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Pat MurphyThe 2017 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In bestowing the award, the Nobel committee cited ICAN’s advocacy of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The committee has a track record for aspirational awards of this nature.

For instance, the 1926 prize went to Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann for their work on Franco-German reconciliation culminating in the 1925 Locarno Treaties. And the 1929 award went to Frank Kellogg for his role in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which prohibited wars of aggression.

It would be churlish to fault the good intentions of everyone involved, but the Second World War demonstrated how fundamentally flimsy these achievements were. Without robust enforcement mechanisms, declarations of noble intent have precarious shelf lives. Or to quote another Nobel laureate, 1927’s Ludwig Quidde: “Security comes first and disarmament second.”

Campaigns against nuclear weapons are almost as old as the nuclear age itself.

In the United Kingdom, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was founded in 1957 and attracted such luminaries as philosopher Bertrand Russell, novelists J.B. Priestley and E.M. Forster, classical music composer Benjamin Britten, sculptor Henry Moore and future Labour Party leader Michael Foot. With its demand for unilateral British nuclear disarmament and Ban the Bomb marches, the CND became a prominent fixture in public life. The Easter marches of 1961 and 1962 were estimated to have each attracted 150,000 participants.

Although organizations like the CND were generally left-wing in political orientation, aversion to nuclear weapons can run across the spectrum.

For example, U.S. President Ronald Reagan loathed nuclear weapons with such intensity that advisers worried he’d undermine the credibility of long-standing deterrence doctrine. Mutual assured destruction (MAD) was based on the premise that a nuclear attack would be met with a riposte in kind, and the thinking was that this horrifying prospect kept the nuclear peace.

Reagan, however, considered MAD “immoral” and sought to make nuclear weapons obsolete by developing missile defence technology. What the critics derided as his dangerous Star Wars fantasy was, in fact, intended to pave the way for nuclear disarmament.

Can reality be injected into the aspirations of ICAN and the Nobel committee?

Yes, but it requires doing things that make progressive-minded people distinctly uncomfortable.

First, rather than sheltering beneath someone else’s nuclear umbrella, countries would need to provide adequately for their own conventional defence.

When Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev mused about abolishing nuclear weapons at Reykjavik in 1986, America’s European allies had conniptions. Among other things, they worried that a nuclear-free NATO would leave them vulnerable to the Soviet Union’s numerically superior conventional forces.

But 1986 wasn’t 1946. Western Europe was no longer shattered and economically prostrate. It had sufficient population and wealth to create a conventional defence capability of its own to match what the Soviets could bring to bear. It just didn’t want to pay the price.

Second, we would need to rethink the idea of idealistically-motivated interventions in the internal affairs of other countries. However nobly intended, concepts like responsibility-to-protect have the potential for unintended nuclear consequences.

Although expensive and complicated, nuclear weapons are essentially an old technology that can’t be uninvented. And dictators who feel potentially vulnerable will want to avoid the fate of Muammar Gaddafi.

Chastened by what had happened in Iraq, Gaddafi sought to get onside with the West by decommissioning his nascent nuclear program in 2003. After subsequently inspecting what Gaddafi had, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mohamed ElBaradei guessed that Libya could have produced a nuclear weapon in three to seven years.

Then, citing humanitarian reasons and with UN backing, NATO intervened in Libya’s 2011 civil war and Gaddafi met a gruesome end. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even had a triumphalist moment, proclaiming “We came, we saw, he died.”

But would NATO have intervened if Gaddafi had persisted and developed a nuclear weapon? One suspects that the lesson hasn’t been lost on the likes of North Korea.

And finally, there’s missile defence. Because the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, there’s no way of guaranteeing a world without nuclear weapons. So comprehensively effective missile defence is essential to any dreams of broadly-based disarmament.

Whisper it softly for fear of disturbing the ideologically fragile: Reagan was right.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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