The communist state of North Korea seems like a location that is too remote from Britain for us to care about. In many respects, this might be true but this week’s nuclear weapon test is an event than can have a much wider fall-out in every sense. The East-West Cold War ended some 20 years ago and with it some of our focus on the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Today we have other simultaneous worldwide concerns such as terrorism, recession, global warming and a possible ‘flu pandemic. The coincidence of these issues could cause you to visualise that somewhere there is a global control room staffed by the people of a fictional organisation from the movies, such as SPECTRE or THRUSH.
The presence of other serious issues should not distract world leaders from the dangers posed by a growing number of nuclear weapon states. The threat used to be called the nth country problem with nobody knowing where it would end. In the nuclear race, the first three countries to acquire the atomic bomb were the United States (1945), Soviet Union (1949) and Britain (1952). It was surprising at the time that our country was third given its considerable involvement in American projects but this just showed how many years’ advantage a little spying could bring. At the same time, the fact that it took a technologically advanced nation, like Britain, seven years to build the bomb provided some reassurance that the process was not that easy.
Now a number of countries have nuclear weapons and are doubtless convinced by the deterrence argument that these weapons provide a protective umbrella against aggression. Nuclear arsenals are supposed to be a deterrent to their own use and are therefore a doomsday weapon system. In practice, they do not reliably prevent acts of aggression at all levels. Their ability to do so depends to some extent on the rationality of the people who you are trying to deter. If the people who are supposed to be deterred place a relatively low value on life, including their own, the deterrence argument is rapidly weakened.
The United States and Russia retain very significant nuclear arsenals beyond their needs – allowing that need is a valid term to use. It becomes increasingly difficult for these countries to argue against the decisions of “rogue states” acquiring nuclear weapons while their own stocks are pitched so high. Certainly it is a more dangerous world if we have political or theocratic dictatorships with nuclear weapons because such countries by definition have inadequate lines of accountability for their governments’ actions. Nonetheless, the ability of existing nuclear powers to argue for arms control and non-proliferation must be enhanced by any good example that they choose to give. It is to be hoped that the Obama administration will take a lead with this agenda.
Councillor Bob Lanzer, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
28th May 2009