There are, however, occasions when getting used to a piece of technology can be very dangerous indeed. Nuclear weapons are a case in point. It is all too easy to assume that because they have only been used twice in anger and on one country a very long time ago that they are never going to be used. The received ‘wisdom’ seems to run something like this: “Nuclear weapons are safe with us and our country needs them in order to ensure that no country ever uses nuclear weapons against us”.
This is, of course, a piece of logic that falls apart as soon as you think outside national boundaries. If that logic works for us then why doesn’t it work for every other country on the planet?
We now have a world where a great many countries possess the knowledge and the level of technology of the US in 1945. Indeed it is hard to think of a country that doesn’t. We therefore need to take it for granted that we are living at a time in history when any nation could acquire nuclear weapons relatively quickly if its leaders were minded to spend enough time and energy on doing so. Having nuclear power in the hands of a great many nations is not something that any of us should contemplate calmly.
I can therefore completely understand why so many military experts are genuinely worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It really isn’t OK that North Korea is pointing nuclear weapons at America and demonstrating that it has the rocket technology to reach the mainland. It is also very worrying that Iran has also worked seriously on gaining that capacity or that Israel, Pakistan and India already possess it.
I also fully accept the school of thought that says it is not good enough to simply sit back and let these nations acquire nuclear technology without doing something about it before they fire. You can certainly understand why after 9/11 an awful lot of Americans take this threat very seriously indeed. The threat is real. The rulers of some of these countries genuinely might just be daft enough to use those weapons under the inspiration of religious ideology, internal power battles or plain arrogance and stupidity.
It is when it comes to what should be done that I tend to differ from the hotheads. Put simply pointing powerful nuclear weapons at another country and warning them of fire and fury is not a great way of persuading those nations to stop pointing nuclear weapons at you and threatening the same. The conclusion aggressive unpleasant regimes draw from such behaviour is not that they should give in and cower in fear. It is that they should invest even more efforts in acquiring enough fire power to threaten mutual destruction. It is easy to inflict a great deal of damage with nuclear weapons and very hard to defend against them.
Technology has reached the point where we are facing up to a reality in which several different countries are acquiring the ability to destroy entire cities in a couple of seconds. Is that really a sustainable risk? Do we really think that in not a single computer system will fail in any of those countries? Or no groups of human beings will ever make a mistake? Or that no leader will decide to make a name for themselves and their ideology?
In a world where two or three superpower blocks control the weapons mutually assured destruction was a risky enough strategy. You only have to read Robert Kennedy’s account of the Cuban missile crisis to discover how close we came to mass slaughter. If any other US President or Soviet leader had been in power it is highly likely it would have happened.
In a world of multiple unstable regimes owning enormously destructive firepower it is not enough to simply say that we got through the last standoff alive. Sooner or later we have to find a way to create a world in which these weapons are not available and are not used. The current crisis in North Korea could very easily escalate into a genuine full scale war. An old man with an insecure ego who wants to prove how important he is. Against a young man with an insecure ego who is scared he and his family will be killed in a coup if he backs down. What could possibly go wrong?
It is entirely possible that wiser heads will rule and China will exert enough pressure on North Korea to bring about a diplomatic solution. There is plenty of motivation to find a sensible way forward. But at every stage so far President Trump has demonstrated that he is not minded to listen to wise old heads in the sensible centre ground. He likes being noticed and he doesn’t like backing down.
Even if sensible heads prevail on this occasion we can no longer smugly assume that sensible heads will always prevail. Stupidity and irrationality have a nasty tendency to win out more frequently than most of us would like.
There is therefore only one really viable way out of the current crisis. It isn’t to build more missiles. It isn’t for the UK to invest in Trident and neglect its conventional defences and its own citizens welfare. The only practical way forward is for the US, Russia and China to get together and agree to start destroying their own nuclear weapons and the steps they will take together to punish any country that refuses to do the same or tries to create them.
We need to use the current crisis to break beyond the boundaries of competing national blocks and strike a full blown worldwide treaty. No modern nation could resist the collective power of economic and political sanctions of Russia, China and the US acting together with the backing of their allies.
Put simply narrow nationalist defence strategy is now quite simply unworkable for any length of time. Only a proper global agreement on defence is capable of dealing with the order of the threat we face and the way it is bound to carry on increasing. And whilst we were at it we could start work on seriously reforming the UN and other international organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank. A crisis of the order that we are now facing is the ideal time to organise a sustainable global deal.
That is, of course, a lot easier said than done but it is a necessary next step and it is worth remembering that it was Nixon who struck a deal with Mao’s China, so these things can be achieved across sharp ideological divisions.
A global society, a global economy and a global environment require effective global management. Not pathetic re-runs of cold war battles by leaders who are too narrow sighted to recognise they share a strong mutual interest in managing nuclear weapons out of existence. The time to get serious about creating a secure future is running out.