Editorial: ‘Vital interests’ rule

IssueJune - July 2023
Comment by Milan Rai

‘For 77 years, nuclear weapons have not been used at all. We should not allow the current situation to negate that history.’ – Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, 28 April

‘We underscore the importance of the 77-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons.... Our security policies are based on the understanding that nuclear weapons, for as long as they exist, should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war and coercion.’ – G7 leaders’ ‘Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament’, 19 May

‘The notion common to nearly all Americans that “no nuclear weapons have been used since Nagasaki” is mistaken. It is not the case that US nuclear weapons have simply piled up over the years... unused and unusable, save for the single function of deterring their use against us by the Soviets. Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.’ – Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, 1981

Nuclear weapons have been used in the past 77 years. In his important 1981 essay, ‘Call to Mutiny’, Daniel Ellsberg’s first example of a nuclear threat comes from 1946. US president Harry Truman (according to his own account) used the Bomb for the first time after the destruction of Nagasaki when he summoned the Soviet ambassador to deliver an ultimatum: leave Iran within 48 hours or experience a nuclear attack. According to Truman, the Soviets moved within 24 hours.

Historians doubt this version of events, but whatever the exact details may have been, this early Cold War incident took on new importance in 1980 when it was repeated in public by US senator Henry Jackson. Jackson said that Truman had told him the story of summoning the Soviet ambassador giving the ultimatum, ‘We’re going to drop it on you’, if Soviet forces don’t leave Iran in 48 hours.

Jackson’s public retelling of this ‘victory’ in January 1980 was a deliberate act of support for the Carter Doctrine announced that same week: ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’

In other words, the US reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to maintain its domination of the oil resources of the Middle East.

Ellsberg writes about the briefing of journalists that went along with the announcement of the Carter Doctrine to make it clear that it had a nuclear dimension.

For example, Richard Burt of the New York Times was shown a secret Pentagon study which concluded that the only way to stop Soviet forces moving into northern Iran was the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

The day after Burt’s story appeared, on 3 February 1980, the official state department spokesperson, William Dyess, was asked the following questions on television:

Q: ‘In nuclear war are we committed not to make the first strike?’

Dyess: ‘No, sir.’

Q: ‘We could conceivably make an offensive....’

Dyess: ‘We make no comment on that whatsoever, but the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration in their calculus.’

Ellsberg points out that when Jimmy Carter left office, and Ronald Reagan took his place in the White House, both Carter’s departing defence secretary and the incoming president used the same wording: what will keep Russia out of northern Iran and other parts of the Middle East is ‘the risk of World War III’. This was a large part of the Carter Doctrine in a nutshell.

Vital interests

Notice that, in the Carter Doctrine, the key value is ‘the vital interests of the United States of America’, which are to be defended by nuclear weapons if necessary.

Later this year, it will be the 30th anniversary of an important speech by the then defence secretary. Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind indicated that in the future Britain might fire a single ‘substrategic’ Trident warhead at an enemy in order to deliver ‘an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost’.

A much weaker enemy might not believe that Britain would fire a whole raft of Trident nuclear warheads (‘a massive strike with strategic systems’): ‘It is therefore important for the credibility of our deterrent that the United Kingdom also possesses the capability to undertake a more limited nuclear strike in order to induce a political decision to halt aggression by delivering an unmistakable message of our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost.’

This doctrine has never been renounced by any British government.

Labour’s 1998 strategic defence review (SDR) re-affirmed that nuclear weapons are focused on Britain’s ‘vital interests’: ‘The Strategic Defence Review has conducted a rigorous re- examination of our [nuclear] deterrence requirements. This does not depend on the size of other nation’s [nuclear] arsenals but on the minimum necessary to deter any threat to our vital interests.’

The SDR was helpfully clear: ‘our vital interests are not confined to Europe. Our economy is founded on international trade.... We invest more of our income abroad than any other major economy.... Foreign investment into the UK also provides nearly 20% of manufacturing jobs. We depend on foreign countries for supplies of raw materials, above all oil.’

In other words, Britain’s ‘vital national interests’ are largely commercial – centred on trade, investments and raw materials – all around the world.

British governments have regretted being so open and have stopped using the phrase ‘vital interests’, though ‘core national interests’ did show up in the latest version of the strategic defence review, the Integrated Review Refresh 2023, published in March. These interests are to be found in ‘the Euro-Atlantic, the Indo-Pacific, and our wider neighbourhood’. That is most of the world.

Topics: Nuclear weapons
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