Nuclear Argument

Keith Kyle

  • Objections to Nuclear Defence: Philosophers on Deterrence edited by Nigel Blake and Kay Pole
    Routledge, 187 pp, £5.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 7102 0249 0
  • Reagan and the World: Imperial Policy in the New Cold War by Jeff McMahan
    Pluto, 214 pp, £3.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 86104 602 1
  • A future that will work by David Owen
    Viking, 192 pp, £12.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 670 80564 5
  • The Most Dangerous Decade: World Militarism and the New Non-Aligned Peace Movement by Ken Coates
    Spokesman, 211 pp, £15.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 85124 405 X

‘It’s not that Ronald Reagan hasn’t got any ideas of his own,’ an American who held high office in the Pentagon under Jimmy Carter remarked recently. ‘The trouble is that he has such peculiar ones.’ He was referring to what has been officially termed the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) but what is much more appropriately called Star Wars. It is the President’s idea for making nuclear weapons ‘impotent and obsolete’. With all the fervour of a true believer he has announced that he is staking his faith in America’s scientific and technological genius on the proposition that a carapace can be erected over the United States – and (why not?) over Nato Europe as well. Any and every incoming missile is to be intercepted at some place along the flight path starting with the initial boost phase. After all, Americans produced the atom bomb, they got to the Moon, why not this as well? Reagan wants $26 billion spent on research and then, when American scientists have come up with the secret, they can share it with the Russians – then they will both be safe. Anyone who opposes the project – and some of America’s most distinguished citizens have explained, in lucid prose and with impeccable logic, why it cannot succeed and why it is dangerous to try – can be shown either to lack faith in America’s ability to do anything it really sets out to do or to be morally unwilling to depart from the appalling implications of Mutual Assured Destruction.

What is one to make of this? Few informed people in America, let alone elsewhere, seem prepared to defend the Star Wars proposition in all its stark simplicity – though it matters that these few include the President and the Secretary of Defence – but that has not stopped powerful forces building up behind it: government intervention to the tune of $26 billion should work wonders for the free market economy of the United States and for its scientific profession. Also there are many strategists who, while hastily disclaiming responsibility for the President’s utopian claims on SDI’s behalf, are willing to present a more modest case for a better mix between defensive and offensive weapons. But it is the utopian claims, not the practical arguments, that have the popular appeal. After all, since both sides have had nuclear weapons so-called defence policies have required us to stand on our heads – to abandon all thought of defending our civilian populations and our urban societies in return for being able to threaten the other side with certain mass destruction. We have become so accustomed to this abnormal posture that, by a process of Darwinian adaptation, we have, as it were, sprouted fresh feet out of our upturned heads. Ronald Reagan has been daring or foolhardy enough to suggest that we learn at immense expense to resume what was once regarded as the right-way-up position. This is disconcerting orthodox strategists and their moral critics alike, since the voices of moral censure on this question normally come from a different direction.

Given that nuclear weapons pose apocalyptic moral problems, it is scarcely to be wondered at that philosophers and theologians, the two classes of person generally supposed to be expert at discussing questions of morality, should feel a compulsion to join in the debate about them. Many of the contributors to Objections to Nuclear Defence, a symposium on the moral aspects of the strategy of deterrence from a group of professional philosophers, take as their frame of reference the ancient doctrine of the just war which has inspired most attempts to create international laws of war. Resort to force should have a cause sufficiently just to override the moral ugliness of war. There should be a reasonable prospect of success; the damage to be inflicted, and the lives lost, should be proportional to the good to be gained or the evil prevented by taking up arms; the actual conduct of the war should be discriminate, avoiding any direct attack on non-combatants. The authors ask whether these rules make any sense if nuclear weapons are used, and conclude, unsurprisingly, that they do not. One of the authors, Father Roger Ruston, points out that in 1977, when the latest Protocol of the Laws of War was adopted at Geneva, both Britain and the United States entered a reservation to the effect that ‘the new rules introduced by the Protocol are not intended to have any effect on and so do not regulate or prohibit the use of nuclear weapons.’ If the Protocol is intended to define civilised bounds, the use of nuclear weapons is clearly outside them. But it is said that nuclear weapons are not for use but to deter. Can it be morally acceptable to possess for deterrence what it would be immoral to use? This is the most excruciating dilemma of our times.

The pronouncements of those ecclesiastics like Dr Runcie who admit deterrence but reject use create the impression that the Christian advice to the electorate of a democracy which is also a nuclear power should be to elect as head of government its most accomplished hypocrite. He or she has to be relied upon under no circumstances to press the nuclear button, while at the same time to convey to the other side the impression that he or she has the will to do so. ‘A threat of something disproportionate is not necessarily a disproportionate threat,’ wrote the American moral theologian Paul Ramsey in his book of 1968, Just War. The argument is that if the only way to prevent the most disproportionate thing imaginable – all-out nuclear war – is to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, then that threat may be considered in itself proportionate to the evil it is seeking to avert. It is obvious that for some places and for some purposes the deterrent works. The question is whether it will work indefinitely for all places and for all circumstances.

Objections to Nuclear Defence is the sequel to a similar symposium called Dangers of Deterrence, published in 1983 with the same editors. Both were designed, according to Nigel Blake and Kay Pole, to rescue a debate in which issues were being ‘extremely badly handled’ either because, though philosophical in nature, they were not being treated as such, or because, though they were recognised as philosophical, the treatment was ‘inexpert’. The editors sometimes imply that their purpose is simply to smarten up the arguments used on all sides, but not much doubt is left by the titles of the two symposia, and from our being told that both editors are members of CND, what the drift of the expert treatment is going to be. The chapters are often repetitive of each other and some seem to differ little from political polemics, but with Anthony Kenny, Michael Dummett, Roger Ruston and Bernard Williams among the contributors there is much that is worth considering.

All four of these philosophers reject the notion that it is meaningful to have the bomb without having the hypothetical intention to use it. The Master of Balliol (Kenny) puts it that the real reason the maintenance of the power to destroy is immoral is that, for the nation to have that power, individuals must be prepared to give or execute an order to massacre millions of non-combatants if ever the government decides that that is what has to be done. Even Bernard Williams maintains that there can be no deterrence without credibility, and that credibility involves a genuine hypothetical intention. ‘The strategy itself cannot be constructed in such a way that it would be abandoned at the point at which it has to be implemented.’ Both Dummett and Kenny conclude that since there is no possible way of waging a just nuclear war and no practical possibility of sustaining the distinction between deterrence and the willingness to commit mass murder if deterrence fails, the only proper course is to disarm unilaterally. The only difference lies in the address to which this advice is directed. Dummett is clearly speaking to his own countrymen and advocating unilateral British disarmament, removal of American bases, and resignation from Nato, which is a more logical course than that of the Labour Party, which favours the first two but emphatically not the third. Kenny speaks to the West as a whole, and favours the total nuclear disarmament of the Western powers. This, he concludes, would leave them vulnerable to Soviet nuclear blackmail: but the risk, though terrible, is less so than the alternative of giving a blank cheque to the West’s own leaders to commit mass murder should the occasion arise. For our nations to be reduced to the status of Rumania, he concludes, would be far less of a disaster than for all cities to be reduced to the condition of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945: it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. This principle calls ultimately, though Kenny does not say so, for the exclusion (in any case in which a nuclear power might be involved) of all previous moral grounds for action, such as resistance to aggression.

Bernard Williams approaches the problem from the other end: that the world has eaten the apple of nuclear knowledge – the bombs, having been invented, cannot be disinvented. Even supposing that all nuclear powers agreed on total and complete nuclear disarmament, that would still not solve the problem. The guilty knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never be abolished, quite apart from the extreme unlikelihood that the verification would be a hundred per cent effective. One would for ever be in a situation in which nuclear weapons were about to be invented without the uncertainty as to whether they would ever work and with the shrewd suspicion that somewhere the other side had a few samples cunningly concealed. Williams argues that this would be a highly unstable situation and that we would probably be better-off with two sides retaining a nuclear balance at some level. ‘I doubt,’ he says, ‘that the issue of the possession or non-possession of nuclear weapons is in itself a moral issue’: but, he adds, it is difficult to think rationally about nuclear strategy because the scenarios are so absurdly complex and always favour further upward spirals in the arms race. Williams comes down on the side of Britain’s giving up her own nuclear weapons and of Nato’s giving up Pershing II and Cruise on the grounds not of morality but of simplicity.

Other enemies of simplicity, however, are the efforts to civilise or domesticate the nuclear weapon: to interpose, on the one hand, the threatened use of tactical nuclear missiles as something midway between non-use and use of all-out nuclear exchange, and, on the other, to improve the accuracy of strategic and intermediate nuclear missiles so that they could be directed, in accordance with the requirements of the Just War doctrine, not at cities, but at military targets. Three of the books under review, David Owen’s A future that will work and Ken Coates’s The Most Dangerous Decade as well as Objections to Nuclear Defence, cite with approval Lord Mountbatten’s famous Strasbourg speech of 11 May 1979, about which one of the most notable circumstances was that it was not reported at all in the press at the time, although efforts have never ceased, subsequent to the admiral’s death, to repair the omission. In Mountbatten’s view, tactical nuclear weapons were not in effect a separate category and would not limit the conflict. He could ‘see no use for any nuclear weapon which would not end in escalation’.

The other strategic variation, the threat to use missiles that are more accurate against purely military targets, would seem on the face of it less crass than the threat to dump agents of total destruction directly on cities. But nuclear missiles are not like other weapons. The collateral damage to civilians would still be colossal. The threat of a nuclear winter, desolating military and civilian, nuclear power and unilaterally-disarmed society alike, would still be present. As nuclear weapons become more accurate (and thus potentially more ‘just’) they at the same time become more provocative and more destabilising. They provoke talk of ‘launch on warning’ and ‘pre-emptive strikes’, reaching a new order of irrationality with the American MX, which will be both highly accurate and extremely vulnerable. As Jeff McMahan points out in Reagan and the World, the new missiles are aimed at threatening the Soviet Union with ‘decapitation’, the destruction of the apparatus of command, control and communication. But one of the reverse-order features of nuclear strategy has always been that it would be imperative for each side to keep in touch with the other (supposing nuclear war to have broken out) in order to preserve some grip on events and to rescue what was left. With the Russians decapitated, it would be hard to raise a response.

Jeff McMahan’s book is an American scholar’s sustained polemic against the Reagan effect on American foreign policy, not to be consulted for a balanced judgment but to be recommended as a demonstration of the damage the last four years have done to America’s reputation. As a participant in the diplomacy of the Carter years, David Owen supplies a far more balanced analysis, agreeing with McMahan over some points, including the unreality of the famous zero option, but assessing equally critically the moves of the Soviet Union. Finally, Ken Coates illustrates just how discouraging dealings with the Soviet Union can be even for such potentially friendly organisations as the Bertrand Russell Foundation and the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament, and how sensitive the Russians in their turn are to suggestions of a moral equivalence between the two superpowers.

The mood of McMahan’s book can be judged by the formulation of its basic proposition, which is that ‘the Administration’s efforts to shape the world according to its own vision have caused a vast amount of misery in many parts of the world and have set the stage for future slaughter on an unprecedented scale.’ The Administration might give the impression of being hesitant and confused, but this has only been a cover behind which an aggressive and confrontational policy has been pushed. America is an imperialist power on the prowl. ‘If we hope to stop the US from intervening throughout the Third World, then we must directly oppose its nuclear build-up: for the American nuclear forces are regarded by the Administration as the necessary backdrop against which the US can carry out its interventions in the Third World in comparative safety.’

This is a strange way of putting it. The Reagan Administration has not shown much inclination to intervene ‘throughout the Third World’. Where it has interfered in imperial fashion has been in Central America and the Caribbean. McMahan has detailed chapters on El Salvador, Nicaragua and Grenada, all three of which are lumped together in his headings as ‘some notable victims’, a description justified in the case of Nicaragua, and conceivably in that of Salvador, but unlikely to be embraced by most people in Grenada. Nor would the statement that ‘it is easy to see why American client states in the developing world are so often ruled by persons of the most vicious character’ be supported by the record of electoral influence recently exercised by the Americans in Salvador and in Grenada. Likewise it is difficult to see how nuclear build-up made any difference one way or the other to the blatant CIA activities in Honduras or to the mining of Nicaraguan harbours. The United States has of course intervened in the Lebanon, but McMahan has left that out because, he says, it is too complicated to fit into his thesis.

Still, though in places overstated, the indictment is an indication of the extent to which Reagan needs to clean up his act if, as he claims, he is planning to accentuate the positive during his second term. The President will vindicate any such apparent reversal by explaining that he found America’s reputation in the ditch into which Carter had driven it, that now, by contrast, America ‘walks tall’, and that as a result of America’s massive rearmament he is about to ‘negotiate from strength’. While the Reaganites greatly exaggerate the contrast between their administration and its immediate predecessor, much of the outside world has directed its charges of incoherence and uncertainty against them both. Détente crumbled under both – under Carter, because of his ideological stress on human rights and his jerky, ill-signalled initiatives, under Reagan because of his inattention to foreign affairs and his Manichean approach to relations with the Soviet Union. ‘There is no evidence that Western public opinion needs alerting to the dangers of Communism,’ writes Dr Owen. ‘The effect on the Soviets of turning up the megaphone is to induce a virulent playback from their propaganda bank ... We should negotiate with the Russians at all levels, at all times and on all subjects.’ Many Europeans, he adds, who are totally conversant with Nato’s values, now openly express their anxieties about US decision-making.

The chapter on ‘European Security Responsibilities’ is the only one out of the ten in A future that will work in which the former Foreign Secretary deals with international matters. It is in part a brisk summary of the impressions he gained of super-power and alliance diplomacy during 1977-79, his two years in high office, but it is not confined to that. A densely packed argument and a spare prose carry the analysis forward to the present day. He points out that détente, desirable though it is, is actually liable to generate more rather than less tension between the two sides, because of the destabilising effect on Eastern Europe of more closely woven East-West relations. The Gierek era in Poland, with the debt crisis and the rise of the independent trade-union movement, was, in fact, a characteristic product of détente. On the other hand, the previous practice of détente made possible, Owen contends, the crisis management on both sides that eventually wound down the tension. What is a little unclear, possibly because of the extreme compression of some passages, is whether Owen considers that the moves made were in the circumstances reasonable. After observing that the Russians correctly assessed the West’s likely response, he goes on: ‘The graduated pressure gave us in Western Europe room for an accommodation which we too readily took.’ Elsewhere he makes reference to the ‘infirm and hesitant’ deeds of the West. One might conclude from this that the West should have adopted firmer, more substantial and above all more sustained sanctions. But if a long-term relationship with the Soviet Union is to be aimed at, the sometimes bitter truth has to be learnt that sanctions cannot be switched on and off like an electric switch in reaction to Soviet political moves.

Any impression given by Jeff McMahan’s book that all the obstacles to renewed détente were to be found on the side of the United States would be removed by a reading of The Most Dangerous Decade. This volume is in some ways a tiresome one to handle. The author, Ken Coates, describes it as a collection of working papers: these include letters, speeches and press statements mostly connected with the campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament (END), together with one side (the author’s) of a polemical exchange in the New Left Review with a contributor who appears to argue that a superpower is not open to reproach if, like the Soviet Union, it is on the right side of the class conflict. These items are all flung at the reader in no particular order and sometimes with scarcely any introduction. However, there is much of interest to be dug out of the rubble, especially concerning END’s abrasive relations with the Russians and their apologists, who seem puzzled and irritated by a campaign which is perhaps as unstructured as the book that it has inspired.

The basic principle of the campaign is that many different parts of the peace movement should join together in support of a movement to clear all Europe west of the Soviet borders (‘from Poland to Portugal’) of nuclear weapons. Since this is decoupling with a vengeance and Soviet territory is not to be affected, one might have thought that this would have been a proposition that would have appealed, at least as a propaganda exercise, to the Soviet Union. But what struck Moscow most was the unacceptable placing of blame on both superpowers alike and the encouragement of agitation in all European states, including those of the East. In a grimly instructive exchange of open letters between Coates for the Bertrand Russell Foundation, one of the END participants, and Yuri Zhukov for the Soviet Peace Committee, the Russian will not yield an inch. ‘Some persons,’ Zhukov finds, were responsible for the ‘truly monstrous design’ of turning the first END convention at Brussels in July 1982 into an open ideological struggle against socialism. The idea of a nuclear-free Europe on the agenda for the planned second convention in West Berlin was ‘largely a rubber-stamp measure’ to foist on others the vile concept of ‘equal responsibility’ for the arms race.

Since Reagan’s re-election the two superpowers have come together once more over the Geneva arms-limitation negotiating-table, surrounded by renewed predictions of deadlock. Its most likely cause this time is the Strategic Defence Initiative and the extremely hostile Russian reaction to it. It offers a massive challenge to the Soviet Union’s sense of its own security. As recent statements by Sir Geoffrey Howe and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, among others, have illustrated, it throws America’s allies into baffled embarrassment. And it offers the kind of response to the fundamental moral issues raised in all these books, but especially in Objections to Nuclear Defence, that they least expected.