STANLEY Kubrick’s brilliant Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove, was also one of the wisest meditations on nuclear deterrence. The US President, played in the film by Peter Sellers, was the only sane man in the room and tried his best, unsuccessfully, to prevent atomic war, after a deranged US Air Force general launched a first strike on Russia. The idea that the US President might be the only insane man in the war room was considered too far-fetched for satire back in 1965. Not any more.
The Brookings Institution, a US strategic think tank, once speculated that “someday the United States really could have a mentally ill president who chose to do the unthinkable”. That day may have arrived. The 1960s military game theorists who devised the doctrine of nuclear deterrence or “Mutual Assured Destruction” – such as Hermann Kahn, who is also satirised in Dr Strangelove – lived in a different era from ours. Like Kubrick, they never conceived of a situation in which it might not be a rogue general who launched a nuclear attack but a deranged president. The balance of terror, which has more or less worked for the last 75 years, give or take a few close shaves, doesn’t work when the principal actors have taken leave of their senses. Yet, that is the situation the world faced last summer as President Trump squared up to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, like a contestant at the weigh-in for a UFC cage-fighting title bout, promising “fire and fury” against the dumpy despot if he doesn’t shut his Goddammed threatening mouth.
This might seem a quixotic moment to make the case for nuclear disarmament. Supporters of nuclear weapons say the North Korean crisis confirms the world is an increasingly dangerous place, and that we need the security of a nuclear deterrent. On the contrary, this crisis makes the case for nuclear disarmament more relevant and urgent than ever. The twin doctrines of deterrence and multilateralism, which have governed British defence policy since the Cold War, have been shown for what they are: a self-interested, big-power compromise based on delusions about non-proliferation, and on an assumption of US benevolence and wisdom.
Trump’s behaviour only confirms Kim Jong-un’s propaganda about the American “threat” and justifies North Korea’s retention of nuclear weapons. This is not the way to disarm the rogue state. It will only encourage nuclear proliferation, as other countries, like Iran, decide they need their own “deterrent” against the United States of Belligerence.
Nuclear disarmament has largely fallen off the UK political agenda in recent years. The SNP is the only major party in the United Kingdom that remains committed to removing Trident from the Clyde, since Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 Labour Manifesto accepted the existence and renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. But the rest of the civilised world is not so passive. Indeed, in July countries of the United Nations voted by a two-thirds majority for a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPN). This initiative was inspired by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) who have just won this years Nobel Peace Prize.
TPN will be boycotted by nuclear powers in the UK Security Council, but it is far from futile. 53 nations have already signed it and more will follow. Some 45 years ago, people scoffed that the UN could never ban biological weapons, but it did, and 25 years ago, “realists” said chemical weapons would never be banned, but they were. The Treaty is the start of a “stigmatisation” of nuclear weapons – a legal marginalisation of nuclear powers by countries threatened by radioactive fallout and collateral damage.
As the Scottish Government has repeatedly argued, Britain’s weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde are already contrary to international law because they target civilians. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP should be commended for keeping faith with unilateralism, even as Labour has equivocated, and for actively working with the UN on disarmament. We need all party leaders in Scotland now to unite behind the First Minister in calling on the UK to endorse the UN Nuclear Prohibition Treaty (NPT).
This is one area where Scotland, which has UN “consultation” status on this issue, could carry significant moral weight. Theresa May should not be allowed to speak for the UK when she seeks – as expected – to refuse to ratify the disarmament Treaty. Britain is already, in theory, committed to nuclear disarmament, and has been since it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968, but the Government has always refused to accept any timetable. Well, it’s now a race against oblivion, and Britain could make a huge contribution to disarmament if it threw its weight behind the NPT.
We can no longer rely on the good sense of US presidents – if we ever could. It is worth remembering, as The Donald rattles his nuclear sabre at Kim, that America remains the only country actually to have used nuclear weapons on a civilian population, twice, when it destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 72 years ago. The justification was that it ended the Second World War. But the means involved the deaths of at least 100,000 non-combatants, which even then was a war crime under international law. There will always be questions about why the US did not conduct a test detonation on an uninhabited area to demonstrate to Japan’s leaders the destructive power the US now had in its possession. Now Japan is edging towards abandoning its pacifist constitution in face of the belligerence of Kim.
Again, defenders of nuclear weapons claim that the very sight of the dead and injured and the ruined cities shocked the world into accepting the doctrine of deterrence – the idea that nuclear weapons should be possessed by a handful of global powers so they would never be used again. But that never really made sense, either morally or strategically, and is clearly no longer applicable today. We have lost our fear of nuclear holocaust, as is evidenced by the fact that Trump has openly and repeatedly threatened a first strike against North Korea.
Despite attempts by his secretaries of state and defence to ramp down the President’s rhetoric, and reassure the public that war is not imminent, Donald Trump has sought to increase tension day by day. In one outburst he declared that the US is “locked and loaded” for an assault on North Korea. In America, the President has the sole right under the constitution to launch a nuclear strike.
We are probably at greater risk now of a nuclear conflagration than during the Cold War. And not just in North Korea. Equally unstable is the balance of nuclear terror in the Middle East, with Israel already in possession of nuclear warheads, and neighbouring Muslim states eager to acquire them. India and Pakistan are nuclear nations in a state of nervous confrontation who could go to war at any moment. Rather than submit to the nuclear defeatism, it is time for politicians in all parties in all countries to renew their efforts to rid the world of these weapons once and for all.\
Dr Strangelove was made in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it was assumed that US presidents would invariably be humane, thoughtful figures like John F Kennedy. He reacted in October 1962, it is generally agreed, with restraint as the Soviet Union sought to place nuclear weapons on America’s doorstep. A series of back-channel communications allowed JFK and the Russian president, Nikita Khrushchev, to negotiate a secret deal to prevent a nuclear war that their respective military establishments had planned for and believed inevitable. Politics and common sense prevailed.
But DONALD Trump doesn’t have a back channel, except in the crudest meaning of the term, and he doesn’t do common sense. His bellicose brinksmanship is the final confirmation that nuclear weapons do not prevent nuclear war, except in the very rare circumstances when there is a balance of power and when the countries in possession of nuclear arsenals behave rationally. Trump shows the folly of assuming the people playing the game of nuclear deterrence will play by the rules. Scotland and the world must change the game.