February 12, 2001

Arms Control and Other Follies
The world won't stop turning just on our say so

A bad doctor is said to be a man who treats the symptoms, while ignoring the cause. However, this is what the peace movement seems to be doing today. A large amount of energy of the peace movement is devoted to useless causes such as controlling the arms trade, stopping new weapons being developed and nuclear weapons proliferating. Is this really going to work, or is the peace movement wasting its time and energy?


Technology is neither good nor evil, but you would not think so with the effort with which many within the peace movement attack it. Perhaps it is a certain anti-mechanistic bias on the left, from which so much of the peace movement springs. There is definitely a suspicion of technology; machines put people out of jobs and communication technology can disrupt economies "at the touch of a button". Of course the ideas like an efficient market quickly getting the technologically displaced back into work, the general standard of living rising from higher productivity and government policies disrupting economies rather than markets will not be accepted. And to be honest, those of us who see ourselves on the right should not expect the left to meekly accept our views, they are the left and we are the right – we are different.


The New Missile Defence system is assailed by many peaceniks as a destabilising element in international relations. This is as may be, but it ignores the second most fundamental law of human events (after original sin) nothing will stay the same. Technology is destabilising, but this hardly means that technology can be stopped. The simple fact is, is that if the technology lends a technical advantage, then it will be adopted, if not by America, then by Russia or China. This is not an excuse to launch into a needless arms race; it is just a statement of fact. As long as there is real competition between independent military powers, there will be a search for advantage. An exceedingly crude long-term picture of military history has been the alternating advantages of defensive and offensive technologies. Cavalry worsted by castles, castles worsted by cannons. I am sure that you could think of other apt analogies. The idea that nuclear missiles will remain the last word in weapon technology is very much mistaken.


So how should the peace party deal with Star Wars? Absolute opposition is probably doomed, as can be seen from most arguments against it. There is an eerie air of inherent contradiction. Missile defence will destabilise the balance of power and is unworkable. If it is unworkable, it will hardly disturb anything, especially a balance of power. Moreover, if it does work and so disturb the balance of power in favour of America and her allies, is this really going to convince America and her allies that it is a bad idea? I think not.


So how do we approach this issue? On its merits. This new technology does have its dangers. Firstly, for Americans the missile shield may start to be extended around the world. This is rather foolhardy, as it will make America an automatic target when one side of an overseas quarrel is protected by this shield. Americans should make sure that the missile shield is not extended by a charitable whim to countries that offer no strategic benefit. As for American allies, specifically Britain, Australia and Canada, the New Missile Defence offers a different dilemma. America has invited these countries to join in the NMD programme, in return for providing tracking facilities. The offer should be taken up on a simple risk/reward scenario. Will Britain playing a part in this programme mean that Britain is in more danger of nuclear attack? Undoubtedly. How long will it be before the shield is able to cover Britain properly? I would say that the balance is at the moment very much against Britain participating, although I am sure that the decision will not be taken in regard to anything as vulgar as the national interest.

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Similar tilting at windmills goes on concerning nuclear proliferation. First America got the bomb, then Russia decided to get a bomb too so as to even the balance of power, Britain came along later – with a great deal of American help. All three of these efforts relied considerably on American help, even if in Russia's case it was through the Rosenbergs. However, the next two nuclear powers, France and China, did it with very little American help and as a statement of independence from both military blocs. Israel and South Africa then built nuclear bombs, largely in secret (although South Africa claims to have dismantled her arsenal). Now India and Pakistan have announced to the world that they are nuclear powers. The knowledge on how to make a nuclear bomb is now too diffused to control. The idea that we can stop countries developing a weapon as advantageous as the nuclear bomb through good will and argument is folly. To be fair non-proliferation has been speeded towards its death by the bombing of Serbia and Iraq, two non-nuclear powers, and the untouched status of China and Russia. It is not hard to draw conclusions here.


Similarly, the arms trade is seen as a source rather than a symptom of evil. Blocking the arms trade seems logical, if people did not have sophisticated arms they would not kill one another, right? It is rather a facile argument (killing did not start when gunpowder was invented after all) and it is wrong in practice. Firstly, in Rwanda the massacres of the Tutsi by the Interhamwe were carried out largely with machetes and other pre-modern utensils. Guns are irrelevant; people really do kill people. Then if we look to the Balkans we can see the weapons embargo – which early on was imposed on both sides – favouring the Serbs. Why? Because the Serbs had most of the functioning bits of the Yugoslav military-industrial complex in their territories, and the Bosnians and Croats did not. At the same time the only other way of arming themselves – through the international market, was largely closed. As a means for securing national advantage arms embargoes may work – obviously you do not want to supply your enemy – but not as a means for ensuring peace. Arms embargoes extend a massive advantage to larger local powers – because of indigenous weapons industries – they disrupt local power balances and extend war.


The National Rifle Association has a slogan that I am sure you have heard "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". That lesson is not only one for gun control. As long as the wrath of the peace party is directed towards things rather than ideas we are wasting our time. Technology will advance with or without us, we just have to make sure that our governments use this technology wisely rather than recklessly. And we have our work cut out there.

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