Nigel Biggar on Nuclear Deterrence

Last year I posted an approving review of Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War. One topic Biggar doesn’t directly address in his book is the ethics of nuclear deterrence. This omission he has now remedied with an excellent article on the moral and practical rationale for nuclear deterrence and the role of the UK in holding nuclear weapons. His argument is particularly important in light of the sweeping electoral victory in Scotland enjoyed by the SNP this week and their stated position on the UK’s Trident programme.

One minor criticism I have of Biggar’s argument concerns his definition of indiscriminate killing:

To kill indiscriminately doesn’t mean simply to fail to avoid killing civilians; it means to positively desire to kill them – to deliberately target them – say, to terrify an enemy government into submission.

It seems to me that one doesn’t need to positively desire to kill civilians to be guilty of indiscriminate killing; one only needs to not positively desire to avoid killing civilians. In other words, if a military force attacks a target with no concern at all about whether those killed are combatants or non-combatants, with no regard for the distinction between combatants or non-combatants, that amounts to indiscriminate killing. (Whether indiscriminate killing could ever be morally justified is another matter; here I’m only taking issue with Biggar’s definition.) Whether the death of civilians is positively desired is certainly relevant to the ethics of the situation, but that condition isn’t necessary for the action to count as indiscriminate killing.

Anyway, that criticism aside, I think Biggar offers a solid defense of nuclear deterrence, both in principle and in practice. Here’s the conclusion of the article:

Would that nuclear weapons had never been invented! But they have. Would that they could be disinvented! But they can’t. Would that a single, bold, brave, clean act of unilateral self-purification would so inspire international trust as to stimulate global, multilateral renunciation! But it really wouldn’t.

What remains, then, but despair and inertia? Hope remains – but only of a certain kind. It needn’t be impatient and reckless. It needn’t only take the form of relentless, fingers-in-the-ears Project Optimism, whether Donald Rumsfeld’s or Alex Salmond’s. It can be patient and sober instead. This kind of hope remains that, as in the past so in the future, the careful management of nuclear deterrence will continue to discourage tyrants from chancing their aggressive arm; that the incremental strengthening of international norms and institutions will bolster trust and relax tension; that more non-nuclear states can be dissuaded or stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons altogether; and that the stockpiles of those already armed can be further reduced. So we can hope, soberly and prudently. And those of us who’re religious, knowing what can befall the best laid plans of mice and men, will also pray to God almighty to meet our efforts with the miracle of good fortune.

So there’s room for hope in our prudence. But if there’s also prudence in our hope, then, while we needn’t learn to love Trident, we ought to learn to live with it.

The Cromwellian maxim is apt: “Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry.”