Uncertain Times?

Friday March 16, 2007

It is disheartening, although not surprising, that the decision to upgrade Britain’s nuclear arsenal, at the cost of something between twenty and over seventy billion pounds, has succeeded in making its way through parliament despite the existence of several better things that tens of billions of dollars could be spent on. Despite a revolt by backbenchers, it was pushed through thanks to support from the Conservative party.

When it comes to questions of nuclear ‘deterrence’ there is often a very curious logic at work. On the one hand we possess weapons that are designed never to be used, but on the other hand, we can’t just knock up a few decoys out a papier-mâché (cheaper, and with far less grave implications) because there needs to be an element of uncertainty about whether we might use them after all. Thus the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons must be a necessary part of the logic of deterrence; and we are entitled to ask whether, if these weapons could possibly be used, given the implications of their use, whether their possession is ethically defensible at all.

Beyond this somewhat tattered logic of deterrence there is a further justification that has been used to support this decision. Tony Blair’s full statement on the subject from the December of last year reads like this:

There are perfectly respectable arguments against the judgment we have made. I both understand them and appreciate their force. It is just that, in the final analysis, the risk of giving up something that has been one of the mainstays of our security since the War, and moreover doing so when the one certain thing about our world today is its uncertainty, is not a risk I feel we can responsibly take.
Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate insurance. It may be, indeed hopefully is the case that the eventuality against which we are insuring ourselves, will never come to pass.
But in this era of unpredictable but rapid change, when every decade has a magnitude of difference with the last, and when the consequences of a misjudgement on this issue would be potentially catastrophic, would we want to drop this insurance and not as part of a global move to do so, but on our own? I think not.

I’m glad that thinking differently should still be considered respectable, although I am not sure that Mr. Blair nor all who voted with him truly do understand the arguments against nuclear weapons or appreciate their force. Do they really appreciate the force of the possibility of millions upon millions killed, maimed, mutilated, their bodies torn by radiation-induced sickness? Do they really understand the global implications of any possible use, a use that is, as I have said, a part of the logic of possession?

The crux of Tony Blair’s justification is the idea that we are living in times in which the only thing certain is uncertainty, as if this insight into uncertainty is an insight into the nature of ‘our world today’. Yet it is no such thing. The certainty of uncertainty is not a local condition that obtains just here and now, but it is a general condition, the condition into which we are born, in which we all live, in which we will all die. There is no escape, and there never was, from the certainty of uncertainty. All things are subject to change. All things are without enduring essence. This is no more true now than it was when the Buddha first said it two and a half thousand years ago. Nor is it any less true.

But here is a deep flaw in Tony Blair’s argument – the claim is that for the time being (whilst, of course, we remain committed to the idea of disarmament) conditions are such that we should continue to keep these weapons. Yet these conditions upon which we argue we should keep this ‘deterrence’ are not local, but global. They will always be there. We will never escape uncertainty. The argument that it is uncertainty that requires us to renew Trident is incompatible with any claims about having a commitment to disarmament. It is, in fact, a commitment to never giving up such weapons. And if we never give them up, because the logic of deterrence is such that it must be possible that we should use them, then some day we will.

Tags: , , ,
#1 · Kendall

16 March 2007

I agree with you. Nuclear weapons have no place in our world. Here in the U.S. we have way too many. It’s kind of like trying to keep a lion as a pet in your house. Eventually you will be bitten. We have plenty of ways to deter violence from others countries and ways to non-violently attack them if ever need be. The times of country VS country are essentially gone. There’s too many innocent people that would suffer the consequences of a nuclear weapon. The global backlash of a country using a nuclear weapon would also be large.

Here’s to hoping the U.S. or U.K. takes the initiative to seriously start disarming its nuclear weapons.

#2 · christopher moore

18 March 2007

Britain joined the nuclear bomb club in the 1950s and now we are in the club as more countries want to join, to maintain our status within this club there is no pulling out. You cannot dis-invent the bomb and as long the nuclear threat remains Britain needs to maintain its say in this club. North Korea seem to have been persuaded to stop further nuclear bomb developments with Britain contributing to that persuasion. So if Britain is to maintain its influence in any nuclear non- proliferation talks it must keep its bomb.

#3 · Will

19 March 2007

Hello, Christopher,

Yes, I know the argument… but why am I not convinced?

To be sure, the bomb cannot be uninvented. Yet, as I understand it, this argument concerning influence on the process of disarmament is not the main reason put forward for keeping the bomb. Instead the argument, as far as I can see, is from uncertainty and from the point of view of protection from undetermined potential future threats. And at least on this logic alone, it simply does not add up.

Best wishes,


#4 · scruffysmileyface

19 March 2007

I love your blog, but I find it presumptous to assert that the PM doesn’t understand the gravity of the potential use of nuclear weapons – but that we, as bloggers, Buddhists, and lovers of peace, do. I look forward to the day when your government and mine divest themselves of their ability to kill en masse. But it can’t be done one nation at a time.
We need to influence the world to abandon such weapons – not simply criticize our own governments for their maintenance of them – for if our governments (mine, more specifically) were to suddenly get rid of them, that would almost certainly spark yet another war, not prevent one, by leaving us open to attack by those who haven’t yet abandoned them.

#5 · ray

2 April 2007

A requirement of a deterrent is that one is prepared to use it. In what circumstances do you think the Buddha (or any other major spiritual leader for that matter) would condone the firing of a nuclear warhead at a civilian population?

Unilateral…multilateral disarmament… whatever. We need to disarm. I don’t underestimate the complexity of ridding the world of these weapons but use of such weapons is immoral.

Comments are turned off for this article.