2002 September 10 Tuesday
UK Guardian: Nuclear Proliferation and Moral Legitimacy

Zoe Williams writing in The Guardian believes that nuclear proliferation is no big deal and nuclear war is nothing to fear:

And now, Tony Blair would have us believe that deterrence doesn't work after all; that the existence of nuclear weaponry on the wishlist of an unfriendly nation is reason enough to launch a pre-emptive strike; that nuclear war is so bad as to be outside the bounds of reason. Well, it's a nice try - but so passť.

Are we to believe then that nuclear war is not so bad or that or that it is within the bounds of reason to think it might happen? Its difficult to figure out where she's going with this. But an earlier portion of her essay hints where the real problem lies: the Left resists drawing moral distinctions about who has nuclear weapons and who doesn't:

Except we aren't - in this country, at least, the right and "left" of our political spectrum have spent the past 30 years persuading us that nuclear weapons aren't a bad thing, unless you don't have any. They didn't so much cry wolf, as insist the wolf was actually quite a nice bloke. They're going to have quite a job getting us all to play Red Riding Hood.

She proceeds to quote Michael Heseltine's argument for nuclear weapons as embodying the right to self defense:

Asked how he triumphed over the peace movement, he replied: "By changing the questions. So long as the questions were about cruise missiles, the peace movement always won; if the questions changed to 'Do you want to be totally undefended?', then the ground shifted."

The disarmament advocates of the Left were of course incensed that this argument worked. How dare the masses of a free nation decide that they even needed to be defended against a socialist republic ruled by the vanguard of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yes, we wanted to be defended against the socialists.

So where is Zoe Williams coming from? The Left, having failed to win the argument for disarmament decided to take satisfaction from the fact that at least in one sense the deterrence relationship equalized the West and the Soviet Union. We and the USSR were locked in a game where we had to treat each other as equal great powers. Nuclear weapons, in effect, forced the capitalistic West to treat the Soviet Union with more respect.

Should the West have followed the disarmament movement's advice and unilaterally dismantled its nuclear weapons while the Soviet Union retained its arsenal? If you hold that the West was vastly morally superior to the Soviet Union then unilateral disarmament would seem like a really bad idea. Nuclear weapons in our hands deterred an opponent intent upon evil goals. But if you are so far out on the Left that the USSR didn't look that bad to you and your own society seemed evil because of its capitalistic institutions then the nuclear deterrence forces of the West did not look like they were being used to protect the good from the bad. The far Left, faced with the continued existence of Western nuclear arsenals, eventually decided there was a silver lining: the mutual deterrence relationship between the West and the Soviet Union prevented the West from treating the Soviet Union as inferior. Hence we see today a sort of nostalgia among the Left for the old Cold War deterrence relationship and for the logic of deterrence.

Its important to recall why we in the West adopted deterrence as a strategy: there was literally no alternative. An attack on the Soviet Union would have cost us enormously in tens or hundreds of millions of lives lost with commensurate economic damage. The pacifist choice of unilateral disarmament would have led to our subjugation by our enemy. We were fully justified in our deterrence strategy because it was the one way we the good guys could hold off the bad guys.

Fast forward to today. What to do about Iraq is the issue of the hour. Is deterrence best choice compared to the other choices that are available? The answer to that question should hinge on what the other choices are. Since Iraq is a much weaker nation and does not yet possess nuclear weapons we have choices that were not available during the Cold War. We can choose courses of action that reduce our risk of being victims of nuclear attack but those choices involve our attacking and overthrowing some of our enemies. For Zoe Williams the unstated reason she doesn't think these other choices are acceptable is because deep down she doesn't think the United States of America has sufficient moral legitimacy to justify its use of preemptive military action in its own defense.

If we are not morally superior to a totalitarian dictator then we lack the moral standing to assert that we have the right to deny him his opportunity to develop nuclear weapons. If we are not morally superior then we can't make a moral argument to justify action to avoid getting locked in a deterrence relationship with him based on mutual assured destruction. The beauty of such a relationship for someone who hates their own society is that it equalizes that society in relation to its enemies. Our enemies can destroy us just as we can destroy them. We can no more overthrow their government than they can overthrow ours. For someone who does not see us as the good guys against Saddam as a really bad guy such a state of affairs would naturally have some appeal. It would in a sense bring us down to Saddam's level.

The question of deterrence vs preemption is really a moral question: Are we so morally superior to our enemies that we are morally justified in using military force to prevent our enemies from developing nuclear weapons that would then force us into deterrence MAD relationships with them? I say Yes. What about you?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 September 10 11:42 PM  US Foreign Preemption, Deterrence, Containment


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