Why nuclear weapons have had their day

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2007, 12:00am

Remember the old mantra: 'Nuclear weapons keep the peace'? At least during the cold war, it was an arguable proposition, although the probability was the then Soviet Union had had enough of war and had no designs on the territorial occupation of Western Europe. Still, the arcane science of deterrence theory kept legions of eggheads employed.

But the nuclear boffins today do not even attempt to argue that 'nuclear weapons keep the peace'. Despite growing tension with Russia, no one - not even the neoconservative camp - argues it is an enemy that needs military might to keep it at bay. As for China, US President George W. Bush has made Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson the lead official in America's dealings with Beijing, which says it all. Peace between the old antagonists is apparently all right without nuclear deterrents.

So where else might nuclear weapons be 'keeping the peace'? In truth, nuclear weapons are unusable anachronisms. Breaking the taboo on the use of torture is one thing; breaking it on devastating millions of innocents is another. So why is Britain renewing its nuclear deterrent and why is the Bush administration trying to achieve nuclear primacy?

This may seem the wrong question when the US has 66 per cent fewer strategic bombers, 50 per cent fewer intercontinental nuclear missiles and 50 per cent fewer ballistic missile submarines than it had during the cold war. But numbers are not the point - quality, destructive power and accuracy are.

During the last years of the cold war, a US submarine-launched missile had a 12-per-cent chance of destroying a Russian rocket silo; today it is more than 90 per cent. The strategic US-Russia balance is less stable - as Moscow's nuclear forces decline in serviceability, the technical possibility of a successful first strike by Washington rises.

In 1974, secretary of state Henry Kissinger questioned the idea of nuclear superiority: 'What in the name of God is strategic superiority? What do you do with it?' Well, if you are a George W. Bush type, you strut, you push out your chest and you feel good. Is that the answer? It is maybe part of it. But it is also bureaucratic inertia. The complex that dominates the nuclear weapons debate makes it almost impossible for even a president - as Ronald Reagan found in his summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik - to put the US nuclear machine into reverse.

Common sense suggests that a US president would either have nerves of steel or brains of lead to consider a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Russia. But who can foretell the future? After another decade of deteriorating relations, a panicky president - with an electorate wild with anger after a suitcase nuclear weapon goes off in Grand Central Station in New York, with scientists saying it seems that the enriched uranium originated in a Russian facility - might try and push the button.

But if you believe that this is ludicrous scaremongering then why - when the peace is kept - do we hold on to our nuclear weapons?

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist