How I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb
I am opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons – if, indeed, that is what Tehran intends. The potential for mass destruction on the Indian subcontinent brought about by the ‘Hindu bomb’ and the ‘Islamic bomb’, developed by two neighbours who have gone to war four times over Kashmir since partition in 1947, fills me with dread. The underground test – which either failed or was unusually small – carried out by North Korea makes me concerned for the future of the Korean peninsula.
Although megalomania, national prestige and other murky ambitions creep into these designs, they are not entirely irrational projects. To suggest so would be to distort the situation and draw attention away from the very real fears entertained by aspiring nuclear powers.
Iran, for example, not only has the world’s most powerful nation breathing down its neck on its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq, it also has nuclear-armed rivals in the vicinity: Israel and Pakistan.
The current fixation on North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and India ignores the herd of nuclear-armed elephants stampeding through the room. Naturally, the nuclear ambitions of these and other minor powers make the world a more dangerous place, but it was hardly any safer before they drew up their plans.
Ultimate responsibility for the threat of nuclear proliferation rests with the original five (the USA, USSR, UK, France and China) nuclear powers – known as ‘nuclear weapons states’ in the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty – plus one (Israel, which maintains an official policy of ambiguity about its nuclear arsenal).
This is particularly the case with the United States, which not only possesses the largest nuclear arsenal in the world (estimated at some 10,000 warheads) but the Bush administration has also torn up many of the treaties Washington signed on the subject. Since coming to office, he has initialled just one agreement, the Moscow Treaty, in 2002, which committed the two former Cold War enemies to limit their deployable stockpile to 2,200 operational warheads each. But this is mere origami, since both powers can keep the rest of their existing warheads in non-operational stockpiles.
In fact, the USA’s short-lived policy of more passive ‘stockpile stewardship’ was derailed by George W Bush when he announced, in 2003, that the US would start developing a new generation of small ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons (bunker busters, as they have been dubbed) which could actually be used during battle.
As long as the major powers and their friends refuse to put their own house in order and commit to nuclear disarmament, the world will continue to become increasingly hazardous as countries scramble to acquire their own nuclear insurance policies – a ‘nuclear deterrent’ is what the existing nuclear powers call it when it comes to themselves.
But that’s different, apologists would protest. Stable democracies are not the same as failed states, international pariahs and totalitarian dictatorships. Democracies are accountable. And great powers are more careful because of the guarantee of mutually assured destruction their large arsenals afford them.
Despite the laudable ideals of democracy and its many achievements, there is no hard evidence that democracies necessarily wage fewer wars, are less violent or better world citizens than other forms of government. WWI was fought between democracies, albeit a more limited model than today. Germany elected Hitler democratically, and he then went about dismantling the countries democratic institutions.
The USA developed the first nuclear weapon and it was this democracy that dropped the only two nuclear bombs ever used in a conflict on Hiroshima and Nagasaki six decades ago. It is that same superpower that now says it reserves the right to develop and deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the future. These ‘bunker busters’ may be small in comparison with other nuclear monstrosities, but they are still far more powerful and destructive than conventional weapons and will leave the immediate surroundings contaminated for years.
In addition, what may be (relatively) stable regimes today could collapse unceremoniously in the future, as Germany did in the 1930s. In the early 1980s, who would have believed that, within a decade, the Soviet Union would no longer be? Experts currently fear that warheads from its ageing, poorly guarded arsenal could fall into the hands of terrorists. A longer-term risk is what would happen if the Russian Federation disintegrates further and one of the republics is taken over by an unstable despot – who would keep his hand off the button?
It is not beyond the realm of the impossible that the United States, Britain, France, or China may someday destabilise. Stable systems can suddenly go into freefall on the back of some disaster or unexpected shake-up. Israel, given the precariousness of its situation, is particularly prone to this danger.
“The size of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, the uncertainty of how it would be used and the risk of a mistake raises many questions in the unstable Middle East,” writes Harold Hough in Jane’s Intelligence Review, a leading defence journal. “Although Israel is the dominant conventional military power in the region, could the vulnerability of its nuclear force tempt the Israeli Government to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against another country?”
What’s to stop a regime possessed with even a temporary but severe dose of collective irrationality – or mass hysteria – from deploying a couple of nuclear bombs, particularly on a defenceless enemy who can’t hit back? For instance, what if a terrorist atrocity worse than 11 September 2001 were visited on the United States, is there not the possibility that the desire for vengeance would lead to deafening and irresistible calls to “Nuke’em!”? This wouldn’t bring about the nuclear Armageddon feared during the Cold War – and epitomised in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s classic black comedy Dr Strangelove – but could lead to ‘limited’ nuclear strikes, with all the human pain and suffering they entail.
In the global balance of things, it is the real and present arsenals held by the current members of the exclusive nuclear club that provokes the most fear in the human population, not the vague dreams and aspirations of the weak and marginalised.
For instance, survey after international survey shows people around the world perceive the USA as the biggest threat to world peace. Even Washington’s friends have been sweating in recent years. In the wake of the test in North Korea, an international poll of some the USA’s closest allies – UK, Canada, Israel and Mexico – found that three-quarters of respondents believed Bush had made the world a more dangerous place, whereas 69% believed the same about Kim Jong-Il.
As long as the current nuclear powers refuse to
take action, plenty of aspirants will make their bid to join the nuclear club
to even the playing field. It is hypocritical and counterproductive to tell the
rest of the globe to “do as I say and not as I do”. To make the world less
dangerous and disarm the ambitions of nuclear wannabes, the current nuclear
powers need to lead by example and commit in earnest to disarmament.
ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.