Charles Clarke’s advice for Blair

6 September 2006

It seems that democratic participation and debate are still valued by some in the Labour Party, if not Jack Straw. In a recent article for the New Statesman, Charles Clarke says:

“It is vital that our approach is systematic and thorough. Major policy issues, such as the place of nuclear energy in the drive to energy sustainability and the value to our overall security strategy of replacing Trident, need serious consideration. They cannot simply be dealt with as an aside at the CBI’s annual dinner or a half-sentence at the Guildhall. The country as a whole needs to see and understand the context and the options before such commitments are made that can otherwise seem to be delivered from on high without proper engagement by parliament and the country.”

Still, you have to wonder whether such calls for reasoned debate on important issues have any value when the media continue to allow themselves to be hijacked by petty wrangling within ‘Westminster Village’.


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.

Uncertain or Unstable

9 August 2006

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.