Despite the commitment in the Coalition Agreement to replace our ageing Trident weapons system, the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent comments on the “huge, huge” sums involved have reopened the debate on whether Britain needs an independent nuclear deterrent.
Azeem Ibrahim wrote this piece on ConHome a fortnight ago on the financial implications of replacing Trident. But let us be in no doubt. Whatever the final cost of renewal, Britain must maintain an independent, submarine-based nuclear weapons system.
Whilst we are not the power we once were, we still have a strong voice on the world stage by virtue of our economic might, our strong relations with other major countries (most notably the US) and because we have the bomb.
When the UN Security Council was established in 1946 only the US possessed the bomb, but it is no coincidence that the five permanent members are now all nuclear powers. Trident is what separates us – and the same goes for France – from the second rank of European powers. Abandoning our nuclear deterrent would jeopardise our seat at the Security Council and the veto power that accompanies it. Whatever else we may think of the UN (and I believe that there is a lot wrong with it), the veto is a tangible strength and one coveted by many nations. In this way, reducing our hard power capability also diminishes our soft power influence.
Nuclear weapons, in the hands of a small number of nation states, have reduced the incidence and scale of conventional wars. It is pure myth that a nuclear weapon-free world would be a more peaceful global environment: a nuclear-free world existed until 1945 and there was neither peace nor security during that time. There have, of course and unfortunately, been many wars since 1945, but none has even approached the level of death and destruction that occurred with alarming frequency prior to the development of nuclear weapons, and none has pitted one nuclear power against another. The existence of nuclear weapons, and the possibility of mutually-assured destruction, has imposed caution upon the countries that have them, out of rightful fear of their terrible potential. That there have been fewer and less catastrophic inter-state wars since the advent of nuclear weapons is testament to their deterrent value.
But this is not to understate the dangers we face today and those we may face tomorrow. The primary justification for maintaining our nuclear deterrent is that we simply do not know what threats the future holds. No matter how well informed we are, we cannot know for certain who are enemies are, what their true intentions are, nor the full extent of their capabilities. In the face of such uncertainty, it makes no sense to relinquish our most powerful deterrent.
If we were to forgo our own nuclear weapons – either unilaterally or through multilateral negotiations – our enemies will still continue to develop their nuclear weapons programmes. Indeed, it may well hasten their efforts, while weakening our own position. There is a misplaced confidence in the potential influence of setting an example. Just as India and China will gladly watch us burden ourselves with overly ambitious carbon emission targets, they will not be induced to follow suit simply by virtue of our having done so first.
All of this notwithstanding, we can and should reduce our stockpile of nuclear warheads. But we cannot eliminate them altogether. The threat already posed by North Korea, the imminent threats posed by Iran and the possible threat posed by missing fissionable material from Russia and Pakistan are all real and unpredictable, and ridding ourselves of nuclear weapons does nothing to alleviate them.
The Coalition Government is rightly committed to clearing up the appalling economic legacy of the previous government by reducing public spending. But if we wish to protect ourselves and future generations, and retain a seat at the top table, cutting our nuclear deterrent is not an option.