Wednesday, March 07, 2007

To deter is human

Oliver Kamm has a pop at CND again and the thrust of his argument is absolutely correct. The deployment of medium range missiles to Western Europe was about tying the US into the defence of Europe and securing a credible deterrent against the Soviet Union, just as he says. Kamm argues that CND got it badly wrong as,

… the anti-nuclear movement claimed that MX in the US, Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe and Trident for the UK were weapons designed to fight rather than deter a nuclear war.

The problem with Kamm’s analysis is that for a deterrent to be credible it has to be useable and thus nuclear weapons had indeed to be part of a war fighting strategy. ‘Massive retaliation’ simply was not credible. It was the equivalent of a suicide pact. The result was that NATO developed the strategy of ‘flexible response’. This accepted the assumed numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional forces, but if there was a breakthrough by Soviet troops this would act as a ‘trip wire’ that would allow the first use of tactical nuclear weapons.

Whilst some of the anti-nuclear movement did misconstrue both Soviet and American intentions, the thoughtful critics of nuclear policy accepted that this strategy did indeed strengthen deterrence. Their concern was what would happen if deterrence failed. ‘Flexible response’ could have turned into the Schlieffen Plan for a nuclear age and become intensely dangerous, especially as ‘prevailing’ in a nuclear war necessarily meant being the first to attack. Kamm ignores this argument, though it is present in much of the anti-nuclear material of the 80’s.

This is far from being “intellectually disreputable”. It gets to the heart of the problem of deterrence theory. For a deterrent to be credible people have to be prepared to use it, yet if it is used its whole purpose will have failed and unleashed precisely what it is there to prevent. This is normally an acceptable risk, but the CND argument is that nuclear weapons are so overwhelmingly destructive that the risk undermines the effectiveness of deterrence and could possibly destroy human civilisation. It also places a reliance on human rationality that is not always borne out by experience. It is not enough simply to state that the weapons deployment was defensive and necessary, it is important to engage with the big question of the consequences of a possible failure caused by reckless, rather than rational, statesmen.


Francis Sedgemore said...

It also places a reliance on human rationality that is not always borne out by experience.

Oliver Kamm's hyperbolic and declarative style detracts from his obvious intellectual abilities.

Political platonists live in a universe in which great men make great decisions, all based on hard reason and rationality. It is not a universe I recognise. I don't know about you, Dr Ryley, but I'm rather glad to live in a universe that is altogether richer and more chaotic than the model in Mr Kamm's head.

Steve Davies said...

An interesting point is that Enoch Powell made precisely this argument on several occasions. This was the basis for his own rejection of the idea of a nuclear deterrent. Somehow I don't think Simon Heffer is in agreement with his hero on this