The Ultimate Insurance

6 December 2006

So here we have it: the government’s white paper on the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Tony Blair’s related statement to The Commons outlines the reasons for the government’s wanting to renew the UK’s deterrent capabilities. It’s worth reprinting the core argument here:

So, inexorably, we return to the central judgment: maintain our independent nuclear deterrent or not? It is written as a fact by many that there is no possibility of nuclear confrontation with any major nuclear power. Except that it isn’t a fact. Like everything else germane to this judgment, it is a prediction. It is probably right. But certain? No, we can’t say that.

The new dimension is undoubtedly the desire by states, highly dubious in their intentions, like North Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons capability. Fortunately, Libya has given up its WMD ambitions and has played a positive role internationally; the notorious network of A Q Khan, the former Pakistani nuclear physicist has been shut down. But proliferation remains a real problem.

The notion of unstable, usually deeply repressive and anti-democratic states, in some cases profoundly inimical to our way of life, having a nuclear capability, is a distinct and novel reason for Britain not to give up its capacity to deter.

It is not utterly fanciful either to imagine states sponsoring nuclear terrorism from their soil. We know this global terrorism seeks chemical, biological and nuclear devices. It is not impossible to contemplate a rogue government helping such an acquisition. It is true that our deterrent would not deter or prevent terrorists. But it is bound to have an impact on governments that might sponsor them.

Then there is the argument, attractive to all of us who believe in the power of countries to lead by example, as we seek to do in climate change and did in debt relief, that Britain giving up its deterrent, would encourage others in the same direction. Unfortunately there is no evidence that any major nuclear power would follow such an example – on the contrary. And, as for the new, would-be nuclear powers, it really would be naïve to think that they would be influenced by a purely British decision. More likely, they would construe it as weakness.

Finally, there is one other argument: that we shelter under the nuclear deterrent of America.

Our co-operation with America is rightly very close. But close as it is, the independent nature of the British deterrent is again an additional insurance against circumstances where we are threatened but America is not. These circumstances are also highly unlikely but I am unwilling to say they are non-existent.

In the end, therefore, we come back to the same judgment. Anyone can say that the prospect of Britain facing a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant, is highly improbable. No-one can say it is impossible. In the early 21st century, the world may have changed beyond recognition, since the decision taken by the Atlee Government over half a century ago. But it is precisely because we could not have recognised then, the world we live in now, that it would not be wise to predict the unpredictable in the times to come. That is the judgment we have come to. We have done so according to what we think is in the long-term strategic interests of our nation and its security and I commend it to the House.

There’s a lot to say about this, but I shall save it for another post. I think it may be worth posing a question or two, though: how might we, Tony, come to a point where Britain ‘[faces] a threat in which our nuclear deterrent is relevant’? What would make us the target of such violence?


1 December 2006

[I]t 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.

Thus Julian Lewis lambasts the disarmament lobby.  Only threat of deadly overwhelming retaliation could stop a despot launching a massive attack upon us.

How strong is Lewis’ point?  Hitler, trapped in his Berlin bunker as the Red Army approached, thought the failure of his ambitions indicted the whole of Germany and that the punishment should be destruction.  If he had had nuclear weapons at this point he would have launched them, and welcomed the retaliation: this is incontestable.

So the deterrent doesn’t work against really mad Dictators.  And against the more reasonable Dictator, most interested in screwing over his own population to keep the country’s debt payments flowing (the sort entertained by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s), there’s no need for a deterrence.  What can we say about the middle ground?

The sort of dictator who would be deterred by Trident will be:

– interested in conquest

– seriously thinking about using nuclear weapons

– oblivious to public health risks of his people should they be downwind of the proposed target

– not amenable to rational persuasion that launching the nukes in the first place would not really be cricket

– concerned for his self-preservation (or that of his compatriots).

A 1980s biography of Qaddafi that I read implied that he might be such a person. According to the author of the biog, Qaddafi sent officials around the world to acquire a nuclear weapon without a clear idea of just how serious a weapon it would be, and was rebuffed.  It was claimed, if I remember the book right, that he was thinking of nuking Israel (though it may have been Egypt). 

So perhaps here we have our candidate.  It is a very serious matter to impute such ignorance and such evil intent to another human without hard evidence (Hitler, at least, put his auto-genocidal thoughts on record).  The question is: if Qaddafi had got a bomb, would it only have been the thought of nuclear retaliation that would have stopped him using it.  His diplomatic record throughout the 80s is diabolical, but can (maybe) be read as a rational pursuit of extremely sectoral interests in Libya – and if it is rational, then perhaps rational considerations about retailation would have stopped him using it.

The fact that he didn’t get the Bomb, though, is either testimony to the NPT, which we would be effectively be giving up if we replace Trident; or testimony to the fact that the groups he approached to get the bomb were so convinced of his irrationality that they thought that the thought of nuclear retaliation would not deter him.  If the former, then that tells in favour of losing Trident but and strengthening the NPT; if the latter, then we’ve not yet found a real candidate of someone evil enough to think of using the bomb, but rational enough to be scared off by the consequences.

Which other mad dictators should we consider instead?

Trident versus Foxes

17 November 2006

The two most popular petitions on the new “petition the Prime Minister” website are to reverse the fox hunting ban, and not to replace Trident.  Right now, the anti-fox lobby has four times as much support as the anti-nuke lobby, but one thousand people signed the anti-Trident petition in the first 24 hours, so this is going to change.

I put up the anti-Trident petition, and it is based on the ideas we’ve explored in this blog.  I don’t agree with the argument that Trident should be abandoned because the money will better be used for development: this is a side track.  And I reject arguments that it should be got rid of because it is secretly being controlled by the US: even if this was true (and I don’t think it is), it would be at best irrelevant.  I am not even sure about arguments that Trident should be got rid of because it is immoral: it is arguable that Trident is just a tool, and that a tool has no intrinsic moral properties; for another, it seems possible that the moral course of action can lead to a situation which is worse for all.  Might it be that by rejecting Trident the UK would sacrifice actual security for the sake of the moral high ground?  Actually, I don’t think this is the case – but the UK would have to do more than just get rid of Trident: we would have to get rid of it, and then proselytise widely for a nuclear weapons-free world.

Ultimately, I think that by getting rid of Trident we will make the world a safer place.  For the world does not see the UK the way we see ourselves.  On the whole, UK citizens think the UK is essentially responsible, moral and pursuing the greater good.  Others look at our weapons, our support for the Iraq war, our luxury and over-development, and think otherwise; some arm themselves in fear of us.  In fact, looks like a new nuclear arms race has begun. 

I want the UK to live up to the ideals that I have of it.  I think that we are responsible and moral and I do basically have faith in the way our democracy works – bruised faith, right enough, but still there.  I think we can prove this to the world: we can get rid of Trident, and then – as smug as we like – become world ambassadors for the non-proliferation treaty. 

If you agree, please sign the petition!

And if you don’t agree, go ahead and sign the counter petition!

Ben Young

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.