I’m reading the essays on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in the New Left Review Number 52 (July August 2008) and the follow up essay in Number 54 (November December 2008). The NPT prohibits countries that do not already have nuclear weapons to acquire them, in exchange for assistance from the nuclear powers in acquiring civilian nuclear power. (it also prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons, and imposes am inspection regime to ensure that signatories do not violate the agreement). The nuclear powers are not required to get rid of their nuclear arsenals, nor even to reduce their seize. All they are required to do is to negotiate in good faith over whether to reduce their arsenals. The NPT then is plainly unjust. It prohibits some countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, while permitting other countries to keep theirs.
The left has generally supported the NPT nontheless. The thinking here is that sooner or later the nuclear powers can be persuaded to reduce their nuclear arsenals pursuant to the treaty’s provision for good faith bargaining over reductions. But this has not happened. Instead, perversely, the goal of nuclear non-proliferation has become a major justification for miltary action. It was the reason the U.S. invaded Iraq, and there have been threats to use military action against both Iran and North Korea over their nuclear weapons programs. The New left Review argues that the left should abandon the NPT and the goal nuclear non-proliferation and instead defend the right of countries to legitimately acquire nuclear weapons for defense.
Its hard to argue with the New Left Review’s argument. Nuclear weapons are primarily defensive weapons used to deter attacks and have not been used after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have a stabilizing effect on conflicts because they create strong incentives for nuclear powers to prevent conflicts from escalating to all out war. The actual use of nuclear weapons, even defensively in response to an attack, is unjust. And, the consequences of nuclear war are so horrible that we have strong reasons to eliminate the risk that the will be ued to zero(which can only be done if we get rid of them entirely). But the nuclear powers seem unlikely to evern reduce their nuclear arsenals, much less to get rid entire of them entirely. Moreover, if the goal of nuclear non-proliferation is simply a convenient rationalization for the existing nuclear powers to retain their nuclear monopoloy, then there is really no justifying it.