Sunday, March 28, 2010

Was MAD an illusion?

'Call me a cynic, but the latest agreement between the United States and Russia to cut their stocks of nuclear weapons seems nothing over which to expend any enthusiasm. Quite the contrary. It's a hangover from the dead and distant days of the Cold War. Disarmament mattered when Ronald Reagan faced Mikhail Gorbachev, because it expressed the understanding that mutually assured destruction was not a real policy.'

How can you take seriously a self-declared 'cynic', who presumably considers himself a hard-bitten realist, who declares that 'mutually assured destruction was not a real policy'?

Really? That's funny. I thought it was the declared policy of both superpowers through most of the third world war. And to some degree, is still the policy of the large nuclear powers. Wishing away MAD, declaring it null and void, disappearing it by fiat- what is that all about?

The threat of annihilation sharply focused minds on both sides of the cold war. And despite lots of little hot wars throughout the cold war, none of these brush fires ever became devastating all-out wars precisely because neither side would accept the terrible consequences. In Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Southern Africa, Nicaragua and lots of other places, smallish wars stayed that way because nuclear exchanges would have destroyed the very superpowers who were playing this game.

What do people have against MAD anyway? It was not a policy at all, it was a description of what a large-scale nuclear exchange would do. There was no way of triangulating it either. Would the United States have accepted a large scale nuclear attack on itself without launching a similarly large-scale one on the USSR? Absurd. As soon as both sides in the cold war had both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to launch them on MAD was the prevailing situation.

Start and the other big nuclear drawdown treaties were about money, largely. Large ballistic missile fleets cost hideously large sums of money. Smaller, newer, more deadly arsenals of ballistic weapons suited both sides, so the deal were done.

All the countries which had nuclear weapons by the mid-fifties still have them actively deployed. The only significant event to do with nuclear weapons was the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. And that did not involve any country which had nuclear weapons beforehand giving them up.

I agree with Mr Pryce-Jones that the Obama goal of worldwide nuclear disarmament is absurdly naive. But believing that MAD didn't exist or was somehow illusory? Getting on for equally naive.

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