the more manageable task of making up one’s mind about the proper role of the Bomb within the defence policy of the United Kingdom. It is short, clear, trenchant and often very acute. Anyone who has a vote in this country would benefit from reading it carefully. Neild’s conclusions are fairly simple and many of them are extremely convincing. The main ones are that the possession by Great Britain of an independent nuclear deterrent is expensive, pointless and potentially dangerous, that the military relation between the United Kingdom and the United States is effectively that of a client state and that it exposes the United Kingdom to gratuitous military risk, but that membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is politically desirable and may even make a real contribution to the defensibility of these Isles. The first of these is a markedly simpler matter than the other two. The arguments in favour of an independent British nuclear deterrent have always been derisory; and the prestige motive for sustaining one has come to look increasingly bizarre with the steady devastation of the economy. It is difficult to believe that there could be anything but gain from the belated cessation of this costly farce.

The removal of American bases and military and intelligence facilities is rather trickier. There are, as Neild argues, a number of different reasons for favouring it. But, to a greater degree than he acknowledges, some of the reasons for favouring it are also reasons for fearing it. If, for example, it is true that the location of American nuclear facilities exposes us gratuitously to the risk of nuclear attack from the Russians over issues where only American interests are involved, the motive for removing these facilities at present must be unusually strong, given the Reagan Administration’s international demeanour and its zest for expanding the American arsenal. But, by the same token, a brusque instruction to close all American bases in Britain will scarcely exercise a soothing effect on the international mood of the new Administration. Nor is it easy to believe that such an instruction, along with its impact on the Nato defensive position in West Germany, would give much pleasure or reassurance in West Germany or perhaps, indeed, in Poland. The reasons for remaining in Nato, reasons of political solidarity with other European constitutional democracies, may well be reasons for approaching the project of removing American bases with rather more delicacy (if not perhaps ultimately with less determination) than Neild suggests.

In terms of immediate British interests and capabilities, then, we might well be safer and less poor without our own nuclear deterrent and safer still without American bases, if we followed the policy which Neild recommends. But against this must be set the certainty of spreading dismay amongst other European countries, allied or otherwise, whom we might not wish to harm, of causing acute offence to the United States at a time when its policies are already more than a little menacing, and, possibly, of encouraging the Soviet Union in ways in which we might not wish to encourage it. Clearly this is a distinctly more adventurous policy than that of discarding our nuclear deterrent on its own – an action which will hardly stir much interest in any other country.

Is it, then, a good policy? The answer, surely, is that it can only be as good as the political agencies available for implementing it permit it to be. Plainly it will not be the policy of Mrs Thatcher’s government. But it might well be that of a Labour government in the rather near future. Whether it was a good policy in the hands of such a government would depend very directly on the political character of that government, on its unity and effectiveness and on its broader political values. Perhaps most of all it would depend on the attitude of that government towards the United States and the Soviet Union. As Neild brings out very well, the record of Labour subservience in office to American strategic judgments and interests has been, if anything, worse than that of Conservative governments. A Labour government which espoused and implemented a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament would have to be very different from past Labour governments. One respect in which it might well differ, for example, would be in being much less hostile to the Soviet Union and much more hostile to the United States than its predecessors have been. It is easy to make a good case for the second of these shifts, looking at the world as a whole, though somewhat harder if attention is confined to Europe. It is hard, however, to mount much of a case for the first, particularly in Europe; and any tendency to gloss over the political defects of the Soviet Union, at home or abroad, would scarcely be compatible with a continuing and authentic membership of Nato.

Neild’s own views on this question are admirably explicit. The Soviet Union is awful, but not a military danger to Western Europe. He has two main reasons for believing that it poses no military threat. The first is that the military frontier of Europe has been fixed for some time and the Soviet Union has become accustomed to it. This is indeed true: but it is at least plausible that what has caused it to remain fixed in this manner has been precisely the mutual nuclear threat of the USA and the USSR. The second is the political judgment that it would be outstandingly unwise for the already overextended Soviet empire to attempt to ingest Western Europe. No doubt it would be extremely unwise for it to do so. But it would not be the first unwise thing which it has done; and it does not require much imagination to envisage more limited uses or threats of use of coercive power, on a frontier no longer guaranteed by the American nuclear arsenal, which would threaten Western Germany very nastily indeed. As with the United States, the Soviet preference for defending its territorial interest is to do so as far as possible from its own borders. The invasion of Afghanistan was a ‘defensive act’, as was the American incursion into Cambodia. If the present Polish experiment is permitted to survive and if the Polish economy recovers (a perhaps unlikely conjunction), the example might well prove infectious even in East Germany. To defend East Germany against Western subversion would then be a regrettable Soviet duty. Such a defence might well pose more danger to the world as a whole in the present disposition of Nato and the Warsaw Pact than it would if the Nato frontier were not backed by an American nuclear guarantee. But it would certainly pose more danger to West Germany in the absence of such a guarantee. A Labour government committed to exactly the policies recommended by Neild would be happy for the Nato land frontier to be, to use the canonical phrase, under the shelter of the American nuclear umbrella. But a Labour government which was less hostile to the Soviet Union than Professor Neild is might view this prospect with less resignation. There are obvious (though not necessarily irresolvable) tensions between remaining in the Nato alliance and distancing ourselves smartly from the United States, and even more obvious tensions between remaining in Nato and adopting a markedly more sanguine view of the uses to which Soviet military, naval and air power may be put. Until it is a little clearer what sort of Labour government (if any) may have the opportunity of implementing such a policy, it will remain difficult to see quite how good a policy it is. What is certain is that it has both merits and risks which our present defence policy lacks, and that Professor Neild gives an excellent account at least of its merits.

What lies behind the indeterminacy of the policy is the simple consideration that it is never possible to assess the implications of a weapon, even one as spectacular and terrifying as the hydrogen bomb, without assessing the full context of social and political relations in which at any time it is located. Nuclear weapons may for a time have greatly lessened the danger of large-scale military conflict between the USA and the USSR, as Michael Mandelbaum has argued in The Nuclear Question.[*] But the fact that they ever had this consequence was a product of luck rather than good judgment; and it is clear now that they cannot be expected to continue to do so indefinitely. From the point of view of the globe as a whole, there are two main dangers associated with nuclear weapons. The first, as Neild indicates, is the dynamic of the arms race between the Soviet Union and the USA, a dynamic intimately sustained by the structure of both states and restrained, where it has been restrained at all, only by the good sense and effectiveness of individual political leaders. To see how this dynamic can be tamed before one or other of the two powers initiates a full-scale nuclear attack on its foe is the single most pressing question in world politics. But it is not a question to which we in this country on our own can give any practical answer at all. Indeed, it is not a question which it is clear that anyone but the Americans and the Russians can do much to answer. The main danger of the policy which Neild recommends is that it might make the Americans considerably more nervous and more bellicose, and hence make them even readier than they already are to squander their vast resources on augmenting their destructive power. Since there is no real danger of anything which we could do making much impact on the nervousness or bellicosity of the Russians (unless we cared to fire our Polaris missiles at them), this risk is an important one.

The second major danger presented by nuclear weapons is vaguer but even more intractable. Perhaps if the Soviet Union and the United States could muster the political good sense and will to re-establish a stable and determinate balance of nuclear threat between them, and could sustain it against the pressures of their own military forces and armaments industries, they could, in the fullness of time, learn to conduct relations between them within much the same rules even after dismantling the apparatus of threat itself. This is an extremely optimistic hope. But it is not obvious that it is simply incoherent. What is much harder to see is how, as a result of any causally conceivable process, the social and political world in which human beings live at the moment could become one that could be trusted with the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons. Today, as in the past, the world is littered with brigand states. Already some of these have attempted to acquire nuclear weapons. As time goes by, it is likely to become easier and cheaper for them to do so. Perhaps America and Russia and England and China and France can be trusted never deliberately to use such weapons in the future. But the same could hardly have been said for President Amin towards the close of his rule. Radically untrustworthy and irrational political units are simply part of the furniture of the world today and they are likely to remain so in any seriously imaginable future. Unless a full-scale nuclear war takes place, we can hardly unlearn the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons. ‘When barriers which in fact consisted only in ignorance of what was possible are broken down, it is not easy,’ as Clausewitz observed, ‘to build them up again.’ Here, too, unilateral nuclear disarmament in one country can make little contribution to conceiving and implementing a social and political order in which human beings and the products of their intellectual creations can continue to exist in decent security. To close Pandora’s box again, with its contents duly restored to it, would be a staggering feat of political intelligence and skill, and one for which the political record of our species provides not the dimmest shadow of a precedent.

Both sides in the debate about the unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain presume that the other is gratuitously (and perhaps sentimentally) exposing the British population to appalling risk, whereas what each is intentionally doing is selecting a different risk as that against which it most wishes to insure. Each, unsurprisingly, inclines to discretion or credulity about the scale, character and timing of the risk against which it elects not to insure. Both, by their lights, have good intentions. There is a more expressive unilateralist case which is unconcerned with consequences; one which presumes that no war aims could justify the use of such ghastly weapons and that the possession of such weapons without a preparedness to use them in the last instance is a self-contradictory posture. Like any sane human being, Neild is revolted by nuclear weapons: but his case is an instrumental, not an expressive, one. Possessing our own nuclear weapons and harbouring American nuclear weapons greatly endangers millions of British lives. In some ways, perhaps, he exaggerates these dangers, at any rate in the short run. But he makes a good case for his exaggerations.

What cannot be said, however, is that he gives a very broad and cogent view of how his immediate preoccupation and recommendations bear on the two major threats which nuclear weapons pose to the human race as a whole. Danger to millions of British lives is the appropriate focus for British defence policy. But it is far from being the only respect in which it is important to make up one’s mind about the Bomb. Nor should it be the sole political concern over nuclear weapons which a British voter or politician feels. The political understanding on which the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in its earlier phase was based was vague and shallowly optimistic. Now that a unilateralist option stands a real chance of being implemented by a British government, it is imperative that these weaknesses be repaired. Professor Neild offers his book to fellow citizens to provoke discussion, not to conclude it. One can only hope that he will be successful in this aim.

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