Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Too dangerous to live with

There’s no realist case for the lurking risk of nuclear armageddon

This article was written in response to Patrick Porter’s feature in the May 2022 issue of The Critic, titled: Why nuclear abolition should fail

Patrick Porter recently wrote a sober and thoughtful essay in these pages insisting that the abolition of nuclear weapons was an idea that deserved to fail. He writes, it seems to me, as a realist. I would like to offer a contrasting perspective, also founded in realism. I believe that advocates (regretful or otherwise) of nuclear weapons have failed to see the facts and harsh realities for what they are.

I agree with Porter that it is foolish to imagine that human nature will change suddenly overnight or that relatively recent norms can successfully withstand the deeply embedded allure of war. We agree that nuclear deterrence works more or less to discourage war between nuclear-armed states. Yet our views on whether to eliminate nuclear weapons are diametrically opposed.

Porter stands on the side of established opinion — he makes an argument that has a respected lineage. Unfortunately, pedigree is not a guarantee of rightness. Established ideas about nuclear weapons are always suspect. They were formed, after all, during the Cold War — a time of piercing anxiety, fear and even paranoia — and that undercuts their reliability: no one does their best thinking when they’re afraid.

Nor is the longevity of these ideas proof of their value. Realists (I don’t have to tell Porter) prefer facts and pragmatic thinking to theories and hunches. But we have precious little actual experience with nuclear weapons. Rifles, for example, have been used in thousands of conflicts in myriad circumstances. Assessments about the utility of rifles are ratified by many data points. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, were used twice, in a single week, against a single type of target, in a single war, against a single adversary, more than seventy-five years ago — and never used since.

In terms of practical experience we have almost no reliable data about nuclear weapons. The ideas that experts and officials hold about them are constructed almost entirely out of assumptions, judgements — even hunches. It is quite possible that a false or exaggerated notion, formed during the Cold War, has continued down the years to the present day, uncorrected by actual experience.

If you look closely, a number of the central ideas espoused by those who want us to hold on to nuclear weapons are remarkably curious.

Porter states flatly that the “nuclear revolution . . . is irreversible and permanent”. When you stop to think about it, this is a rather improbable claim. What he is saying is that nuclear weapons exist outside the steady stream of technological evolution that has flowed throughout human history. For as long as human beings have dwelt on earth, tools of all sorts, including weapons, have been continually modified and improved. New tools are invented, adopted and implemented. Old ones are tossed on junk heaps or put in museums. The process has been as invariable as the rising of the sun. But — according to Porter — now it has come to an end. Claims that nuclear weapons will always exist never fail to remind me of Shelley:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

If nuclear weapons continued on forever, they would be the first works of human hands that had survived in this way. Is that really very likely?

What, Porter asks (with the invasion of Ukraine ringing alarm bells in all of our heads) about smaller states in the crosshairs of larger nuclear ones? This echoes the now common warning that nuclear weapons are essential because Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union broke apart, and now they must fight off Russia without allies because Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if other states interfere.

First, they were hardly Ukraine’s weapons — they were Russian weapons guarded by Russian troops on Ukrainian soil. Saying that Ukraine “gave up” nuclear weapons would be like saying that Belgium “gave up” its nuclear weapons if the U.S. were to remove the handful of weapons stored at Kleine Brogel. Second, such a situation would not arise in a world free of nuclear weapons, because a nukeless Russia could not invade Ukraine with impunity it would have to fear that others might come to Ukraine’s aid.

The question demonstrates how deeply some believe these weapons have radically remade the world. If nuclear weapons advocates were not so convinced of the amazing changes wrought by nuclear weapons, the answer to Porter’s question about small states would be obvious. Smaller states, in a world without nuclear weapons, would not be helpless, just as smaller states were not helpless for the thousands of years before nuclear weapons existed. They would simply make alliances with strong states and avoid unnecessarily provoking war.

The eager belief in the revolutionary nature of nuclear weapons is odd. It is far more like the immodest enthusiasms of utopianists or science fiction fans than sober realists. It overlooks the fact that although the tools we use may have changed, we ourselves (and our very human natures) are largely the same. Wars in the future will follow recognizable courses because the people fighting them have the same instincts, passions, capacity for self-delusion, lust for war and so on as people did in the past.

Nuclear deterrence would have to be perfect in perpetuity

Nuclear weapons are not some kind of magic wand that can keep nations — small or large — safe against all mishap. The oft-repeated claim that nuclear weapons “guarantee survival” is the best proof that the advocates of nuclear weapons are not realists. Genuine realists understand that there are no guarantees in life.

Much of Porter’s analysis is based on the fear that “ruthless” regimes will refuse to give up nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are, in his view, the ultimately desirable weapon — a constant temptation to the power-hungry, the unscrupulous, the immoral. This is the nub of our disagreement.

There is, in fact, considerable evidence that nuclear weapons are not so desirable. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been ratified by 58 states — many of whom could make nukes if they wanted to. (If North Korea, ranked 123rd in terms of GDP by the United Nations, could do it, so could at least 115 other countries — including South Sudan, Laos, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.) But they don’t seem to want to.

Is it because of the enormous faith they have in the probity of American world leadership? I hardly think so.

It is an open secret in Washington that despite the fact that ordinary people see them as the “ultimate” weapon, and despite the fact that they are enormously destructive, nuclear weapons have hardly any military utility at all. It is possible for a weapon to be too big to be useful. There is historical evidence to draw on. Again and again when faced with war and escalating casualties (and even defeat), U.S. officials and Russian officials have both shied away from trying to use nuclear weapons. Which is not to say that they will always be so sensible.

But seventy-five plus years of non-use is no accident. It is not a testament to the kind-heartedness of national leaders. When wars are fought, at least some of the moral strictures that rule peacetime life fall away. The problem is how to use these poisonous, over-large weapons on crowded battlefields.

If nuclear weapons have little practical battlefield utility, what about deterrence? Porter is honest in listing a goodly number of things that nuclear deterrence cannot do. The one thing it does do, he says, is prevent nuclear-armed states from fighting with nuclear-armed states. Perhaps that will always be so. But that means nuclear deterrence will have to be perfect in perpetuity.

We can agree that nuclear deterrence has “worked” over the past 75 years. That is a blessing of sorts. But all of us must face the harsh reality that, without doubt, nuclear deterrence will fail one day. There is a crucial component of nuclear deterrence that is flawed — that is, in fact, prone to catastrophic failure. That flawed component is . . . us.

Human beings are fallible. From the highest leader to the lowest soldier, everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. And human beings are deeply involved in nuclear deterrence. Human beings make the threats, and human beings decide how to respond. Deterrence is not a machine that hums quietly unattended in a corner. We are involved at every stop. So if human beings are prone to folly (and we are), and if human beings play an integral role in nuclear deterrence (and we do), then nuclear deterrence is inherently flawed. It will fail. One day one of those failures will lead to a catastrophic nuclear war. It’s not a question of if; it’s just a question of when.

Which raises a question. If nuclear weapons are so militarily useless, and if deterrence is bound to fail one day, how can one explain the strange attraction they seem to have? How can one explain the fact, which Porter points to, that no nuclear-armed state — or one even protected by a nuclear ally — has shown the slightest inclination to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?

The answer is that they have become symbols of national stature. They are regularly referred to as the “currency of power”.

Governments and experts cling to nuclear weapons because they are symbols of greatness, dark talismans of power. But as any first year college literature student will tell you, symbolism is tricky business, often prone to wild exaggeration. The practical record of non-use shows that the symbolism wrapped around nuclear weapons does not align with the reality.

“But why,” you might ask, “has that symbolism been so pervasive and lasted so long?” The answer is simple: lack of experience. Invent something that’s stupid — clunky and difficult to use — and even if people are taken in by its shiny newness for a while, eventually, as they gain experience with it, they will give it the heave ho. They will turn to other tools that better meet their needs. But this winnowing process has been achingly slow with nuclear weapons because (thankfully) we have so little practical experience with their use.

The importance of nuclear weapons is largely symbolic

Even though it has been halting, the reality of their lack of utility and the outsized danger they represent has been slowly sinking in. The decision by the Eisenhower administration not to use nuclear weapons in Korea was the first glimmer that they lacked military utility. The treaties in the 1980s and 1990s that reduced the number of weapons from around 70,000 to something like 15,000 was acknowledgement that their vast destructiveness meant a war fought with large numbers of such weapons would be nonsensical. The decision not to rely on battlefield nuclear weapons for the defence of Europe, and the retirement of most tactical weapons by the United States in 1991, was another watershed moment. The growing clamour of non-nuclear-states for a treaty banning the weapons entirely is still another sign that the reality of the situation is slowly taking hold.

Using nuclear weapons for protection is a little like protecting yourself from attack by carrying around a vial of old-style nitroglycerine — a highly volatile and very powerful explosive that could be detonated by the smallest bump or shake . The vial is hard to use without harming yourself, it’s almost certain to kill innocent bystanders and the possibility of accidents is constant and ongoing. The eventual replacement of old-style nitroglycerine with newer, more stable explosives was not difficult, because no one keeps a tool that is not very useful and at the same time very dangerous. No one. Not even bloodthirsty dictators. Nothing would hurt Kim Jong Un more than a worldwide consensus that he had starved and denied his people for a weapon that was now deemed obsolete.

We are currently held in thrall by the awe-inspiring symbolism conjured by the lightning-like flash of light, the thunderous roar, and the column of smoke that seems to blot out the sky. The way to break the hold nuclear weapons have on us is to doggedly insist on reality over symbolism.

If nuclear weapons are the “ultimate” weapon, guarantor of our very lives, then even the tiniest step toward elimination will be fraught with difficulties. But if nuclear weapons are blundering, clumsy, overly-large, mostly unusable weapons that carry with them mortal danger, then it will not be hard to ban them. Once their symbolic meaning has been stripped away, treaties will be easier than we have ever dared to hope.

The key step is the change of view, the reversal of the meaning that we assign them in our lives. Their importance is largely symbolic, so the way to ban them is to dispel that false symbolism using unflinching realism.

The need for despotic enforcement regimes and invasive inspection regimes will not be needed because symbolism is not reality. Once consensus forms around the realization that the evolution of weapons has moved on from nuclear weapons, that they are obsolete, coercion will hardly be necessary. No nation wants to be the last to abandon dangerous and obsolete weapons.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover