In all the foofaurauw over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, what the United States can and should do to prevent it, and what Israel will need to do should it develop, the underlying question of what nation-states or similar entities should be permitted to possess nuclear weapons has been addressed only in the most superficial fashion.
Among the Anglospheric states, opinion appears to be solidly against allowing Iran's rulers to acquire weapons of mass destruction, which category includes nukes. The argument is essentially a single step: They're crazy, bloodthirsty Muslim fanatics. While I appreciate the simplicity of this argument and agree with its conclusion, it addresses only the single case of Iran, a terror-state ruled by a clique of insane Islamist mullahs and the slightly more secular "elected officials" that form its public face. We might apply the argument to other terror-states ruled by crazy Muslim clerics, but its usefulness would end there.
Indeed, it's unclear whether the larger question of whether any government should be allowed to possess nukes has ever been addressed. A government differs from a criminal organization only in its pretense of legitimacy. We tolerate such entities grudgingly at most; even the best of them are prone to abuses of power and oppression of their subjects.
But of course, ours is a world partitioned into nation-states, whose subjects rely upon them for protection from other nation-states. More, the laws of physics are an open book; the knowledge required to make fission bombs is widely dispersed, as is the engineering expertise. Therefore, as long as there are nation-states, a condition likely to persist beyond the foreseeable future, one or more will possess weapons of mass destruction, including the nuclear sort, if only to keep the other states at bay.
The question is too perilous to be addressed in a diplomatic fashion alone, as the Iranian problem has demonstrated. If some coalition of states reaches the conclusion that state X, which is approaching nuclear-club status, must be prevented from reaching its goal, those states must be prepared to use force to prevent it -- and the force required just might involve the use of nukes. "Jaw, jaw" might indeed be better than "war, war" most of the time, but negotiation unsupported by the readiness, willingness, and ability to use force is pointless. When the subject is nuclear weapons, the degree of resolve demanded is higher than for any other imaginable subject.
At this time, there are several nations in the nuclear club that most Americans would prefer not to have seats there:
- Red China
The first three of the above states are unfree and anti-democratic; India, despite its representations, is a question mark. All by itself, the questionable legitimacy of those governments, judged according to American norms, casts a shadow over their possession of nuclear arms.
But is the legitimacy of a state, according to some standard, the best guide to whether it ought to be allowed nukes? Legitimacy has worn many masks over the years. The contemporary conception of legitimacy as the consent of the governed, expressed and regulated by elections, is a considerable departure from that of past eras.
I would prefer a standard based on the ability of the subject population to overthrow the government. If we are prepared to assume that most people in most nations are sane, that would constitute a better check on a government's aggressiveness than the dubious willingness of other governments to restrain it. But there are problems here as well.
At this time, very few nation-states fully respect the individual's right to own weapons. Even here in the United States, there are numerous restrictions on gun ownership, to say nothing of more effective weapons. But it's still the case that, were a popular uprising to commence, the federal government would be unable to put it down. Americans are sufficiently well armed to enforce the expulsion of our political class, should it ever slide low enough in our esteem.
I can think of only one other nuclear-armed state where that holds true. Our nuclear-armed NATO allies Britain and France have some of the world's most draconian anti-firearms laws. The four nuclear states named earlier are just as harsh toward private armament. Only Israel, one of the most completely armed societies in world history, appears capable of evicting its rulers should the popular demand for it arise.
So: In the other nuclear-club states, should a cadre of villains with serious expansionist aims come to power, the populace at large could do nothing about it. Should that state possess nukes, it would be the task of other nuclear-club states to restrain it. Given the general enervation of American geopolitical assertiveness, it's hard to imagine that we would make an adequate effort. It's even harder to imagine Britain or France doing so.
It's a frightening portrait of the world, both as it currently stands and as it's likely to develop. It bodes terrifyingly for the future, especially as regards the political and religious storms now sweeping across the Middle East.
Maybe it's time to get back to work on my starship.