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Editorial
Last Updated: 01/15/2008
The Nuclear Haves and Have Nots
Ross Ryan

Disarmament, deterrence, and the role of nuclear power in the UN system.


Fear mongering is a detestable characteristic of both politics and journalism, and I apologize for beginning 2008 with such a dark issue. I am concerned, however, with the cavalier attitude taken by so many toward the continued development, testing, and threatened use of nuclear weapons – not so much by the rogue states and shadowy terrorist organizations of the world, but by the well-established and powerful nuclear states who occupy the most privileged position in the international community: the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Discouraging the proliferation of nuclear weapons is essential, of course, but it is time we thought more seriously about how to put disarmament back on the political agenda as well.

The US policy of threatening Iran with military action – leaving "all options" on the table – is an excellent example of why non-proliferation by itself cannot work. So long as one state can threaten another with weapons of mass destruction, the logic of national security will naturally compel other states to build their own in defence, raising the security concerns of still more states in the process.

To be clear, I oppose the nuclear armament of any nation, including Iran, and support the disarmament of nuclear states in equal measure. The last thing we need in this brave new world of religious extremism and global climate change is another nuclear bomb. That said, it is easy to see how the government of Iran could look at the current state of international relations and conclude that it would be in their best interest to go nuclear – the benefits are just too attractive.

For the UN, which has tried to control the transfer of nuclear weapons technology between nations with treaties and agreements, it is particularly important to recognize these benefits; the political rewards which await those states that succeed in developing a nuclear arsenal as opposed to those that maintain a conventional military, or none at all. And an analysis of these rewards, like all meaningful analysis, must include a good measure of self-reflection.

Certianly, international relations are not confined to the UN system, and there are other factors Iran may be considering as it ponders the nuclear question. For one thing, there is the example of the "Axis of Evil", that remarkably tactless label used by the US President in 2002 to describe the “enemies” of the United States, which he went on to name as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. We can be sure that Iran was paying attention when, months later, the Bush administration led a full invasion into the sovereign state of Iraq on the pretext of Saddam Hussain having “weapons of mass destruction.” Incidentally, even after years of searching for them, no signs of such weapons were found by UN inspectors, and the evidence presented to the UN before the invasion was insufficient to convince many in the international community to condone the proposed military operation.

North Korea, on the other hand, has flaunted its nuclear capability for years, and has directly threatened its neighbours on several occasions, such as when it test fired long range missiles over Japan in 1998 and again in 2006. Significantly, North Korea has been approached much more cautiously by the American government, who continue to pursue a strategy of diplomacy with the government of Kim Jong Il, even while they downplay the nuclear threat he poses. The message of American foreign policy towards the so-called Axis of Evil then – and again we can assume that it was not lost on the Iranian government – is that the possession of nuclear weapons deters invasion and promotes diplomacy.

It would be wrong to characterize this preference towards invading non-nuclear states as a unique policy to any one nation, however, since no great power has invaded a nuclear state in the 63 years since WWII. In addition to North Korea, the governments of Israel, Pakistan, and India have all enjoyed a relatively higher degree of international respect for their sovereignty since they have developed nuclear weapons systems – illustrating the power of nuclear deterrence in international relations.

Although one can easily recognize the logic of deterrence – that states will calculate the risks of military engagement more carefully when nuclear weapons are involved – we must not fail to see the glaring inadequacies of this policy either. The unprecedented military build-up during the Cold War, for example, taught us that deterrence only works if the countries involved can keep investing in the research and development of ever more weapons of mass destruction. Not only do such programs entrench the interests of arms manufacturers and divert funds from peaceful research and social spending, the stockpiling of exceptionally dangerous weapons greatly increases the risk of risk of accident or theft by a terrorist organization.

And while we are on the subject of terrorist organizations, another thing we learned about deterrence during the Cold War is that, since nuclear states cannot directly engage with each other, they tend to fight by proxy. That is, larger powers fund and train small groups of insurgents and guerrillas all over the “unaligned third world”, as relatively poorer countries were referred to at the time. Afghanistan springs to mind as a particularly salient example, having the honour of being both the first country to be invaded in the infamous “War Against Terror” and, only a few years earlier, one of the major proxy battlegrounds for US covert operations against the USSR.

If the nations of the world are serious about providing some sort of security form the horror of nuclear war, the policies of non-proliferation and deterrence are simply not good enough. The political desirability of having nuclear weapons must be removed from the international system. The cult of the nuclear bomb must be challenged.

A good place to begin would be the democratization of the UN Security Council - a narrowing of the power gap between the permanent members (England, France, the US, Russia, and China) and the rest of the international community. It is my opinion that no war between nations should be considered legitimate by the UN unless the entire General Assembly agrees.

It is also my opinion that if any particular group of states would like to occupy a leadership position in building a more secure and peaceful world, their credentials should be better than simply being the first five nations to build nuclear bombs.

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