On nuclear weapons, morality and reality

Norman Geras, commenting on an essay by David Krieger of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, agrees with Krieger that nuclear weapons are criminal by their very nature. But Norm adds that without a means of enforcing a prohibitionist international law on “delinquent states”, the renunciation of such weapons by “good states” would leave the latter with a problem.

I can find no fault in Norm’s “quasi-Hobbesian reasoning”, but I suspect that a certain blogger will come along soon, and, with chest inflated to fullest extent, insist that the possession and use of nuclear weapons by a democratic state is inherently moral.

Norm’s comment neatly articulates the reason for my switch from an actively anti-nuclear position to the one I hold today. That is, the use of nuclear weapons would be a criminal act of unheard of proportions, and possession of such weapons is morally compromising. But the adoption of a morally superior stance does not solve the underlying problem.

In the absence of international law that can be enforced, for all democratic states to unilaterally disarm would be foolish. The best we can hope for is that the UK, France and Israel disarm, leaving the US with its nuclear arsenal and the backing of the now former nuclear states within a strengthened military alliance. A less radical but politically more problematic alternative might be for UK and French nuclear forces to be brought under wider European control. But that could never happen without much closer integration in the EU than exists at present.

Neither of these may be viable long-term solutions, but they could be sustainable until as an international community we make progress on the legal and technical fronts. What is vital is that we halt and reverse the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Unilateral nuclear disarmament by minor players in this game of bluff would be a valuable contribution.