The ruins of the city of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb in August 1945. US Army Air Forces photograph. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Two Cheers for Nuclear Proliferation

An obsession with the dangers of proliferation overlooks its positive effects

The anniversary of Hiroshima understandably produces outpourings of dismay at the horrors of nuclear war. Articles, petitions and sermons warning of the danger of nuclear war and calling for immediate nuclear disarmament flow through the media around the world.

Angst about an imminent end of the world has haunted mankind throughout history. Kant pondered the question “Why do people anticipate the end of the world, and why such a terrible end?” a century and a half before Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima.

The 75th anniversary of the first atomic bombs comes under the shadow of the Covid-19 crisis. The worldwide spread of a disease is often used a metaphor for the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the likelihood of their uncontrollability. Minds in the grip of angst-ridden metaphors are not the best guides to analysing problems.

Because the atomic bomb has been shown to possess the awesome destructive power, the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid nuclear conflict has obscured the risks to peace of disarmament. Just as those in the grip of coronavirus hysteria refuse to contemplate means of tempering not only the virus itself but the deadly effects of lockdowns on people with other diseases or facing economic ruin, there is a danger that prioritising nuclear disarmament or blocking proliferation at any cost could revive conventional warfare on a grand scale not seen since 1945.

Unintended consequences tend to be discounted by minds in the grip of biological and epidemiological metaphors. After all cancers are not negotiated with and viruses have to be eliminated if people’s health is to be secure. What kind of person suggests live-and-let-live with the plague? Just as it was stupid of YOLO (You only live once) clubbers to wear t-shirts emblazoned with “Not afraid of Covid”, as though the virus was deterred by defiance, it is however hardly more sensible to refuse to recognise the difference between a microbe and a weapons-system dependent on human agency for use.

In dealing with man-made military tensions, however, refusing to live with risk is more dangerous than trying to handle it. Those mesmerised by visions of mushroom clouds (as mind-bending as any magic mushroom) refuse to look past the spine-chilling reports of the risks of nuclear proliferation to see the reality that even large-scale conventional war between rivals possessing atomic weapons has been avoided. It is not just that the United States and the Soviet Union evaded mutual annihilation during the Cold War, but more recently India and Pakistan who fought three wars before both had the Bomb have pulled back from the brink despite profound mutual antagonism and provocation.

The recognition of the risk of mutual annihilation sobers the minds of leaders. Think of Mao’s insane rhetoric about how China could lose 90% of its population and still outnumber the Americans after a nuclear exchange. It was Mao’s apparent fanaticism which led Khrushchev to refuse to supply nuclear technology to China. Once China had developed its own Bomb, Mao dropped ridiculing American atomic bombs as “paper tigers” and his diplomacy and public statements became pragmatic.

Critics may well say, “So we survived the Cold War but what about nuclear proliferation today?” No-one can give guarantees for the future, but the history of disarmament before World War Two should give those assuming that any and all disarmament makes for a more peaceful world pause for thought.

The Washington Naval Treaty in 1921 destabilised the global position of Britain by creating a situation where the Royal Navy could not match potential rivals like Japan in the Far East and Italy in the Mediterranean if it found itself at war with them and Germany as happened by 1941. The Second World War’s fifty-five million dead should remind us that conventional weapons can end the world for huge numbers of people.

Nostalgia for the simple bi-polarity of the Cold War decades after 1945 cannot solve today’s problems in a world which is not merely tripolar. The United States, Russia and China are not the only nuclear players nor are their rivalries the most antagonistic.

China and India, India and Pakistan have killed more of each others’ people than ever Americans and Russians killed each other. Even so the loss of life in their border wars has been small by comparison with for instance the Korean War (1950-53). That was China’s most deadly foreign conflict fought under Stalin’s nuclear umbrella but without direct Russian intervention. In both Korea and Vietnam, Washington refrained from using atomic weapons but unleashed a devastating conventional array at huge and indecisive cost.

North Korea’s recent acquisition of a bomb and missile technology set off alarm bells. The Kim family is murderous on a grand scale but so was Mao. Even when Kim Jong un and President Trump competed in making blood-curdling threats, in fact conflict was avoided because of the mutual risk posed by each other’s nuclear deterrent.

That has been in many ways bad news for the long-suffering people of North Korea who remain under a cruel tyranny but if there is any compensation for them out of the Kim dynasty’s diversion of vast resources from their well-being into making a nuclear arsenal, it is that they have been spared the addition of the horrors of war to their catalogue of human misery.

Today a new arms race between Washington and Moscow is widely expected. President Trump’s withdrawal from various arms control treaties along with Russia’s much-hyped development of hyper-sonic missiles and other novel delivery systems is not risk free but hardly offers the prospect of either side betting the White House or Kremlin on a first strike.

China is the only nuclear power to have ruled out being the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict. But behind the apparent moral high ground Beijing can claim in matters nuclear lies an understanding of the utility of conventional force in a crisis with a nuclear superpower like the United States.

Because China’s ICBM stockpile is so small compared with America’s there has been an assumption in Washington that Beijing would never risk open conflict with the United States because the toll on China of thermonuclear war would be so much greater. Mao’s bloodcurdling rhetoric is less relevant to modern Chinese military planning, however, than Deng Xiaoping’s curt remark on this imbalance of terror: “How many Los Angeles can they afford to lose?”

China, for instance, seems to believe that its minimal strategic deterrent capable of retaliating for any first strike, could in fact open the way to asserting itself in a conventional war especially at sea around Taiwan and in the South China Sea if the USA could not risk a nuclear response. Then China’s extensive arsenal of anti-carrier missiles and other weapons intended to eliminate the American naval advantage could be used under Beijing’s nuclear umbrella to achieve limited goals. If US territory itself was not threatened with invasion might not Washington accept its naval losses as a price worth paying to avoid a devastating nuclear exchange?

Maybe the Ayatollahs would be calmed down if they had nuclear weapons

Fortunately, Chinese military planners are still aware of how tough an invasion of Taiwan would be even without coming into direct conflict with the United States. China’s public rejection of First Use is not a peacenik stance but fortunately Beijing’s realistic calculus is that even conventional war has huge costs difficult to justify unless attacked.

Deterrence can never be merely nuclear. A state or an alliance with a full spectrum of military forces from boots on the ground to ICBMs is a strong position to dissuade an aggressor. Bad regimes know that too. That’s good for their survival but bad for their subjects.

Yet what about a regime bent on developing the Bomb for use not deterrence?

Iran might fit that bill. Although apologists for Iran’s devious record in matters nuclear either deny Teheran has ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons or say that the Ayatollahs need such weapons to deter Israel which as its own (undeclared) arsenal. Yet whereas a small and densely-populated state like Israel would face annihilation from a handful of nuclear weapons, it has no motive for attacking Iran except to pre-empt the kind of anti-Zionist Armageddon repeatedly threatened by Iranian leaders even without a Bomb.

Maybe the Ayatollahs would be calmed down if they had nuclear weapons but there is a real risk that their religious mindset would take dramatic risks under a nuclear umbrella. Mass-murdering Communist tyrants have been conscious of their own mortality and anxious to postpone it. The Ayatollahs might not wish to commit suicide but their promotion of suicide-bombing among their followers means that the kind of rogue nuclear weapons attack which has so far remained the province of thrillers could not be entirely ruled out.

More likely, however, is the scenario in which a nuclear-armed Iran with its range of ballistic missiles would seek to intimidate or intervene in Arab rivals. An Iranian Bomb would act as a destabiliser in the absence of an “Arab” deterrent. Saudi Arabia or the UAE might go nuclear. Riyadh and Teheran who are already fighting a savage proxy war in Yemen – the Vietnam of the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite Cold War. If only one of them had the Bomb wouldn’t it be tempted to use it?

Many nuclear disarmers and anti-proliferators in the West overlook how much bloodshed goes on in places which pose no risk of radioactive fall-out descending on us. But the human costs are huge nevertheless.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but it could be a great deal worse. Even conventional wars to pre-empt nuclear proliferation have huge costs. Good intentions are never enough, nor is cynicism. Sadly, the world is too uncertain for simple formulas and past performance is no sure guide to future outcomes. But an obsession with the dangers of proliferation which overlooks its sobering effects risks becoming the disease of which it pretends to be the cure. Learning to live with the Bomb doesn’t mean coming to love it, but life without it is not a guarantee of peace or survival either.

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

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

Critic magazine cover