A modest proposal

Britain, France and Germany are busy trying to persuade Iran to abandon efforts to develop nuclear weapons, so far with little success. Cajolery and bribery having tried and failed, how about a bit of leadership by example? Two of the three parties in this effort have nuclear weapons of their own, even though they don’t face any conceivable threat of invasion[1]. Perhaps if they agreed to disarm themselves, the Iranians would be impressed enough to follow suit.

OK, I’m joking about Chirac and France. There’s no way that France is ready to admit that it is no longer a Great Power, and certainly Chirac is not the man to start the process. But, why shouldn’t Blair do something like this? It’s a perfect example of the non-ideological willingness to embrace radical alternatives to established dogma that New Labour is supposed to symbolise.

Of course, nuclear disarmament was the subject of bitter dispute within Labour in the 1980s, and disarmaming now would seem to hand a retrospective win to the left. But, if you buy the standard rightwing line on this subject, the nuclear deterrent did its work the day the Soviet Union collapsed, unable to sustain the arms race. Why hang on to it now? The answer, as far as I can see, is the same as for France. With the bomb, Britain is still one of the Big Five. Without it, Britain stands in much the same position as Italy or (a more populous version of) Australia.

As long as France and Britain sustain, by example, the view that having nuclear weapons is critical to being a Great Power, governments everywhere will seek them, whether or not they actually provide any security.

fn1. Like everyone else, the British and French face the threat that some lunatic in Russia will start firing missiles, or that al Qaeda will get its hands on nuclear weapons. But the logic of deterrence doesn’t apply in these cases, so having nuclear weapons of your own is no safeguard against them.

44 thoughts on “A modest proposal

  1. JQ writes: “Two of the three parties in this effort have nuclear weapons of their own, even though they don’t face any conceivable threat of invasion”.

    The French and the English have a long history of invading the other! Plus the Germans have a habit of invading France every 50 odd years or so – and some would argue that its long over due!

  2. “Perhaps if they agreed to disarm themselves, the Iranians would be impressed enough to follow suit.”

    Perhaps, but it seems highly unlikely. I think non-proliferation is the logical startpoint. Clearly, no-one is going to disarm unilaterally when such a gesture could only empower those who seek to build a nuclear arsenal.

    Iran is unlikely to produce an influential and vocal anti-nuclear lobby anytime soon – one of the many advantages of government by God…..

  3. So we are so worried about China that we sell them uranium to put in their nuclear weapons – makes sense doesn’t it.

  4. JQ, please tell me how you would handle this analogic situation:
    One of the town louts is strutting around my front bar, heated looks, sleeves rolled up, nursing his beer, but looking like he is on the bite. My fears are just that, fears… I know the cops are 120km out of town on a job, the bouncers are out in the kitchen, having a sandwich, but ready to “rock n roll”.. you seriously suggest I should “defuse” the situation by SACKING the bouncers?

  5. Let’s get the analogy a bit more accurate Steve. The lout (Iran) is 120km out of town, you and all the other pubs have professional bouncers (armed forces), but you (unlike the others) have a couple of shotguns lying around and you think it would be a good idea to hang on to them just in case. Then you try and persuade the lout that it would be a really bad idea for him to get his own shotgun.

  6. As long as France and Britain sustain, by example, the view that having nuclear weapons is critical to being a Great Power, governments everywhere will seek them, whether or not they actually provide any security.

    Pr Q wants the major military players in the USE to unilaterally disarm their nuclear force. He also wants the USE to be a world power since it most corresponds to his own ideological model (secular, internationalist, social democratic). He cannot have both his wishes granted at the same time.

    It is true that neither the UK nor FRA face a serious threat of nuclear attack or invasion. But they are the leading powers in the USE. And the USE is aspiring to be a world power on a par with USA, PRC and CIS.

    If the major USE players were to unilaterally disarm then the USE would no longer have the military muscle to make PRC, USA or CIS sit up and take notice. Its constituents would not have the resources to form a world power. So the USE would become a strategic irrelevance.

    But, if you buy the standard rightwing line on this subject, the nuclear deterrent did its work the day the Soviet Union collapsed, unable to sustain the arms race.

    It is a travesty to call the view that US nuclear deterrence constrained and undermined communism a “standard right wing line”. Nuclear deterrence worked to save the world – constraining totalitarianism, deterring nuclear war and winning the Arms Race against the Kremlin.

    Communist party legitimacy depended on the USSR being a world power with nuclear parity to the US. But, with assertive national leadership, the Pentagon’s M-I complex was able to show the Kremlin a clean pair of heels. Absent an effective global politico-military capacity the Communist party collapsed. This is the view of competent scholars and many Soviet-era politicians, who are not exactly right wing standard bearers.

    Carter-Reagan won the Arms Race, not only against the USSR but also against other militaristic nations. Thus the US’s massive arms build up through the years 1978-1985 hastened the end of totalitarianism and turned the US into a military Leviathan with no peer competitors.

    The runaway advantage has been called by some excessive, yet it yields a positive benefit. Annual global military spending, stated in current dollars, peaked in 1985, at $1.3 trillion, and has been declining since, to $840 billion in 2002. That’s a drop of almost half a trillion dollars in the amount the world spent each year on arms. Other nations accept that the arms race is over.

    Other nations are not even trying to match American armed force, because they are so far behind they have no chance of catching up. The great-powers arms race, in progress for centuries, has ended with the rest of the world conceding triumph to the United States.

    This meant that other nations stopped trying to be top-dog which allowed everyone to concentrate on production not destruction. Hence the long boom since then 1985-200?.

    Whats not to like?

    PS I would like to see the concentration of military force into a single global agency continue. All the nuclear weapons of the Great Powers should be consolidated into the hands of one agency, something like the UNSC. They should be used only to counter some far-fetched threat, such as the case of a nuclear threat from a mad dictator or asteroid strike.

    The actual use of nuclear weapons as part of normal military action is immoral. Their use was only seriously contemplated in abnormal situtations – to defeat genocidal militaries (such as NAZI or NIPPON in World War II) or to constrain totalitarian polities (such as USSR or PRC in the Cold War). None of these conditions obtains in the present moment.

  7. I don’t agree with this idea. It sounds nice, but it is quite possible that the strategic situation in 10 or 15 years could be entirely different and Britain may at that point have a justifiable need for a nuclear deterrant from a powerful and hostile rival. If Britain disarms now, and then does need nuclear weapons down the track they will be faced with the complicated problem of re-introducing nuclear weapons while trying to convince the potentially threatening rival and the rest of the world that this is not an escalation. Or, alternatively, depending on the United State’s nuclear umbrella. After Iraq the drawbacks of the latter are obvious.

    Better to avoid re-introducing the weapons by not getting rid of them in the first place. I am not saying that disarming should not be done, but I think the above problem suggests that disarmament should be done multilaterally rather than unilaterally to avoid creating potentially destabilising imbalances. After all, nuclear weapons aimed at a non-nuclear state are in effect a gun pointed at the head. The reality is that the only credible deterrance is nuclear retaliation. And you cannot be sure that nuclear armed states will always have rational leadership.

    If you really want to prevent Iran getting the bomb, propose a nuclear free middle east and get serious about making Israel nuclear free. But that’s not likely to happen.

  8. You’re a lout. The blokes on either side of you have just had their teeth kicked in by rabid bouncers. The louts at the end of the bar recently hired personal body guards and ever since then the rabid bouncers have been chatting with them like they’re all best buddies.

    Do you hire your own personal bodyguard?

    You hear a bouncer 3000km away is retiring. Does this affect your decision?

  9. During the Cold War nuclear disarmament was seen as an essential goal for long term world peace. Obviously, this dream has passed away (following abb1’s armcontrol link above).

    Sooner or later abnormal situations will occur.

    If we tolerate their existence then we must be willing to accept the reality that nuclear weapons will be used at some point in the future.

  10. Doesn’t Israels nukes offset it’s naybers numeric advantage. A kind of M.A.D. in its self and no wars since.

    So what happens when the balance shifts back?

  11. JQ, it wasn’t nuclear deterrence that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I agree to some extent with Jack Strocchi above on this issue.

    The nuclear issue that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union was the cost of attempting to maintain a credible nuclear first strike capability.

    A first strike capability is very different conceptually from a deterrence capability. A first strike capability encompasses the ability to destroy with a devastating first strike the ability of the enemy to strike back. The Soviets busted their economy in the 1980s in an attempt to achieve first strike capability.

    And the irony is that it was all so unnecessary. By the 1980s there were approximately 100,000 nuclear weapons in existence. The cost of victory with a first strike was so high, it was not a practical or even sane option. Yet the Soviet leadership, ossified in its thinking, did not count a doomsday response to a US first strike, using its already existing arsenal, as a credible deterrent to any US first strike that the US may have mounted.

    A general principle can be extracted from this insight: even a first strike capability in the hands of the US, the world’s only superpower, can be rendered nugatory by a relatively small nuclear arsenal capable of inflicting some damage on the US or its vital interests (i.e., in the case of North Korea, a nuclear blast anywhere near the 38th Parallel.)

    Once Iran achieves a nuclear capability, it is more or less immune from a nuclear strike or a conventional invasion. This is what terrifies US strategic thinkers.

  12. The town is Earth and we are all in town.

    Some of the guys have guns and one used one 60 years ago to break up a major brawl. Since then things have been pretty quiet except for the odd scuffle. In fact the guys involved are now best of mates.

    Most of the others in town dont have guns, throwing sticks and stones is all they can do. Many of the stick/stone guys hate the gun guys and have tried to bring them down. Many of the stick/stone guys say that they want to kill all the gun guys and burn down their houses and kick them out of town. Nobody takes them too seriously as they are only using stick/stone however some of the threats have turned into fights which have been nasty.

    Another one of the stick/stone guys says he wants to kill one of the gun guys, the one that lives in his street. He also said that he would drive this guys family into the sea and drown them. He has already had a long fight with another guy in his street, in this case a stick/stone guy. Both guys were hurt badly but would not give up until they were exhausted, nobody won. Nobody knows why they were fighting, some think it is in their blood and they are compelled to alaways quarrel.

    There is evidence that this stick/stone guy is now building his own gun and has repeated his promise to kill the gun guys and their families.

    Should the gun guys wait until the stick/stone guys start shooting and killing them or should they stop the gun being built by blowing up the gun factory, like they did 60 years ago?

    Or should they just get rid of their guns and hope the stick/stone guys do the same?

  13. I’m a life member of a Club. Some of the other members are bigger and stronger than me and do not respect my opinions.

    They are trying to bully me into giving up trying to get more influence and have even befriended my little cousin and support him when he fights with me.

    I can’t leave the Club and I’m getting very fed up, so they had better treat me better if they don’t want me to become a big nuisance.

  14. It’s interesting that you raise this issue, because Blair and Brown have, in secret, reportedly reached agreement on what is to be done about Britain’s nuclear arsenal when the current Trident-carrying submarines wear out in 2020. Canning the things was apparently not considered (or, if it was, certainly wasn’t the outcome). Beyond the threshold question of whether the UK retains nuclear weapons, there was also a quiet debate about whether the expense of a ballistic missile sub fleet was really justifiable, or whether cruise missiles launched from attack subs, surface ships, or aircraft would do the job.

    If you do a Factiva (or LexisNexis, whichever one UQ has) search of the UK press on the topic, there is all sorts of interesting stuff there, including rumours of the current UK nuclear strategy. Notably, only one sub is deployed at any one time (which is easy enough to verify), the subs are reportedly carrying much less than their full complement of weapons, and some of the strategic (city-destroying) warheads on the tridents Tridents have been replaced with sub-kiloton “mini-nukes” designed to minimize collateral damage if they are ever used. Who knows whether it’s true, random rubbish, or deliberate disinformation, but if true it’s an indication that the British political and military leadership don’t regard nuclear weapons simply as a passive deterrent but something that might actually be used.

  15. Jack S, can I ask what on earth the “USE” is? Apart from the generic overcapitalisation of proper nouns…

    Also, I’m not quite as convinced that the UK and France get all of their legitimacy and standing in the world from being nuclear powers. In fact, I think that’s largely nonsense. I don’t see where France is accorded a greater voice than Germany or Italy, and I see that the UK is listened to/reported upon more in Australia because of our common language and heritage, our common foreign policy at the moment, our shared closeness with the US, and the fact that Tony Blair is an activist internationalist.

  16. While the Soviet threat has disappeared, the British still need their nuclear weapons. All this was foreseen was by Jim Hacker, more than two decades ago, when he justified Britain’s nukes to a sceptical questioner

    “It ‘s not just the Russians. It’s also the Fr … the Fr… the Fr …”

    “Who, Minister?”

    “The Fricking Chinese”

  17. “why hang on to it now”

    Not just China, what about the “that “other” axis” or as it is otherwise known, the Russia China Iran Triad.
    Not only are they assisting Iran, they have made it very clear that they will veto any attempts to control Iran’s progress to nuclear status via the UN.

    Seems highly unlikely that Iran gives a hoot whether France and the UK have the bomb. The US is who interests them, and the fact that their fellow Triad members have bombs also. It would be safe to assume that Russia and China will not be giving a lot of thought to unilateral disarmanent.

    Interesting alignment of nuclear powers. As Russia and China are already playing war games with a very definite message for their Central Asian neighbours benefit, and demanding the removal of the US from Central Asia, maybe it is time to pay more attention to these players, the SCO, and what is being played out in Central Asia.

    And the energy strategies of aggressive nations other than the US, and what they are doing and will do about ensuring their supply.

    As it seems likely that the US, as will we, be heading out of Iraq in 2006, time to think about Iran as other than a totalitarian and terrorism sponsoring stand alone state, and what the US is doing in Central Asia.

  18. Katz Says: August 16th, 2005 at 12:58 pm

    I agree to some extent with Jack Strocchi above on this issue. The nuclear issue that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union was the cost of attempting to maintain a credible nuclear first strike capability.

    Just to clarify: The Cold War itself was a multi-faceted event series, embodying a number of parallel conflicts:
    – Party Political: Pluralist Democracy v One Party Dictatorship
    – Class Economic: Socialist Command v Capitalist Market
    – Colonial Cultural: Eurasian Nationalism v Russian Imperialism
    – Martial State: Kremlin v Pentagon

    Each and everyone of these conflicts was lost by the USSR. If I had to put my finger on the defining and deciding one that caused the downfall, I would say it was the economy, stupid.

    I would argue that the USSR’s political system collapsed due to an assymetry between its internal economy and external security: its command economy was not up to servicing its global, or even regional, military.

    This assmetry would have developed in the absence of an arms race with the USA, since state collectivism could not make the transition to a technology service economy. Thus the PRC collapsed as a communist system in all but name after Mao died, even though the PRC was not being bankrupted by an Arms Race.

    But the Carter-Reagan arms race did hasten the demise of the USSR. This is because Soviet political legitimacy depended on the Communist party being able to make the USSR a global power. But, from the mid-sixties onwards, the CCCP was not able to get the USSR’s industry to churn out military hardware that could compete with the US.

    Thus the Soviets pulled out of the Space Race by the end of the sixties. And they were suing for Arms Control by the mid seventies. By the early eighties the USSR’s best MIG 21’s were no longer competitive with the US’s F-15’s (Bekka Valley). And by the early nineties it was evident that the Red Army’s military system could not cut it against NATO best practice (Gulf War).

    Thus the counter-coup against Gorby staged by Red Army die-hards ultimately failed, as did the attack on Yeltsin and the Russian parliament by disaffected military.

  19. John,

    I’ve seen you put this argument previously on this blog and I agree with you. But I’m mystefied as to why you don’t argue it first and foremost with regard to the US. Is this on the French principle that they wouldn’t even think of it?

  20. Has anyone ever unilaterally disarmed, in the history of mankind?

    If so, what happened to them, and did their society still exist a hundred years later?

    The whole idea reeks of wishful thinking, in my estimation. I find it very, very unlikely that Iran’s power calculus depends on Britain having nuclear weapons. It’s much more likely that Iran’s calculus involves the ability to intimidate (or at very least definitely fend off, without a huge army) its neighbors, and exercise “veto” power over sea traffic near itself (thus exerting near-control over most of the world’s oil supply).

  21. Gary wrote:

    “Doesn’t Israels nukes offset it’s naybers numeric advantage. A kind of M.A.D. in its self and no wars since.”

    1. But Israel repeatedly defeated their neighbours before it acquired nukes.

    Egypt and jordan are both now at peace with Israel, the remaining are countries nominally at war with Israel are too militarily weak and/or too remote to present anything like the threat Egypt once did.

    2. It is inevitable that one or more of the states hostile to Israel will eventually acquire weapons of mass destruction – whether they be nuclear, radionic, chemical or biological. It may take 20, 50 or 100 years but eventually it will happen. At that point Israel’s nuclear deterrent becomes effectively useless.

  22. All the issues that Jack Strocchi mentioned above regarding the inability of the Soviets to compete militarily with the USA are well taken. Indeed, most of the Soviet Army, and even the rank and file of the KGB, withdrew its support from the Communist government in 1991. Their fiasco in Afghanistan was a stark reminder of the technical backwardness of Soviet arms.

    Jack should notice, however, that the point that he extracts from my earlier comment addresses a very narrow point. The Soviets persisted during the 1980s in attempting to achieve first-strike nuclear capability. Those resources, wasted in a game that no nation could win in the context of 100,000 warheads poised to destroy most life on earth, might have been allocated to conventional weaponry for the Soviet Army, or even unconventional weaponry for proxies forces encouraged to do mischief to US interests in places like Iraq or Nigeria.

    My simple point was that the Soviet Union played a very stupid game in relation to nuclear weaponry after the mid-1970s, and that those stupid choices wasted resources that may have been more productively allocated.

  23. “As it seems likely that the US, as will we, be heading out of Iraq in 2006, time to think about Iran as other than a totalitarian and terrorism sponsoring stand alone state, and what the US is doing in Central Asia.”


    Maybe the Bush clique should have thought about these issues before swaggering into Baghdad, guns a-blazing, loyal sidekick Howard astride his Shetland pony, striking a strikingly martial pose in his camo chaps.

    Because, as Juan Cole noted the other day, and as I have been suggesting for some time, the biggest winner in Iraq is Iran, politically united behind a hardliner and bouyed by powerful allies and a major extension of Iranian influence in all the holiest places of Shia Islam, which happen to be in Iraq.

  24. You’re quite right, Katz. In fact, US policy is already showing the strains, on the one hand painting Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and on the other hand delivering power in Iraq to the Badr brigades (armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq).

    Once the US decides to pull out of Iraq, they’ll need to be nice to Iran if the whole place is not to fall to bits.

  25. Sigivald, the Tokugawa shogunate banned gunpowder for a long time.

    New Zealand is in the process of renouncing it’s military.

  26. “1. But Israel repeatedly defeated their neighbours before it acquired nukes.”

    At a vary unsustainable high cost to it’s military personnel. And it was possibility for M.A.D. between the US and USSR that forced them to put a lid on there proxies during the yum kippur war. This failsafe no longer exist.

    The peace between Egypt, jordan and Israel is a payed for (bribed) and can not go on for ever.

    2….”At that point Israel’s nuclear deterrent becomes effectively useless.”

    That was my point. People will feel good for the removal of nukes but don’t think of the consequences that it may just increase the chances of war.

  27. Oh yes. And maybe if the Queensland police disarmed, criminals would be so impressed that they would not commit any more crime.

    And maybe if Britain and France diarmed in 1938, Hitler would have been so impressed as to have dropped his dacks and bent over for Neville Chamberlain at Munich.

    When, in the history of all mankind, has this tactic worked?

    Quiggin, you and your utterly cretinous, ignoramus third-rate-hack mate, Gruen, are dangerous idiots.

  28. 1.

    Actually Israel casualties in its wars with the arabs have been remarkably low.

    For example: “Meanwhile, the IDF ground forces quickly overran the Egyptian army in Sinai and were about to reach Alexandria. About 15,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed, 4482 fell into captivity and 80% of the Egyptian tanks were destroyed. 338 Israeli were killed in Sinai and the Israel losses there were about 63 tanks.”


    2. Glad you agree that Israel’s nuclear deterrent is an ultimately futile and self-defeating exercise.

  29. I essentially agree with both Katz & Jack.
    Iran is getting Nuclear arms for the major reason all nations do defensive reasons.
    Once you have them no nation will attempt to invade or do battle with you.

    nuclear arms are only offensive arms if the other nations do not have them.

    Look at the US reaction to North Korea visavis Iraq.

    Iran will not disarm and the cost of military action is now too high for the US or surrogate like Israel to do anything.

  30. Ian, add casualties on all fronts, add the populations of the Egyptians, Syrians and Jordan ‘v’ the Israels (or only the military personnel if you like). Then the unsustainable attrition rate becomes more clear.

    “2. Glad you agree that Israel’s nuclear deterrent is an ultimately futile and self-defeating exercise.”

    Only if the balance gets tipped back in favor of the aggressor if nukes are removed or both sides have them.

  31. Iran’s desire to acquire a nuclear capability is entirely rational. This is why the hysterical right has so much trouble understanding it.

  32. Irans’ desire to acquire nuclear weapon capability has to be seen in the context of their often stated aim to wipe out Israel.

  33. The simple point of the matter is, Iran will get nukes soon, it seems perfectly inevitable. And there is nothing that anyone can do about it. Invasions are totally wishful thinking, “surgical strikes” merely piss the iranians off and guarantee their non-cooperation.

    Taiwan should get nukes next.

  34. Wilful: Absolutely correct, Taiwan’s comparitive defencelessness is yet to impress China into toning down the invasion threats, or disarming, or anything else.

    JQ: For a while there every second post in this thread read like the script from a western movie. Sorry for the saloon brawl analogy which started it. Never did belive in analogies (or reenactments).

  35. There are three requirements for the US to invade a country.
    1. It must be worth it. Iran’s got oil.
    2. The country to be invaded can be portrayed as the ultimate threat. easy with Iran and those “mad mullahs”.
    3. The country must be largely defenceless.
    Iran vs USA in conventional warfare = no contest
    Iran cannot do anything about points 1 and 2 but they certainly can do something about point 3 by acquiring nuclear weapons.
    Has anyone even considered how things have changed in Iran after it was labled an access of evil country? The democracy movement has been silenced, the hardliners are being backed into the corner, and their nuclear program has been stepped up.
    Just another superb example of Bush stupidity and the inevitable consequences of the “good” vs “evil” paradigm established by the neo-cons.

  36. Why, the most important reason and requirement for an invasion is that the country refuse to bow and kiss Uncle Sam’s ring and share the loot. Iranians could’ve done that, like the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians. But they just don’t know what’s good for them, stupid bastards.

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