New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Haves and Have-Nots: “Unfairness” in Nuclear Weapons Possession

History offers a number of examples of military technologies that gave one country an advantage in warfare, and which it thereafter attempted to keep others from acquiring.  The Byzantines’ innovation of “Greek Fire,” for example – apparently a viscous mixture of naphtha and other combustible ingredients that could be projected in a flaming stream not unlike a modern flamethrower – was a closely-guarded state secret that the emperors in Constantinople tried to keep from other powers.  Viking settlers on the shores of North America similarly prized the advantage that iron swords gave them over the native “Skraelings,” and refused to allow transfers of such weapons to the locals.  (I am told that one Norse account actually records a Skraeling being slain for trying to steal a Viking sword.)  For its part, ancient China thought so much of the insights offered by its bingjia literature of statecraft and strategy that it treated these books as a state secret in order to prevent such wisdom from falling into the hands of barbarians beyond the frontiers of the Middle Kingdom.  It is a recurring theme, in other words, that whomever first invents or acquires something it anticipates being militarily advantageous will try to keep others from sharing in those advantages.  It is also a recurring theme that these others will tend to seek access to it.

Efforts to control the spread of such military technologies generally do not succeed, especially over the long run.  This is not to say that new technologies necessarily become ubiquitous, of course, for there may be many reasons for countries to adopt (or fail to adopt) new technologies.  Japan, for instance, started down the road to firearms usage – copying arquebuses originally obtained from the Portuguese in the 16th Century and developing effective techniques for massed volley fire by the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 – before opting for its own reasons largely to abandon such tactics for a couple of centuries.  Many other countries were also slow to adopt more modern European innovations in arms technology, military organization, and naval warfare, in part for lack of budgets, an industrial infrastructure, a logistical support system, or a socio-political system capable of supporting such endeavors.  Today, military capabilities remain extremely unevenly distributed worldwide, for reasons only partly related to basic access to the technology involved.

On the whole, however, the historical record offers repeated examples of innovation being followed both by attempts at control and by the gradual spread of each new technology – at least to some other countries, and often to many.  I once heard a military historian describe this process as being associated with global cycles of centralization and decentralization in the possession of military power, but for present purposes it’s enough to observe that there are clear issues of competing interest involved between various sorts of “haves” and “have nots.”

I.     Nuclear “Have/Have Not” Dynamics

This dynamic is all too obvious with respect to nuclear weapons, as these enormously powerful weapons still remain the monopoly of a small number of powers, even while others clearly aspire to join their number (which has been growing).  In an interesting departure from how these dynamics seem to play out historically with other technologies, however, international debates over issues of nuclear weapons proliferation are quite frequently articulated in moral terms – particularly with regard to the supposed unfairness of the nonproliferation regime built in large part around the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  Let us look a bit at this moral critique.

The NPT may be unique in world history, insofar as it represents an attempt to create a general legal norm against the spread of a particular weapons technology coupled with the de facto legitimization of its possession by some powers.  (Under the NPT, five countries are recognized as “nuclear weapons states,” while the rest of the Treaty’s 180-odd signatories are deemed “non-nuclear weapons states” and barred from acquiring such devices.)  This “discriminatory” regime of “haves” and “have nots” is controversial in diplomatic circles, with it frequently being argued that the Treaty’s unfairness is a reason why nonproliferation is an untenable norm.

Some argue from this foundation that nuclear weapons should be abolished.  Alternatively, some seem simply to proceed from a recognition of the “discrimination” inherent in the NPT system to the conclusion that others should be allowed to join the “club” of states possessing this technology.  (This, in effect, was China’s position before triumphantly breaking the NATO/Warsaw Pact monopoly on nuclear weaponry by testing its first nuclear weapon in 1964, and its client state in North Korea seems to have similar views today.  Iran does not yet officially admit any desire for nuclear weapons, but it has made the nuclear technology “have/have not” issue a central plank of its propaganda, and seems to be laying the political groundwork for justifying a similar proliferation choice.)  Either way, however, the “unfairness critique” of the NPT-based nonproliferation regime is an important part of arguments for some sort of new dispensation.

Moreover, most nuclear weapons possessors, at least publicly, seem basically to agree with this “unfairness critique.”  The United States and the United Kingdom, in fact, seem now to agree with it so much that their nuclear diplomacy has become preoccupied with trying to demonstrate a fervent desire to get rid of all nuclear weapons.  (“Yes, it is quite unfair,” the argument seems to go, “and we feel terribly guilty about this.  But don’t worry, we’re trying to fix things by getting rid of all such devices.”)  India and China – keen to be seen as morally virtuous champions of the international underdog, even (or perhaps especially) when they are not – also purport to be disarmament enthusiasts even while building up their own nuclear arsenals.  Others who also seem in fact to be unenthusiastic about “zero,” and here France and (particularly) Russia come to mind, still voice notional support for abolition and seem a bit embarrassed by their own possession.

All in all, therefore, while individual countries’ policies clearly differ considerably in practice, there is essentially no public disagreement with the unfairness critique on its own terms.  Perhaps there should be.

Let me try to offer one – thus tossing chum in the water in order to get some New Paradigms Forum discussions going.

II.     Critiquing the Unfairness Critique

First, however, let’s provide some context.  As I noted above, it is fascinating that in the long history of military technological have/have not dynamics, the international politics of nuclear weaponry has acquired such a strong flavor of moral critique.  To my knowledge, after all, one did not see Xiongnu politics emphasizing how darned unfair it was of those nasty Chinese Emperors to monopolize the presumed secrets of China’s bingjia strategic literature.  Nor does the unfairness of Byzantine efforts to control the recipe for Greek Fire seem to have become a prevalent trope of Frankish or Persian diplomacy.  “Have nots” have surely always coveted powerful tools possessed by the “haves,” or at least wished that the “haves” did not possess them.  It seems pretty unusual, however, for non-possessors to articulate such understandable envy and resentment in the moral language of “unfairness,” and to assume that this presumed injustice should motivate the “haves” to change their behavior.  This argument seems to be a curiously modern phenomenon.

One might respond that the very specialness of nuclear weapons makes such a position appropriate.  After all, while a local monopoly on iron swords may have given the Vikings some advantage in skirmishes with Native Americans in what the Norsemen called Vinland, such technological asymmetry was not strategically decisive.  (Indeed, the Vikings seem ultimately to have been pushed out of the New World entirely.)  If iron had threatened to offer the Vikings an insuperable advantage, would the Skraelings have been justified in developing a moral language of “have/have not” resentment that demanded either the sharing of iron weaponry or Viking disarmament in the name of achieving a global “iron zero”?  I’m skeptical, but for the sake of argument let’s say “maybe.”

The argument that nuclear weapons are “special,” however, is a two-edged sword.  Perhaps they are indeed so peculiarly potent and militarily advantageous that their asymmetric possession is sufficiently “unfair” to compel sharing or disarmament.  Such an argument, however, sits only awkwardly – to say the least – with the simultaneous claim by many advocates of the “have/have not” critique that nuclear weapons have no real utility in the modern world and can therefore safely be abandoned by their possessors.  After all, it is hard to paint nuclear weapons as being strategically decisive and useless at the same time.  (If they are indeed useless, the conclusion of “unfairness” hardly sounds very compelling.  If they aren’t useless, however, it may be appropriately hard to abolish them.)

More importantly, any argument about the destructively “special” character of nuclear weaponry cuts against the “unfairness critique” in that it is this very specialness that seems to rob the “have/have not” issue of its moral relevance.  Unlike iron swords, the bingjia literature, Greek Fire, or essentially all other past military technologies the introduction of which produced global control/acquisition dynamics, nuclear weapons have introduced existential questions about the future of human civilization which utterly swamp the conventional playground morality of unfair “have/have not” competition.  No prior technology held the potential to destroy humanity, making nuclear weapons – with the possible exception of certain techniques of biological weaponry – a sui generis case to which the conventional “unfairness” critique simply does not very persuasively apply.

III.     Implications

Let me be clear about this.  The moral critique of nuclear weapons possession may yet speak to the issue of whether anyone should have them.  (This is not the place for a discussion of the feasibility of the remedies proposed by the disarmament community, but let us at least acknowledge the existence of a real moral issue.)  But this matter has nothing to do with “unfairness” per se – and to the extent that it purports to, one should give it little credence.  If indeed nuclear weapons do menace the survival of humanity, it is essentially irrelevant whether their possession is “unfairly” distributed – and it is certainly no solution to make the global balance of weaponry more “fair” by allowing more countries to have them.  (Disarmament advocates hope to address the fairness problem by eliminating nuclear weapons, of course, but this is just icing.  Disarmament is almost never articulated as being driven primarily by fairness; the critical part of that argument is instead consequentialist, stressing the dangers that any nuclear weapons are said to present.)  As a moral critique, in other words, the fair/unfair dichotomy fails to speak intelligibly to the world’s nuclear dilemma.  It isn’t really about “fairness” at all.

Given the entanglement of nuclear weapons issues with quasi-existential questions potentially affecting the survival of millions or perhaps even billions of people, moreover, it stands to reason that an “unfair” outcome that nonetheless staves off such horrors is a perfectly good solution.  On this scale, one might say, non-catastrophe entirely trumps accusations of “unfairness.”  Questions of stability are far more important than issues of asymmetric distribution.

This, of course, has powerful implications for nonproliferation policy, because pointing out the hollowness of the “unfairness” argument as applied to nuclear weapons suggests the moral sustainability of nonproliferation even if complete nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved and the world continues to be characterized by inequalities in weapons possession.  We forget this at our collective peril.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Unfairness” arguments will presumably continue to have a political impact upon the diplomacy of nuclear nonproliferation, either as a consequence of genuine resentment or as a cynical rationalization for the destabilizing pursuit of dangerous capabilities.  (Indeed, one might even go so far as to suspect that the emergence of the “unfairness” critique in modern diplomatic discourse is in some sense partly the result of how morally compelling nonproliferation is, in this context, irrespective of the “fairness” of “have/have not” outcomes.  Precisely because the moral case for nonproliferation-driven inequality is so obvious and so compelling if such imbalance serves the interests of strategic stability, perhaps it was necessary to develop a new rationale of “fairness” to help make proliferation aspirations seem more legitimate.  Skraelings, one imagines, did not need an elaborate philosophy of “fairness” in order to justify trying to steal iron weapons; the desirability of such tools was simply obvious, and any effort to obtain them unsurprising and not in itself condemnable.)  But even in this democratic and egalitarian age, merely to incant the mantra of “unfairness” – or to inveigh against the existence of “haves” when there also exist “have nots” – is not the same thing as having a compelling moral argument.  Indeed, I would submit that we lose our moral bearings if we allow “unfairness” arguments to distract us from what is really important here: substantive outcomes in the global security environment.

“Unfairness,” in other words, is an overrated critique, and “fairness” is an overrated destination.  At least where nuclear weapons are concerned, there are more important considerations in play.  Let us not forget this.

-- Christopher Ford


NPF Pages

Recent Additions to NPF

NPF Discussion Pages

Calendar of NPF Postings

January 2021
« Dec    

NPF Archives (by month)