Tuesday 16 April 2024

Tough talk isn't enough


The idea that something is a ‘deterrent’ is a regular refrain in politics and international affairs, from sentencing in the courts, through small boat arrivals to the threat of using nuclear weapons. Those in control of, or in a position to apply, the deterrent in question often have a blind faith that it will work, yet the evidence for deterrence as a principle is, at best limited. For any deterrent to work (i.e. to deter someone from taking some action or other) at least four things have to be true:

·        The would-be perpetrator has to believe that he or she will be identified and placed in a situation where the deterrent could be applied

·        Said perpetrator has to believe that the deterrent actually would then be applied in practice

·        He or she must also be convinced that the application of the deterrent would leave him or her in a worse position than they would have otherwise been in

·        He or she has to be in a sufficiently rational frame of mind to weigh up all of these factors before deciding whether or not to commit the act which is supposed to be deterred.

That final point is something of a deterrent-killer when it comes to crime. An awful lot of acquisitive crime is opportunistic rather than pre-planned, and a great deal of violent crime arises from an emotional response at the time of the crime. Even if those things weren’t true, the police forces charged with responding to those crimes are understaffed and under-resourced: for a large number of crimes, the chances of being caught are low. Preventing crime is something most of us want, but it isn’t the same thing as deterring crime, which is where Labour and Tory alike seem to concentrate their attention, instead of considering the causes. I’m sure that there was a political leader once who said something about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, even if he forgot the second part of that once elected.

If the government does manage to get its Rwanda Bill through parliament this week, it’s a policy which fails on at least two of the key criteria for deterrence. It doesn’t take a genius to calculate that if 40,000 people are arriving every year and the capacity for deporting them to Rwanda is somewhere between a few hundred and a thousand or so (even if they can find an airline prepared to carry them, accommodation in which to place them which hasn’t already been sold off, identify people who don’t fit into a category which will still allow some sort of legal challenge, and find enough people to accompany them – each deportee is likely to require at least two escorts to forcibly get them onto a plane and restrain them during the flight) then the probability of them actually being sent to Rwanda is somewhere between negligible and zero. And given the desperation which leads most of them to flee their home country, few are likely to see that remote possibility as being worse than the situation they are fleeing. A government which really wanted to reduce the levels of migration would be looking at the causes of that migration rather than simply punishing migrants. That isn’t the government we’ve got, nor is it the one we’re likely to have by the end of the year.

And then we come to nuclear deterrence, aka the expenditure of vast sums on weaponry that no rational person would ever use, but whose possession depends on an assumption that ‘the enemy’ is both irrational enough to want to use them and rational enough to be deterred from so doing, and that said enemy will, in turn, believe that ‘we’ are irrational enough to want to use them and rational enough to be deterred from so doing. Rational irrationality or irrational rationality: both sound like they’ve emerged from the troubled mind of Donald Rumsfeld. We are regularly told that the ‘evidence’ for the efficacy of the nuclear deterrent is that the Soviet Union/ Russia hasn’t attacked the NATO alliance. Whilst it’s true to say that they have not attacked NATO (and, come to that – and in the interests of balance – neither has NATO attacked them), the ‘proof’ that the possession of large armouries of nuclear weapons is the thing that has prevented it is distinctly lacking. And inevitably so – we only live history once, and the only way of categorically proving it would be to live history over again, changing just that one factor. I suspect that the reasons for a lack of war would be shown to be rather more complex than simple fear of one particular type of weapon. The one case where we can be fairly unequivocally certain that nuclear deterrence has ‘worked’ is Ukraine, where Russia’s vast arsenal, accompanied by a threat to use it, has effectively deterred the rest of the world from going to the aid of a country unlawfully invaded by a larger neighbour. That, however, makes nuclear weapons look more like a facilitator of aggression than a deterrent to war. To say nothing of an encouragement to proliferation. And even more recently, Israel’s nuclear weapons have demonstrably not ‘deterred’ Iran.

The thread running through all of this is an assumption that the best or only way of preventing that which is undesirable is to deter potential perpetrators from doing it. In all three cases, however, what is really needed is to address the underlying causes of those actions or potential actions. It’s harder to address the causes rather than the symptoms, but our ‘leaders’ prefer to talk tough and make macho threats than to be effective. In all three scenarios.

No comments: