The moral bankruptcy of nuclear weapons

I recently read an opinion piece from a UK journalist suggesting that Ukraine’s biggest mistake in recent years was to get rid of its nuclear weapons. When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine ended up with a significant part of the former Soviet arsenal – 176 ICBM’s carrying 1900 independent warheads, coupled with around 2600 tactical nuclear bombs. It made them the world’s third largest nuclear power. What happened? In return for solemn guarantees, they gave them to Russia, largely to reduce proliferation but also as part of a general sense that the Cold War was over and the world now faced a future of permanent peace.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has, of course, shown just how effective a ‘solemn guarantee’ actually is, internationally. In point of fact I am hard-pressed to think of any international treaty guaranteeing peace that has lasted more than a generation or so. That aside, the argument of the article was that, if your neighbour is nuclear-armed – well, you need to be too. Otherwise they can monster you.

Public domain.

From the strict perspective of global realpolitik, such an argument is true. It speaks little for any qualities in human nature, of course. And therein is its weakness. The argument pivots on the notion that nuclear weapons are so horrific, the consequences of use so deep, that they are the ultimate deterrent.

To an extent that is also true: during the Cold War, the concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ – an apt term, given the acronym – did ensure peace. Sort of. The major powers didn’t directly fight each other. Indirectly they were fighting by proxy everywhere from Korea to Vietnam, the Middle East, and other locations.

More to the point is the fact that such a system is fragile. An accident, alone, can cause it to collapse. The well-documented Soviet ‘false alarm’ incident of 26 September 1983 brought the world very, very close to inadvertent armageddon. Also documented, but less well known, were incidents in 1956, 1960, 1961 (twice), 1962 (twice, including the Cuba Crisis), 1965, 1967, 1969, 1973, 1979, 1980, 1983 (including the 26 September crisis) and 1991. There was also one in 1995 when a Norwegian research rocket was mistaken for a missile by the Russian administration of Boris Yeltsin. On more than one occasion, disaster was averted by single individuals refusing to follow procedure in the face of supposedly confirmed missile launches. Reportedly there were other near-misses that have not made it to public domain, and I can well believe that.

The larger problem is that the system relies on the concept of ‘rational actors’. This is unfortunate, because it doesn’t work. Despite the assumption turning up everywhere from economics to diplomacy, ‘rational thinking’ is the diametric opposite of humanity: we are driven by emotions. Time and again, treaties and agreements last only so long: then – whether because society changes over generations, circumstances change within a few years, or the treaty was merely expedient anyway – agreements fail.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia is a case in point, giving the lie to the ‘rules based’ international system that replaced the MAD arrangements of the Cold War. With it came a chilling threat that brought those weapons back to the forefront: effectively, ‘don’t interfere, or I’ll smash you.’ And therein is the flaw of the nuclear logic: sure, Putin would go down if he launched a nuclear attack on the west. But so would the west. Therefore western powers can do nothing direct to stop him, or even support Ukraine by indirect military intervention, such as declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine and enforcing it with NATO aircraft.

Nuclear weapons, in short, don’t stop international bullies and are not effective in stopping wars. It is true that they prevent the nation possessing enough of them from being directly attacked – but the question is whether the risk of destruction anyway, this time by nuclear winter and fallout effects from nuclear use elsewhere is worth it. Studies I’ve seen suggest that an exchange between (say) India and Pakistan – which would do horrific damage but probably wouldn’t destroy India as a viable power – would still suffice to trigger a global ‘nuclear winter’ through firestorm effects in burning cities.

The underlying problem is that nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented. Despite bold steps by nations such as New Zealand to declare nuclear-free zones and pass legislation banning such weapons in its territories – a moral stance that led the world – the reality of humanity is such that I doubt every nation will follow suit. I am also cynical enough about human nature to expect that, sooner or later, somebody will be stupid and evil enough to use them.

But that does not reduce the moral need for all humans to oppose such weapons, primarily because having them carries the risk of the whole of human civilisation being brought down via the nuclear winter issue. Arguments to the effect that everybody needs them for their own safety – which is what the piece I read amounted to – reflect the rational thinking of pre-nuclear times; but all they do is show up the fact that – as Albert Einsten reputedly remarked – nuclear weapons have changed everything – except the way we think.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022

5 thoughts on “The moral bankruptcy of nuclear weapons

    1. The problem, I fear, is that most of them already imagine they are! The perennial problem for humanity is always the way in which the ‘logic’ and ‘rationality’ with which we are supposed to behave always seem to lead to catastrophic outcomes.

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  1. Gods how i wish I could disagree, even in part. But I can’t. Homo sapiens is anything but rational. Let’s not forget we invented the phrase ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’…and /everyone/ knows what it means. 😦

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