Oliver Kamm’s blog has an interesting post based on a pro-Trident-replacement presentation he made at Chatham House. Setting aside the argument that Labour only wants to replace Trident for domestic political reasons (viz. to avoid being seen as weak on defence), Kamm tries to make out the claim that strategically there is “a better case for the independent deterrent now than there was during the Cold War”.
In essence, his argument is:
1) During the Cold War the deterrent value of Britain’s nuclear arsenal was marginal in comparison to that of the United States’.
2) The current global situation is far less stable than the bilateral nuclear stand-off of the Cold War: beyond the known threats (e.g. North Korea) is an ‘anarchic world order’ of ‘malevolent regimes’ about which military intelligence can tell us little (citing the failure to find WMD in Iraq as an example).
3) Therefore “possession of an independent nuclear deterrent might provide an irreducible political counterweight persuading such a regime to think again before mounting aggression”.
Kamm readily admits that this may not be enough of a rationale to justify renewing the UK’s nuclear capabilities. He therefore bolsters his argument for maintaining a nuclear deterrent by saying that, in the interests of legislating for future instability and conflict, we would be foolish to get rid of it.
We should set on one side his historical claim about the effectiveness of the UK deterrent in the Cold War, and resist his invitation to become embroiled in the argument about Iraq’s WMD.
The key points here are that the world is unstable and that the UK doesn’t know enough about what’s going on in the world now, or what might happen, to risk dropping the deterrent. It looks to me like there are some analytically distinct arguments here.
One is actually about deterrence, something like: The world is dangerous and unstable, and therefore we need the nuclear deterrent.
The other is about dealing with uncertainty, something like: The world is sufficiently opaque to military intelligence that we need a deterrent.
Both of these contain empirical points that need research to be established, and neither is obvious. Is the world really unstable? Note that one shouldn’t ask journalists this question as they have an interest in it being as crisis-prone, and as newsworthy, as possible. Of course there are egregious events and situations: but it’s not clear that they are sufficiently widespread to motivate this argument.
Interestingly, it looks like the maligned (by me) “money could be better spent” claim comes into its own regarding the uncertainty argument: if our military intelligence really is so bad (which I actually doubt) perhaps the Trident budget would be better spent on some spying courses.