Security Without Nuclear Deterrence

By Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Ret’d)


Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, civilisation is still held hostage by over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the five recognised nuclear weapon states plus India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Underlying and driving this deepening global security crisis is an addiction to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, cited by the United States, United Kingdom and France as the final, indispensable justification for maintaining their nuclear arsenals. Nuclear deterrence must therefore be challenged and alternatives offered in these three leading democracies if there is to be any serious prospect of eliminating nuclear weapons. That is what I have attempted to do in this book.

As the first, and still only, ex-British Navy Commander with nuclear weapon experience to have publicly rejected nuclear deterrence, I open with a brief account of how it was a gradual, cumulative process which accelerated after taking redundancy from the Royal Navy in 1982, having served as Staff Officer (Intelligence) to the Admiral who ran the Falklands War. My case for supporting nuclear deterrence crumbled with the end of the Cold War. However, it took the first Gulf War in 1991 to push me to speak out. That led me to chair the UK affiliate of a global campaign which resulted in confirmation by the International Court of Justice in 1996 that the threat, let alone use, of nuclear weapons would generally be illegal. This was my springboard for rejecting nuclear deterrence as not only immoral and illegal, but impractical, politically unsound and counterproductive to our real security needs – and for finding safer alternatives.
Chapter 2 briefly chronicles the history of nuclear deterrence as it was adjusted to accommodate the latest expansion of the nuclear arms race it had provoked. For British and French leaders, the 1956 Suez fiasco and their crumbling empires drove them to clutch at nuclear deterrence to sustain their great power status and influence. The French chose to develop, at massive cost, their own nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The British decided they could not afford this, so opted for dependence on the US in a Faustian bargain sealed between Macmillan and Kennedy in exchange for Polaris in 1962. I cite examples of how the price has proved exorbitant in appeasing US demands, damaging the UK’s independence, reputation and true security interests. Meanwhile in the US, the Manhattan Project had created a secret nuclear scientific and military monster, whose engine and justification was the unopposed dogma of nuclear deterrence.

When the Berlin Wall came down, and Soviet President Gorbachev was briefly able to break the grip of Cold War security thinking, a window of opportunity opened to end the nuclear nightmare. However, Communism gave way to the new threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” and its link to conflict in the Middle East. One major source of this can be traced back to Israel’s secret acquisition of nuclear weapons, assisted by France and condoned by successive US administrations. This gave Saddam Hussein the pretext to try to obtain them, aided by Western technology and greed.
The first Gulf War and Gorbachev’s fall from power in 1991 signalled a US drive, supported by the UK and France, for a self-defeating new role for nuclear weapons: countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Paradoxically, the 11 September 2001 terror attacks on the US led to a growing acceptance that nuclear deterrence will not work against “rogue” regimes and other extremists armed with WMD – now the primary threat to global security. This body blow to nuclear deterrence was enshrined in the 2002 US National Security Strategy – but it was replaced by a policy of pre-emptive strikes, using nuclear weapons if necessary. A more potent prescription for inciting WMD proliferation could barely be imagined – quite apart from its assault on morality and international humanitarian law.

Chapter 3 illustrates how the dogma of nuclear deterrence affects the real world. After pointing out the huge miscalculations on both sides in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, I examine the fundamental, insoluble credibility problem at the heart of nuclear deterrence. The claim that it has prevented war between the major powers is challenged. I highlight how the opportunity to abandon Mutual Assured Destruction at the 1986 Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Iceland was defeated by the US military-industrial complex’s vested interests, and the spurious US need to extend nuclear deterrence to its allies. Here was an example of how nuclear deterrence undercuts the political stability its proponents claim it creates. Instead, it provokes arms races, confrontational rhetoric and reckless posturing, all of which it is purportedly designed to prevent and which lead not to increased security, but to some of the world’s most intractable security problems – witness North Korea and Iran.

Nuclear deterrence as a stimulus for spreading nuclear weapons is my focus in the next chapter, using Israel, India and Pakistan as case studies. Israel’s success in blackmailing France and then the US into acquiescing in its ruthless drive for a uniquely opaque variant of nuclear deterrence provided a clear pretext and incitement for Iraq and Iran to acquire their own arsenals. Meanwhile, bitter South Asian rivals India and Pakistan naively attempted to apply nuclear deterrence dogma to their security, following the irresponsible examples set by the UK and US. With the recent ramming through by the US of its nuclear technology deal with India, the non-proliferation regime faces collapse under the weight of double standards and discriminatory rules. All three cases – where states pursued nuclear ambitions outside the international non-proliferation regime – have intensified and encouraged regional insecurities and consequent arms races, and made the world even more dangerous.

In Chapter 5 I explain and illustrate the deep moral deception underlying nuclear deterrence. Linked to this is the understandable, but unacceptable, refusal by the three NATO nuclear states to concede its illegality, much as the US, UK and France once resisted outlawing and abolishing slavery. I summarise the legal arguments, and some current examples of citizen campaigns for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and an enforceable treaty to underpin it.

Chapter 6 offers more ways back from the abyss towards which nuclear deterrence dogma is driving us. The key is to see nuclear disarmament as a security building process, where nuclear weapons are an unusable liability. A top priority is to persuade the US and Russia to stand down a combined total of over 4,000 strategic nuclear weapons, ready to be launched within minutes. I argue that the UK is best-placed to lead the way by becoming the first nuclear weapon state to reject nuclear deterrence, and gain a new, widely admired global role.

In the concluding chapter, I call for nuclear deterrence to be replaced by more humane, lawful and safer security strategies if civilisation and the Earth’s ecosystems are to survive.