My contribution to The Big Trident Debate
Supporters of nuclear deterrence (should they be termed nuclear de-terrorists?) claim that nuclear weapons prevented the Cold War breaking out into actual hostilities. While it is obvious that the presence of nuclear weapons (NW) raises the threshold for countries going to war, it is not the case that possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence absolutely prevents their actual use as war-fighting weapons. If it did, the nuclear deterrorist lobby would be arguing that if every country in the world had a nuclear deterrent, (something that could easily be arranged) the result would be universal and perpetual world peace.
The assumption is therefore that some countries (notably the US, UK, Russia, China, France and…er… Israel) are responsible enough to have these weapons of mass destruction and use them to keep the peace, but others (notably Iran and North Korea) are not so responsible and cannot be trusted with them. The criteria for being “responsible” are not clear, especially in the case of states that are blatantly abusive of human rights such as the US, UK, China, Russia, Israel, and indeed, France, when we remember the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior.
It is not the case that deterrence with these weapons of mass destruction is infallible, even for a hypothetically “responsible” state.
Take a scenario where there is bitter tension between two nuclear weapons states. At a time that the war cabinets are meeting on both sides, there is an ambiguity on an early warning screen caused by a computer fault or an unusual electrochemical event affecting an early warning sensor; the appearance is then interpreted as an incoming attack - and the president gives the order to respond with his nuclear weapons. From this point, we have to assume that there would be an escalation into all-out nuclear war.
The consequences of this are well studied. A nuclear winter caused by hemispheric dust clouds would follow for a couple of years - and after the clouds disperse, we would have enhanced global warming through the burned forests and towns. We would lose everything. Homo “sapiens” might survive, but as a guilty, primitive entity.
The argument can be put as a logical syllogism:
1 If the consequences of the failure of a system are infinite, then it is rational to use that system if and only if the chances of its failure are zero.
2 The consequences of failure of the system of nuclear deterrence for our world civilisation and for Gaia are infinite. Life, including human life, would probably survive, but our civilisation, with its abilities and its values, would not.
3 The chances of failure of nuclear deterrence system are greater than zero.
4 Therefore the nuclear deterrence system must be abandoned.
(and, while we're at it, so should the primary means of obtaining NW, namely nuclear power).