hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Strategic Risks of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons


Alphen, Netherlands. 10 April.  The Little Britain general election campaign drones on with blown-up, strategically-illiterate little politicians daily offering irrelevant political gimmicks to an uninterested and unimpressed electorate.  Little or no mention has been made thus far of Britain in the world, and no vision whatsoever of a strategic Britain in a strategic twenty-first century.  It really is dire stuff. Indeed, if one adds up all the extra-money daily promised to the all-consuming National Health Service and subtract that from the cuts necessary to reduce the structural deficit then by 2020 Britain will have to change its name to “NHShire”, because that is all that is going to be left.  At least Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent (and its successor) got a mention this week, but only as ever in the form of politics pretending to be strategy.  Defence Secretary Michael Fallon accused Labour leader Ed Miliband of planning to scrap the deterrent so as to do a power-confirming deal with Planet Scotland’s very own Scottish National Party.

My friend and colleague Paul Schulte of the University of Birmingham recently wrote a fascinating piece entitled “The Strategic Risks of Devaluing Nuclear Weapons”.  His essential thesis is that the current debate, particularly in Western countries, is more informed by political conceit than strategic rationale.  In a sense, Schulte confronts the essential paradox of deterrence – how does one prove a negative?  How does one prove that the existence of nuclear weapons prevents their use? 

Implicit in the piece is another set of questions concerning the political utility of such weapons. Unstable, revisionist states, such as Iran and North Korea, seek such weapons for purposes of regime prestige or to create the space for an aggressive foreign policy which could at some point involve the use of large-scale conventional force and/or proxies to foster their respective regional-strategic ambitions.  Big revisionist states with third and fourth generation nuclear weapons, such as China and Russia, see them as leitmotifs of power and of national influence.  Even the US and France maintain some belief that nuclear weapons have a political utility beyond a purely deterrent role.

Of the established Nuclear Weapons States only Britain has a significant part of the political class that believes Britain’s deterrent should be scrapped because of cost and/or for the sake of ideological purity.  However, at no point in the British debate has there been or is there any real sense of the strategic value of the British nuclear deterrent.  Worse, Schulte warns that the political devaluation of nuclear weapons is only likely to increase and much of that devaluation driven by the most parochial of political conceits. 

To be fair, those that espouse unilateral disarmament also espouse a a legalistic rather than a power concept of international politics.  Much of the political Left in Britain believes (not unreasonably) that scrapping Trident would strengthen arms control regimes such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  They can certainly point with some conviction to the paradoxical hypocrisy of the Nuclear Weapons States who as recently as the 2010 NPT Review Conference re-affirmed their determination to “achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons”. However, a further British retreat into a legalistic foreign and security policy would take place just at the moment power is making a big comeback.  

Another ‘reality’ implicit in Schulte’s argument is that given the contemporary state of world politics general and comprehensive nuclear disarmament is as unlikely as nuclear weapons being disinvented.  Therefore, those that advocate scrapping the British nuclear deterrent fail to understand that their arguments about morality are irrelevant and their arguments about cost valueless.  By unilaterally disarming Britain would a) signal a final and irrevocable British retreat from strategic influence and realism; b) demonstrate a profound strategic malaise at the heart of the Western unity of effort and purpose; c) tip the balance of power in favour of states which are led by people it is reasonable to assume are less rational about the appalling, horribleness of nuclear weapons.  In other words, if Britain unilaterally scraps its deterrent it would help make nuclear war more not less likely.

Trident is in fact a metaphor for Britain’s role in the world, much like most British politicians are a metaphor for leadership.  Those who believe Britain is a serious power in a dangerous world tend to believe that Britain must retain a minimum deterrent as an ultimate agent of stability.  Those who believe Britain should abandon such weapons believe the UK has little or no independent, international role to play anymore beyond the self-satisfying disbursement of copious amounts of British taxpayer’s money in the form of aid. 

Given the world into which Britain and the West is moving it would be utter folly at this moment to abandon the British nuclear deterrent on a whim without a proper assessment of the strategic implications and its impact on friend and foe alike.  Such an act would also reveal (yet again) the extent to which much of Britain’s political class lacks any understanding of the real world or of the role a state as powerful as Britain could and should aspire to play.


Julian Lindley-French

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