The Need for an Immanent Critique

Tasneem Jamal

Lee-Anne Broadhead

Lee-Anne Broadhead is Assistant Professor, Department of Politics, Government and Public Administration, University College of Cape Breton

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

Question: Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interests in missile defence?

The question posed as to whether or not there are credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interests in missile defence is an interesting and useful one. The question forbids the respondent from merely relying on an ethical response that missile defence is an ‘evil’ that must be fought or from stressing the potentially destabilizing effects which might result in terms of orthodox notions of the balancing of power. At the same time, however, the question pre-supposes that the proposed missile defence plan promises an answer to US security concerns. It seems to me that any answer must necessarily begin by taking one step back and creating space to think clearly as to whether or not the proposed scheme will actually achieve the desired ends as stated by its defenders. I believe that an immanent critique is most often the most fruitful methodology to begin such a task.

As a method, immanent critique ‘starts with the conceptual principles and standards of an object, and unfolds their implications and consequences. Then it re-examines and reassesses the object… in light of these implications and consequences. Critique proceeds, so to speak from, “from within.”‘1 If we take the object – missile defence – under consideration with the conceptual principle of security, then we can more usefully assess the project. Such an exercise is not intended to produce an abstract theoretical response to the question posed but is instead designed to foster a deeper understanding of the existing political conditions to better allow for a determination of alternative (progressive) policies. We need, in short, to give ourselves the tools with which to make broader (justified) arguments against the larger issues at hand – militarism and nuclear danger.

The advocates of the missile defence programme are clear in their goals to protect the United States from new enemies (the ‘rogue states’ or ‘states of concern’) which threaten their security. Ronald Kadish, Director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) argues that: 

Missile defense is a reasonable response to a new kind of threat. Active defenses are not just about providing basic protection. They also will help preserve our freedom of action and remove a hostile state’s capability to coerce U.S. foreign policy or shape national security decisions.2

The ‘new kind of threat’ is coming, it is argued, from a greater number of countries and particular focus should be placed on North Korea, Iran and Iraq.

Let us begin, then, to ‘unfold the implications and consequences’ of the proposed missile defence program. First of all – and aside from the fact that few people outside of the U.S. takes seriously the fact that the so-called ‘states of concern’ are a grave threat to the sole remaining superpower with its overwhelming military strength – it is hard to see how this program would lead to increased security. The means of destruction, in these days of chemical and biological weapons, need not be delivered through ballistic missile technology and therefore a missile defense program will never be able to eliminate the possibility of such attacks or eliminate the feelings of vulnerability. Secondly, despite the claims of the plan’s supporters, an arms race is the most likely result of the action. Although Mr. Kadish does not see counter-measures likely by the ‘states of concern’ due to their lack of technological expertise (does this not go against his argument about how dangerous they are?!), an arms race can occur nonetheless. Russia is threatening to walk away from all nuclear, and possibly other, arms control commitments and negotiations, seeing the shield as a clear sign that the United States now seeks superiority over, rather than mutual security with, it. China is also highly agitated and alarmed and regards itself, rather than North Korea, as the real object of American plans. As a result, China is linking its participation in negotiations for a treaty banning the production of nuclear materials to concerted international efforts to prevent a new arms race, both around the world and in outer space. Furthermore, given the long-standing ‘logic’ of nuclear balance, China will likely believe it needs more missiles in order to protect its own security thus creating still another arms race.

At a more general level, multilateral arms control issues are also in question (for example, the CTBT, a fissile materials treaty, the NPT’s recently agreed action plan) as a result of the plan. Allies of the United States argue that the action is destabilizing, dangerous and unnecessary and any moral authority which the United States might have had in the non-proliferation issue has dissipated. Nuclear instability is, it is safe to say, the most likely result of the program. The implications and consequences are staggeringly dangerous and almost too terrible to contemplate.

Shown to be a failure in its own terms of increasing security, the answer to the question posed above seems quite easy: the way for the United States to address the security concerns which are said to underlie the plan is through confidence building measures and a swift and steady demonstration of commitment to a wide range of arms control measures. With a massive preponderance of weaponry at its disposal, the United States is indeed well situated to make such a stand and seek to reduce the nuclear danger. The rational step would be to move beyond the mutilated consciousness of the military state. Another question arises however: is increased security the sincere motivation or merely the declaratory one – the rationale intended to mask the real intent behind the policy?

It is inconceivable that the advocates of missile defense are unaware of the likely outcome and the insecurity it will wreak upon the world. Indeed, it seems clear that the proposed plan will be supported in the corridors of power for reasons quite different from those which are repeatedly stated. Malcolm Fraser, former prime minister of Australia, has recently stated that ‘Since the end of the Cold War the United States has become more assertive, more convinced in its righteousness and more determined that other countries accept its point of view. In a desire to achieve security for themselves, Americans are now putting world stability and security at risk.’3 In short, the United States does not want safety – it wants overwhelming and total control.

If the deep political and strategic realities behind this apparently limited and defensive program are exposed through an immanent critique, perhaps we prevent ourselves from being ‘coerced’ into accepting such a disastrous course of action. It is much easier to challenge demands for control (and to marshal support in doing so) than it is to challenge demands for security.


1 David Held, Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas (University of California Press, 1980): 184.

2 Lt. General Ronald Kadish, Excerpts from a speech to the Year 200 Multinational BMD Conference, June 5, 2000 in: Disarmament Diplomacy (Number 47; June 2000): 45.

3 Malcolm Fraser, ‘Missile Defense?’ International Herald Tribune, 28 July 2000.

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