UK Independence

1 December 2006

A terrible letter to the Independent earlier this week complained about the awesome destructive capabilities of Trident.  The author could only assume that Trident was a dreadful weapon of revenge, but so dreadful that no one would be able to assume the moral burden of unleashing it.  Perfectly correct points – but the letter put them in the wrong part of the argument.  A better (pro-Trident) letter pointed out two days later that the whole point of Trident is that it is dreadful.  It’s not meant to be used: it’s meant to deter people from attacking us in fear that it should be used.  The active part of Trident is the fear. This correspondent concluded that the UK would be unwise to give up its weapon of fear in such an uncertain world climate.

This might be a good point if we could somehow abstract the UK from the rest of the world, if all the uncertainty in the world could be shown to be utterly independent of our own actions, while still being something that we should guard against.  But there is no such independence.  Our actions are partial causes of the global climate, and our actions can contribute to its transformation.  The hope is that by giving up Trident we might persuade some other nuclear-seekers to give up likewise.  Whereas if we keep it we in effect say to the rest of the world that we’re looking for trouble; trouble which will – if the nuclear non-proliferation treaty breaks down entirely – not be so long in coming. 

Ben Young


Julian Lewis’ nuclear arguments

3 September 2006

Julian Lewis MP‘s article in International Affairs 82 (4) July 2006, p.667-673 (but also available here) contains an extremely clear and forceful presentation of the arguments against disarmament. Part of its power lies in the historical detail and speculation which makes the reader feel the fear that militates in favour of a deterrent; but here’s a summary of some of his main claims:

1. No tool has intrinsic moral properties, therefore there is nothing intrinsically immoral about nuclear weapons. Morals come into the picture only when we consider the uses to which a tool is put, and though it is wrong implicitly to threaten others with destruction, this wrong is justified by the much greater wrong which it averts (namely, an attack by massive weapons of destruction on the UK).

2. There is a need for a general and flexible deterrent like Trident, because wars break out unpredictably and we can’t know where or when the new threat will arise. We can understand where a war came from in hindsight, but can’t predict it.

3. The disarmament lobby underestimates how dangerous the world is: “it is a constant failing of the disarmament lobby to try to ascribe values of reasonableness, tolerance, goodwill and peaceful intent to states under the control of despots, fanatics and dictators.”

4. There is no causal link between our possession of nuclear weapons and another country’s desire to acquire them: so the purpose of wider disarmament will not be furthered if the UK gives up its nuclear weapons. In fact, it will encourage other countries to attack us.

These arguments seem compelling, but (as argued by KCA77 in the previous post) their logical conclusion seems to be that every state should possess a deterrent – but this is an outrageous conclusion since then acccidental detonation or accidental war would be a near-certainty. Lewis might argue that to avoid this state of affairs, the peace-loving nuclear weapons states should club together to prevent other states getting nuclear weapons! – Exactly what was meant to be happening, before the NPT fell apart.

What do you think? Please comment!

Ben @ kenyersel

Edinburgh Book Festival: Mark Thomas is wrong about Trident!

20 August 2006

Mark Thomas, speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival, said that he thought the decision to replace Trident had already been taken. I don’t think this is a helpful comment; nor do I think it’s true.

Even if the decision had been taken it would be possible to reverse it, so it would be worth pursuing the arguments against replacement anyway. But why should we think it has been taken at all? One reason might be that Gordon Brown said he backed replacement in his speech at Mansion House on the 21st June 2006.

There was a huge outcry in response to this. In fact, it galvanised the anti-nuclear lobby, boosted CND membership (out of the doldrums) and prompted influential people to speak out against it (in Scotland: the two principal religious leaders, the Cardinal and the Moderator). People couldn’t believe the gift Brown had made to the cause of disarmament.

Does Gordon Brown’s speech provide any actual evidence that he is in favour of Trident replacement? Being bound by Cabinet Collective Reponsibility, he cannot say anything else, so we might think (in a Chomskian mode) that his statements in favour of it are predictable and carry no real information.

We might go further: perhaps it is possible that Brown anticipated the response that his announcement would elicit; if he did, then perhaps this was a preemptive challenge to the disarmament lobby (a view expressed here).

But might it have been something else? Perhaps he actually wanted to provoke greater anti-nuclear political activity. It’s a fair bet that Brown will become Prime Minister soon, and when he does, presiding over disarmament would be a way for him to make his stamp on history – something on which he has already been shown to be keen. A strong and coherent disarmament movement might be the excuse he needs to assert a break with the past, prove that he listens to the public and make his mark on history.

This could be speculation pushed too far; but it should at least give pause to those who think that Trident replacement is a done deal. My view is that the evidence is unclear, and that given this we should pursue meaningful debate in the hope that there is still everything to play for.

UK Independence

17 August 2006

International Affairs (vol.82, no.4 July 2006) has published a collection of papers entitled “The future of United Kingdom nuclear weapons: shaping the debate”. Michael Quinlan’s paper in the collection surveys the arguments over replacement, concluding that there is no clear cut argument either way, and that the decision should turn on a detailed cost-benefit analysis – an analysis, however, which it is not currently possible to perform due to the dearth of information from the UK Government about what options are being considered.

Amongst other things, Quinlan discusses the claim that that the UK does not possess an independent nuclear deterrent because its weapons are essentially dependent on the US. He considers three ways in which this claim might be made out:

(1) it could be argued that the UK does not have an independent deterrent because the nuclear weapons are bought from, and serviced by, the US. The latter is true, but, he argues, it does not show that they are “dependent” in the relevant sense: if I buy a car from a Ford garage, and sign a service agreement with Ford, this does not make my use of the car dependent on Ford.

(2) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are operationally dependent on the US because they could not be launched without targetting information which can only be provided by the US. He says that the best available evidence is that this is not true (citing oral evidence given to the House of Commons Defence Committee, 28th March 2006, questions 152-160).

(3) it has been claimed that the UK’s weapons are politically dependent on the US since no UK government could act against the US’ wishes in using them. He rejects this, saying that there is no sanction that the US could employ to influence the UK’s decision on something as grave as the use of a nuclear weapon.

This third argument could be elaborated: if the claim is that the UK’s weapons are dependent on the US because the US might be able to stop the UK using a weapon when the UK wanted to, then this is not something that anti-Trident campaigners should be against! I would be quite happy if the US had this power over the UK! So the relevant claim must be that the US might be able to make the UK use a nuclear weapon against the wishes of the British government of the day. Quinlan can’t see any way in which this could happen.

Arguing against Trident on the basis that it is dependent on the US makes me uncomfortable. It reminds me of a mistake that some alterglobalisationists make when arguing against privatisation of public utilities: I’ve heard it implied that privatisation is bad solely because the company might fall into the ownership of a foreign national. This seems dangerously parochial; similarly, to object to Trident on the grounds that someone else apart from the UK might fire it seems to miss the point. We don’t want anyone to fire it!

Deterrence by denial?

14 August 2006

Undoubtedly the thwarted plot to blow up transatlantic airliners is big news. ‘Target Britain’ adorned the front page of The Independent on Sunday (alongside the obligatory image of a rugged, fully-armed, bullet-proofed young man, protecting the homeland). And it went on to devote the first 10 pages (minus advertising space, of course) to the apparent facts, the speculation and the analysis. This was a pattern repeated across the newspapers. I was left in no doubt- the plot was massive, yet MI5 agents and anti-terrorist police had worked together to uncover it and neutralise the threat.

There are myriad ways in which this relates to the discussions on this blog. Isn’t this whole affair just more evidence that the threat we face now (and likely twenty years hence) is not one emanating from nation-states? Doesn’t reporting like this contribute to a climate of fear amidst which legislating for peace becomes impossible? Isn’t money spent bolstering the UK’s intelligence and police services better spent than money to fund Trident’s replacement?

I want to look more closely at this last question. It’s been said previously here that arguing against Trident-replacement on the basis that the money is ‘better spent elsewhere’ is a weak claim, but I think it can be strengthened by relating it to a clarified concept of deterrence. Trident provides Britain with second-strike capability; that is, in the event that – let’s be honest, here – a nation (not a terrorist cell or disgruntled postal-service employee) launches a strike against the UK, there will be uncompromised nuclear weapons somewhere off the coast which will in turn be launched, visiting immense and disproportionate damage on the initial aggressor. The UK’s strategy in holding these nuclear weapons, then, is one of deterrence by punishment. However, deterrence can also be achieved by putting in place systems that make a successful first-strike very unlikely. This is deterrence by denial and the ‘systems’ referred to may be anything from the US’s ‘Son of Star Wars’ missile-defence system, to a highly-evolved intelligence and security programme.

Now, it seems to me that, unless there is a clear state-sponsor, a terrorist attack is unlikely to be deterred by the threat of punishment. Terrorism by its very ill-defined and nebulous nature seems almost immune to this kind of deterrent. Therefore if the most credible threat to the UK is from non-state aggressors (the ‘T’ word is problematic, after all), then the government ought not to put defence money into expensive and inherently provocative strategies (in terms of arms proliferation) for deterrence by punishment, i.e. Trident. Rather, it ought to fund strategies for deterrence by denial, ostentatiously souping up defensive security and intelligence systems.

Which point brings us back to the issue that provoked this post. The media reaction to the foiled attacks of last week seemed an over-reaction to me: an over-reaction whose only effect was to provoke the very fear that *anti*-terrorism measures are meant to prevent. But maybe I missed the point. Maybe the media are acting as part of a broad strategy of deterrence by denial: the audience is the proto-aggressor, and the message is “Don’t even think about it. We’ve got good intelligence, we’ve got top-class security and we’ve got ruggedly handsome policemen- it just won’t work.”

Or maybe I just don’t want to believe that the media are all about attention-grabbing headlines, viewing figures, readership statistics and market share.

Chill out and have a drink

13 August 2006

On Saturday lunchtime I was desperate for a plate of couscous, and I was just about to go into Edinburgh’s best cafe (“Uncle T’s”) when a big antiwar march steamed past and I was carried away.

It wasn’t entirely clear what the march was about: many people there were just pro-peace in general. Others went further, some making the strikingly false claim that “we are all Palestinians”, others complaining about the insufficent radicality of other marchers.

I couldn’t find a marcher who was pro-Trident, even though Trident is claimed to be a way of perpetuating peace; but the march was nonetheless a good chance to air the fundamental issues.

The deterrence argument for keeping Trident got short shrift: marchers argued that nukes can’t deter conventional weapons attacks, since any nuclear response would be disproportionate (and since non-state actors don’t present easy targets or worse come from the cities of the very state they are attacking). So they can only deter nuclear attacks from other nuclear powers. Well, it looks like this is as good a reason as any to keep them! But there is something fishy here.

If it is true that a nuclear power can’t launch a nuclear attack on a non-nuclear one, then getting rid of Trident would be the best deterrent. So it must be that people who are pro-Trident are seriously envisaging that there will come a time when a nuclear power will be thinking about launching a nuclear attack on the UK.

I wonder whether extreme scenarios like this should even be considered when making public policy. Think of a parallel: philosophers often discuss the possibility that they have had their brains removed and placed in fish tanks and that this whole world is an illusion – but they never suggest that consideration of these extreme cases is meant to be an actual guide to life. They are purely thought experiments; and if you find yourself getting too caught up in them you ought, David Hume suggested, to invite a few mates round, have a drink and play a few board games.

Maybe something similar could hold for defence policy too: once you’ve started scaring yourself with nuclear attack scenarios, a nuclear deterrent is going to seem essential. Maybe the answer is just to chill out a bit — and this could apply to people on peace marches too.

At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

11 August 2006

The assumption that the world is a dangerous place underpinned a lot of Andy Zaltzman’s show, Political Animal, in the Edinburgh Fringe festival last night.  It’s an assumption that goes unquestioned – and indeed it’s increasingly hard to see how anyone could question it without being made to look ridiculous by current affairs.  This is too bad for anti-Trident campaigners, as this assumption is the basis for a strong argument in favour of replacement.

But would replacement increase or reduce that danger?  Danger and instability in the world isn’t something that happens independently of everyone’s actions – and particularly not independently of a major power like the UK.  There must be a strong argument against replacement based on what we would like the world to become, rather than on what we can confidently expect it to be like if we carry on as we have in the past.