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?


DAVROS vs. Dr. EVIL

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?


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


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


Jack McConnell’s views on Trident replacement

15 September 2006

As the Long Walk for Peace set off from the Faslane Naval base (home of the Trident nuclear weapons system), Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell engaged in an impromptu debate on Trident replacement with the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon. 

Given McConnell’s background (Scottish, for example), and in the light of his choice of phrases at First Minister’s Question time, there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that McConnell is personally against Trident replacement; but naturally he’s restricted in what he can say as head of the Scottish Labour party. 

His view is that there should be a public debate, and that there are three options of which only two are viable: (1) keep Trident; (2) use the possibility that the UK might not replace Trident as a bargaining tool in persuading eg. Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons programme; (3) just not replace Trident.  He called the third option “irresponsible and pre-emptive”, and attacked the SNP for countenancing giving up something for nothing.  He seemed to prefer option (2), which earned him a predictable attack from the Scotsman newspaper which found someone in Westminster who was willing to insult McConnell off the record, calling his second option “stupid” and “completely ridiculous”.

In fact, it is not stupid or completely ridiculous.  As Julian Lewis argues, the only rational reason to possess nuclear arms is to dissuade others from attacking one with nuclear force; if Britain had no nuclear weapons, Iran (say) would feel marginally less threatened and would be marginally less likely to pursue weapons development (if it actually is).

McConnell’s idea is not ridiculous, but still there are some problems with it.  For one thing, as any fule no, the UK’s nuclear weapons are only for defence, so Iran ought not to feel threatened by us in the first place.  Sadly, though, many people have difficulty telling the UK’s foreign policy apart from the US’ (a point lamented by Jimmy Carter the other night), and, since the US apparently now countenances premptive strikes, some might need an actual gesture of disarmament to convince them of the UK’s peaceful intent.

It might also be objected that McConnell overstates the UK’s significance in the world.  Julian Lewis is probably right that our not replacing Trident would not directly lead anyone else to curb their nuclear ambitions.  However, there could be an indirect benefit: by dropping its nuclear weapons, the UK would distance itself from US foreign policy, and enter into the club of middle powers which are allies of the US while being able to criticise it where necessary.  This would be a small but important step towards creating a more balanced distribution of power in the world.

This is a benefit which accrues to the UK whether or not it explictly uses non-replacement as a chip in negotiations with others.  There is, then, no scenario in which the UK gives up something and gets nothing in return, and so McConnell’s options (2) and (3) amount to the same thing.  So thus I think he, too, is anti-Trident. 

Is anyone in power REALLY in favour of it?


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


Moral challenge

31 August 2006

I’ve just been reading a publication from Justice and Peace Scotland entitled Nuclear Weapons. Replacing Trident- A Scottish Catholic Response. Unsurprisingly, it takes a strong moral stance against Trident renewal. Now I’ve been studiously avoiding the moral arguments around the Trident issue since (a) I don’t want to be aligned with the ‘x is just plain wrong’ crowd and (b) (a) is pretty much guaranteed given my supreme lack of skill in the moral-reasoning field. Against my better judgement, though, I’m going to step into the fray (then hopefully extricate myself without a scratch following some fancy logical footwork)….

So, let’s say that there is a strong moral argument for renewing the UK’s nuclear capabilities. Now given that *any* state – I propose – will be able to use a similar argument to defend their holding or developing nuclear weapons, would it then not be immoral to deny them the opportunity to do so. It would certainly be hypocritical.

So I suppose I’m saying that holding a nuclear deterrent cannot be justified on moral grounds unless one is happy to defend the right of all nations to retain a nuclear arsenal.

(Oh no. I knew this would happen. I’m not dancing merrily out of the moral fray, I’m foppishly throwing down a gauntlet.)

You sir! You! You in the pro-Trident Lobby. You, sir, are an immoral pragmatist or a defender of unfettered nuclear proliferation. And I’ll see you at the end of my rapier if you say otherwise…