Part 2-The Futility of Trying to Debate Our Way to Disarmament

Tilting at Windmills

This post is part of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here. Check back tomorrow for Part 3.

Another obstacle to those who seek disarmament through policy channels is just how difficult it is to dispute “realist” arguments against disarmament. Among them, as enumerated by center-right nuclear-weapons analyst Bruno Tertrais in a recent issue of the Washington Quarterly, are:

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to explain the absence of war among major powers in the past 65 years without taking into account the existence of nuclear weapons.

[It] is far from certain that even modern conventional weapons alone would be able to hold a major power such as Russia or China at bay.

Proponents [of disarmament] argue that driving toward zero would [by demonstrating leadership or setting an example, help prevent] the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran. [Yet disarmament measures] have not had any impact whatsoever on the nuclear programs of India, Iran, Iraq . . . Israel, Libya . . . North Korea, or Pakistan.

Worse, Tertrais maintains in his realist-representative argument, disarmament might even incite proliferation.

Smaller countries that seek to balance Western power may actually feel encouraged to develop nuclear weapons . . . if they believed that the West is on its way to getting rid of them. … the smaller the U.S. arsenal becomes, the less costly it would be to become “an equal of the United States.”

Here’s the essence of the realist argument:

The emphasis on abolition would distract the current nonproliferation regime from the “real world” priorities of rolling back Iran and North Korea. … The argument that arms control [settling for halting the spread of nuclear weapons as opposed to abolishing them -- RW] is [a diversion] from the more valuable goal of abolition should in fact be reversed: abolition as a vision would distract from arms control.

Those who seek absolute disarmament operate under the assumption that by ratcheting back its top-end weaponry, a state eases the strains between hostile states and creates the conditions for peace. Realists flip that around and assert that defusing the tension over disputed regions such as those cited by Tertrais — Kashmir, Palestine, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula — is required to beget disarmament (in however distant a future).

They claim that they’re just echoing the language of the preamble to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons argument. Those signing the treaty, it reads, seek to “further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate” disarmament. [Emphasis added.]

Whether or not they were intended to be the watchwords that realists and conservatives regard them as is open to debate. But when all the arguments are assembled, it becomes apparent how difficult it is to argue for disarmament without sounding like you’re soft on national security or in a state of denial about the facts on the ground.

True disarmament cannot be reasoned into existence. The simple truth is that many of us are, at heart, incapable of consenting to the continued possession of nuclear weapons until states begin to solve the underlying differences between them. However unassailable some realist logic may be, I think I speak for many in the disarmament movement when I say we simply don’t have the stomach for such a regimen.