Nuclear weapons are vital to our defense. Conventional weapons have not succeeded in deterring war. Nuclear weapons have prevented not only nuclear war, but conventional war as well. They have kept the peace in Europe for over forty years.

—Margaret Thatcher. Speech to the Conservative Central Council, Torquay, March 21, 1987.

During the Cold War, nuclear weapons proved their worth by deterring an attack by an aggressor with numerically superior conventional forces. In the future, they will have a brief role in deterring attacks by a technologically superior aggressor. This will come about if socialism in the United States allows China to become the preeminent technological power.

Mutually assured destruction

Nuclear deterrence can only work if it is made clear to a nuclear armed foe that the use of a nuclear weapon will provoke an immediate nuclear counter-attack. It must also be made clear that the price of aggression will be vengeance against their loved ones by the loved ones of those they have slaughtered will be such that they will rue their decision.

The Nazis believed the British were effeminate—that their morality and religiousness were weaknesses. They felt their own ruthlessness made them superior beings, so they behaved like the Huns of old, murdering mothers and children in their beds by dropping bombs on cities from the air. They thought their own families were immune from retribution. They were wrong, and German mothers and children were left to pay the awful price—while Goering and Hitler cowered in their bunkers.

The Nazis were not totally to blame, any more than a grizzly bear is totally to blame when hikers leave food lying around their campsite. British vacillation was a crucial link in the chain of causation. The British had it in their power to prevent the horror that befell both peoples. After the Nazi bombing of Guernica, they ought to have made it clear that any future bombing of cities by the Germans would be repaid in kind multiplied by ten. They should then have immediately built the necessary fighters and bombers to deliver on their threat. Had this solemn threat been credibly made, the Germans would have feared to bomb other cities in the same way the Soviets feared to use strategic nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

An example of what a government official ought never to say was provided by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an interview with CNN: “I don’t think that the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, they’re going to drop it immediately on some neighbor. They fully understand what might follow.” (February 28, 2010.)

He ought to have said what will follow. Politicians should always make utterly clear what will happen if their people are attacked. To be equi­vocal about such matters is not prudent moderation, it is a terrible mistake; it allows an aggressor to imagine he can attack without fear of retaliation.

A similar gross error of judgment is Britain’s letter of last resort. Britain today has a woefully inadequate nuclear deterrent—a sole submarine on patrol. Onboard, kept inside a safe, is a confidential letter from the prime minister of the day containing standing orders. It is to be opened in the event a surprise attack destroys London and the chain of command. Its contents are secret, but the inference is that it may order the captain to retaliate or it may advise him to disarm his weapons and surrender to the enemy.

Now quite apart from the immorality of the prime minister deciding a question of life and death on behalf of so many millions of people in secrecy, without instructions, appeal or redress—the arrangement sends an ambiguous message to potential enemies. They are invited to calculate that a pacifist prime minister will have ordered the submarine not to retaliate. Thus, just as the waffling, bird-watching, umbrella-carrying Chamberlain encouraged Hitler to gamble, so does this arrangement invite gamblers in the future to drop a hydrogen bomb on London.

Historians tells us that Khrushchev’s brinkmanship was emboldened by the poor impression he formed of President Kennedy, who was suffering severe back pain when they first met. This led to the endangerment of humanity during the Cuban missile crisis. The lesson of that experience is not to have a chest-beating leader in charge at all times; rather, it is to have structures in place that ensure the personal qualities of the leader of the day are irrelevant to the calculations of a potential aggressor.

The correct solution is to hold a referendum to amend a written constitution so that it prescribes how the armed forces are to respond to a nuclear attack. By removing the decision from the politicians, and by making the decision public, no tyrant can ever be deluded as to what the response to a surprise attack will be. Under such an arrangement, even if the tyrant is completely insane, his henchmen—knowing they and their loved ones will surely perish—will depose him at the cost of their own lives sooner than obey his orders.

Constitutions should specify, with schedules, what attacks will provoke what response. This will encourage the guilty nation to take its punishment rather than opt for utter destruction through an escalating exchange. Thus, for example, a written British constitution could prescribe that in the event of the destruction of London by a 1,000 kt Russian bomb, Moscow and Saint Petersburg will each be destroyed with a 1,000 kt bomb and Novosibirsk and Nizhny Novgorod with 200 kt bombs. Threats such as these should always be proportioned to ensure it is a very poor bargain for the aggressor. No allowances should be made for accidental discharges. If a people opts to keep dangerous weapons, then it behooves them to ensure adequate safeguards are in place to prevent unintentional discharge. After all it would be unfair for the British people to suffer more than the Russian people should Russian negligence allow a terrorist to obtain their bombs or fissionable material, or should they accidentally send an armed missile to London.

A small nation like Israel (population 7 million) cannot afford to threaten a large country like Iran (population 70 million) with proportionate casualties. To do so would encourage the calculation that Iran could afford the martyrdom of 7 million Muslims as an acceptable price for the destruction of Israel. Instead Israel must threaten Iran with mutually assured destruction.

Ironically, during the Cold War, the atheism of communism contributed to the deterrent effectiveness of the mutually-assured destruction doctrine. This was because communists do not believe in the afterlife, thus they had nothing to gain from initiating a nuclear holocaust. By contrast, Islamic fundamentalists gladly seek what they falsely call martyrdom—rendering deterrence less effective. It is for this reason it is of critical importance to prevent them from gaining nuclear weapons.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove