Nuclear proliferation and unpredictable behaviour


I’ve been following the analysis and commentary in the press this year about North Korea’s development of nuclear programme.  I haven’t followed it obsessively; it’s been more of a watching brief.  As the rhetoric has escalated over the last few days, I’ve had a growing sense of unease, put in context by an essay by Tony Judt.

The essay is Why the Cold War Worked (details at the end of this post).  Having seen the title, I was expecting to find reference to nuclear weapons early in the piece, but they don’t get a mention until the penultimate paragraph – as one of the new elements that resulted in the Cold War being different from anything that had happened in Europe before 1945.  Politicians couldn’t look to pre-War models and solutions to problems because there was now the potential to cause extensive destruction and immense loss of life so quickly and with a single missile.

Tony Judt notes that it took politicians, including US policy makers, many years to learn that nuclear weapons were strikingly unhelpful as instruments of statecraft.  In contrast to spears, they really were only good for sitting on.  He goes on to say (and this is the bit where I sat up and read it again):

Nonetheless, as a deterrent device a nuclear arsenal has its uses – but only if both you and your opponent could be convinced that it might, ultimately, be deployed.

Behaviour of the five nuclear-weapon states has, generally, been regarded as predictable, particularly since the end of the Cold War.  But when another country acquires nuclear weapons or carries out nuclear tests – Pakistan and India in the past; North Korea more recently – there’s a concern that the new member of the club won’t understand that these weapons aren’t to be used.

So, what happens if a country convinces others that its nuclear weapons capability might, one day, be deployed?  What impact does that have on the balance of power and statecraft – and on public rhetoric?  Is that country bluffing?  Does having nuclear-arms capability make that country more confident about using – and more likely to use – non-nuclear weapons?

And what if the behaviour of one of the acknowledged nuclear-weapon states becomes more unpredictable – perhaps through an unpredictable leader being in power?  Tony Judt’s essay provides insights, but little comfort.


Why the Cold War Worked appears in When the Facts Change by Tony Judt.  It’s a review of We Now Know:  Rethinking Cold War History by John Lewis Gaddis and The Conninform:  Minutes of the Three Conferences 1947/1948/1949, edited by Giuliano Procacci.  It first appeared in The New York Review of Books in October 1997.


So, Mum, why do we have borders?


Borders have cropped up a lot recently – in the context of migration into, and within, Europe and when thinking about the UK referendum on remaining in the EU. And then a friend said at the end of last week that her kids – 18 and 16; born in the UK and still living here – had asked her why we have borders.

When I heard their question, I realised that the point wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I was their age. I was a child of the Cold War era, when borders separated goodies and baddies, East and West.  Borders demarcated Berlin and its two parts.  They were a legacy of empire and colonial pasts.  You got a stamp in your passport when crossing from one country to another, even within Europe.

And then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, accession of eastern European countries into the EU and NATO and the irrelevance of borders within the Schengen area. Travel became cheaper and easier.  Gap years were taken by more students.  Long-haul travel moved to something resembling mainstream.

Borders were fractured by the internet and made irrelevant by email and social media and those processes helped to foster globalisation. Most of us now have family or friends who are outside our home country.  Perhaps more importantly, we assume that we will do so.  Where someone lives isn’t so very relevant as long as we can communicate easily and on a regular basis.

I’d dearly love to spend an hour inside the mind of the average western European teenager, to see what they take for granted and what puzzles them. I suspect that the notion of borders to keep one group of people in and others out, to deny access and to preserve rights and to otherwise specify what’s mine and what’s yours is something many of them would struggle with.

But there are signs that protectionism, homelands and borders are swinging back into fashion. I can see the reasoning people are following, even though I don’t like that particular shift of the pendulum.

Borders are with us, but we need to be clear about why we have them, what’s important about them and the purpose we want them to serve. Above all, we need to avoid borders being barriers – to openness, as well as to travel; to movement of ideas, as well as to movement of people.