Saturday, March 24, 2007


I think it would be a useful piece of work to update the debate about deterrence and think about which of the assumptions from the Cold War still hold true.

In particular, is the assumption that two hostile powers are less likely to go to war if they both have nuclear weapons a universal truth, or was it specific to the confrontation between the USA and their allies and the USSR and their allies.

This matters because if mutually assured destruction does prevent wars from taking place, then the Iranians are quite right to be trying to acquire nuclear weapons and the region will be safer once they have done so, whereas if war is more likely, as well as being more devastating, when there are more countries with nuclear weapons, then the case for action to prevent them from acquiring nukes is much stronger.

My understanding of the debate at the moment, though, is that people who think that mutually assured destruction does prevent wars think that there needs to be a pre-emptive war or at least missile strike to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, whereas the people who think that nuclear weapons make wars more, not less, likely think that a pre-emptive war is a worse option than allowing the Iranians to get a nuclear deterrent.

Refighting the last war is all too common, and has never proved a good idea in the past, and the costs of getting this one wrong - either by fighting a pre-emptive war which causes massive misery and suffering and cannot be won, or allowing nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of regimes which are prepared to fight a nuclear war - could hardly be higher.


At 10:48 pm , Blogger Bloggers4Labour said...

A few thoughts:

The Cold War wasn't about individual countries possessing weapons: they were the preserve of large power blocs, comprising and representing many allied nations, looking for long-term dominance rather than short-term strikes, and with democratic and/or bureaucratic control over military decision-making.

Mutually-assured destruction assumes opponents, and individual warheads, are sufficiently powerful to ensure "total" destruction for both sides. Its prescriptions cannot apply if one side can inflict disproportionately greater damage than its opponent, making victory possible.

Similarly, Iran's only realistic opponent is small enough that only a modest arsenal of weapons would be required to overwhelm them; the consequences of either the Nato/Soviet blocs deploying such a small arsenal would not have been remotely sufficient to secure victory.

As any veteran of the Gulags will recall, the peace that nuclear weapons seems to ensure is little consolation for those being victimised by their own governments, for example, those citizens of Iran and serfs of North Korea who cannot look to foreign forces to overturn their oppressive regimes. The opportunities for liberal military intervention will reduce as nuclear weapons proliferate, but a lifeline must be available to oppressed peoples to take its place.

At 5:57 pm , Anonymous angus said...

"Its prescriptions cannot apply if one side can inflict disproportionately greater damage than its opponent, making victory possible."

Leaving aside the still high costs of such an action for the initiator why would this be the case? Why wouldn't the Israeli and Iranian nuclear capability be equivalent?

I can't see why deterrence would be any less effective than during the Cold War. The Iranian regime is not seeking the bomb in order to destroy itself.

Of course deterrence can fail. The two sides in the Cold War almost did go to war on one occasion. Both sides having nuclear weapons does raise the probability of nuclear war from 'zero' to 'greater than zero'.

I would prefer it remained zero and Iran did not gain nuclear weapons and every effort short of invasion made to ensure that but can't see the hypothetical risk of deterrence failing as high enough to justify the real costs of an invasion of Iran.


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