The death of Paul Tibbets earlier this month has reignited the debate on nuclear weapons. The familiar debates are rehearsed by the usual participants.
But we are still no clearer, it seems, to fathoming the rationale behind these bombs. What sinister magnetism makes nations – and their leaders – prize them so dearly?
Oliver Kamm tries to solve this conundrum in The Times today. His final answer runs along strategic lines: “it is the uncertainty of an anarchic international order that has persuaded British governments to maintain the deterrent”.
This solution is easy enough to arrive at. Political commanders, we reasonably assume, make their decisions based on considerations of defence and (most terrifyingly) attack.
In this game of high stakes, however, strategy is only ever a secondary consideration. Like every lonely gambler betting on instinct, these men are putting the house down on nothing more than vanity.
The paradoxical appeal of the atomic bomb is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in North Korea.
Kim Jong Il has no need of nuclear weapons to defend his socialist state: his highly militarised society is all the deterrent he needs. North Korea has a formidable conventional arsenal, including a standing army of some one million men.
When Bill Clinton aired the possibility of a new Korean war in a White House briefing in 1994, he was told that an attack on Pyongyang would cost 52,000 American and 490,000 South Korean military casualties in the first ninety days, as well as incalculable physical damage and loss of civilian life. Faced with this threat, the most belligerent of leaders suddenly find themselves in touch with their pacific side. Put it this way: not even George W. Bush has dared attack North Korea.
If the dictator of Pyongyang does not need his atomic arsenal for defence, then he needs it even less for attack. Kim Jong Il must surely be aware that North Korea would be blown from the face of the earth by the United States and South Korea if it attempted to use its nuclear weapons in combat.
He must also have a pretty good idea of the futility of such a gesture. No matter what the paranoid and fear-mongering Americans like to tell themselves, North Korea’s projectiles are antique and inaccurate. If Kim ever reached for the red button, he wouldn’t live to see the first one splash down, miles from its intended target.
On the face of it, therefore, nuclear weapons actually pose a greater threat to North Korea itself than they do to its neighbours.
So why does Kim Jong Il chase after them so resolutely, even at the risk of losing the support of China, his only friend in the world? The answer is vanity, pure and simple. Like the denizens of Thackery’s Vanity Fair, the world’s leaders inhabit a universe where “a title and a coach and four are toys more precious than happiness”, and the only standard is being more successful than your rivals.
Yet, in his own way, Kim Jong Il is acting in the service of a greater good: he is acting on behalf of his nation. North Korea’s nuclear arms program is the source of its continuing geopolitical relevance. It ensures attention and aid – and even respect.
Without unconventional weapons, Kim Jong Il would be just one more ignored leader of a failing famine state. As the embodiment of his country’s vital force, his ultimate vanity is to think that his problems and opinions deserve to be played out on the big stage; and which of us can truly be said to be free of that particular vice?
Not Churchill, for sure. Kamm’s article quotes the maestro: The H-bomb is the “Badge to the Royal Enclosure [at Ascot]”. The great man understood is that just like people, nations are vain; and that their vanity needs soothing.
Perhaps Britain is an irrelevancy in the international arena – most likely it has been that way for a long time. But is that an admission we are prepared to make? Enraged moralists happily embrace self-immolation, but I am not sure the nation does. Are we really ready for a future where our opinion matters just about as much as Sweden’s?
I have no data to prove it, but I suspect that Britons gain a sense of satisfaction seeing their country perform well on the global stage. This is most obvious in sport, as the national back-slapping when London won the Olympics proved. But it is also the case in international politics. When Britain takes a hand, it makes us feel that we can make a difference. In a mass society, there is no more important feeling.
National mood matters. Go to France or to Italy and take a deep breath and you suck in so much disappointment and disillusionment (and cigarette smoke) that you almost choke. These countries, failing economically, are gripped by self-loathing. Their politics reeks of despair – lacking any true belief in progress, voters are willingly gulled by charismatic charlatans like Silvio Berlusconi and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Believe it or not, they look enviously at dynamic Britain.
We will always measure ourselves against our neighbours. It is too late to leave Vanity Fair, so we may as well get used to it here. It is true that a nuclear arsenal is the military equivalent of a penis extension – built not for use in love or war, but for the purposes of vain comparison – but that doesn’t make it meaningless. There is a prideful joy in virile self-assertion that binds a nation together. In this day and age, this is no small feat. We neglect the politics of vanity at our peril.