Gone Nuclear: How the World Lost Its Way
Symbols of Sovereignty
As long as nuclear weapons are viewed as symbols of sovereignty, proliferation is inevitable.
Movements that campaign against weapons are usually campaigning against particular wars. The movement against nuclear weapons in the 1980s was a movement against the cold war--the last great conflict between states. Nowadays we are much concerned about new types of violence--terrorism, wars of ethnic cleansing and genocide, or so-called wars against terror--which involve both states and nonstate actors. The weapons used in these new types of violence are small arms, homemade bombs or even civilian airliners, on the one side, and supposedly discriminate conventional air strikes, on the other. In campaigning against these new types of violence, we put the emphasis on international law--humanitarian law, human rights law--and occasionally on the weapons used in those wars, like land mines or cluster munitions. We are appalled by attacks on civilians and invoke the language of crimes against humanity, violations of human rights or the concept of "proportionality." In the recent war in Lebanon, all of these terms were used to describe Israeli air attacks.
Discussions about nuclear weapons remain curiously bound up in the language of national security. And proposals for dealing with nuclear weapons remain in the realm of the seemingly sanitized language of arms control and nonproliferation. Although there are fears about nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists, it is generally agreed that terrorists do not have the infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons, and that they could only acquire them as a result of state sponsorship.
Nuclear weapons states justify their weapons in terms of potential war with other states; the main argument is deterrence against a threat from other states using weapons of mass destruction. One reason for the Bush Administration's preoccupation with "counterproliferation"--the idea of using forces to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons--is the argument that deterrence no longer works if states are unstable. Deterrence as a doctrine, the argument goes, only works when states possessing nuclear weapons are relatively stable and control their own territory. By contrast, unstable states, it is argued, may sponsor terrorism, or may let nuclear weapons fall into the hands of nonstate actors, or may possess leaders who do not care about the welfare of their population and thus may not be deterred by the threat of retaliation. But if the states that are allowed to possess nuclear weapons are relatively stable, why would they ever threaten to use nuclear weapons? So why is deterrence necessary at all?
Nuclear weapons are the last-ditch defense of absolute sovereignty. They are supposed to symbolize the awesome power of the state. Yet the lesson of recent wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Chechnya is that even sophisticated conventional weapons are not very effective at what the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called "compellance." They can be very destructive but they do not augment power, if power is understood as the ability to get others to do what you want. Indeed, their very destructiveness undermines power by reducing legitimacy. Israel's prospects for peace and stability have been weakened rather than strengthened by the recent war in Lebanon. If this is true of conventional military power, how much more true is it of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons are immensely dangerous, but what possible goal could be achieved by their use?
As long as nuclear weapons are viewed as symbols of sovereignty, proliferation in a globalizing world is inevitable. And sooner or later they will be used, whether because a failing state, like Pakistan, is involved in illegal trade and has links with extremist militants or because of a misinformed or fanatic leader. After all, the Bush Administration ignored much advice and intelligence when going to war in Iraq and seems to believe that mini-nukes or bunker-busters are usable. If we are horrified by "collateral damage" when American and Israeli leaders are claiming to be discriminate by the standards of war, how much more horrifying would be the possible use of nuclear weapons?
There is a need for a new approach to nuclear weapons based on international humanitarian and human rights law, and on the protection of individual human beings rather than states. Nuclear weapons are clearly terror weapons. The threat or use of nuclear weapons would be a crime against humanity. In a recent legal opinion on the replacement of the British Trident nuclear system, two eminent international lawyers argued that the use of nuclear weapons would infringe the "intransgressible" requirement in international customary law that a distinction be drawn between combatants and noncombatants. If we are moving toward a world based on multilateral arrangements among states and the strengthening of international law, especially as it affects individuals, then there is something very peculiar about hiving off the nuclear weapons debate into a different state-bound arena. Campaigning against nuclear weapons has to be part of a wider campaign, already under way in the protests against genocide in the Balkans or Africa or against the wars in Lebanon or Iraq, that would oppose attacks on civilians everywhere.