Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Case For Trident

The debate around whether the UK’s submarine based nuclear deterrent Trident should be renewed is sinking to the level of national embarrassment. The ‘no’ camp claim that nuclear weapons have no use in the post cold war era, while those in favour of renewing it pretend that it is just some kind of hi-tech make work scheme. In the interests of public service, I’m going to attempt to make a serious case for the renewal of Trident. Feel free to argue.

The key thing to understand is that nuclear weapons are tools of foreign policy, not weapons of war. It has long been accepted that a thermonuclear exchange would so damage the participants that no possible strategic objective could justify it. It follows that no state will risk facing that threat.

However with or without nuclear weapons, states do face existential threats, principally from more powerful states. This is the story of human history, the strong dominating the weak. It is here that the hydrogen bomb gains its diplomatic utility. In recent years, the states that have gone nuclear, or can reasonably be said to have attempted it all have one thing in common. They have been directly threatened by a state which they have no conventional means of resisting. Nuclear weapons are the only serious response to these threats that these weak states can ever have. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq serves as a reminder of the price of not possessing weapons of mass destruction.

How does this affect the UK? After all, we are a member of NATO and the EU. Diplomatically, are we not the ‘transatlantic bridge’, an integral part of the international community which guarantees a world free of great power conflict? Frankly, this is a myopically complacent view, which confuses a fluke historical circumstance whose time is coming to a close with a serious analysis of foreign affairs.

Firstly, and most obviously, the EU is splitting in two, with the core Euro-zone edging ever closer towards being a country, and everyone else left outside. For better or for worse, we are on the outside. This in turn undermines the UK’s ‘transatlantic bridge’ role. If the USA want someone to represent their views on the continent, it will be someone inside the core Europe group, not a spectator. Indeed, as the US pivots towards Asia, where global power is increasingly heading, its interest in maintaining NATO will wane. British foreign policy, such as it is, is based on the idea that the UK is a core part of an imagined ‘West’ which is made up of developed, democratic and dominant states. That world is passing. If current trends continue, the UK will find itself a small, isolated country in a world dominated by the new superpowers; Russia, China, India, the USA and who knows, even the core EU.

The Trident program is a long term commitment. It would mean that Britain will maintain nuclear weapons until the 2040’s. If current trends continue, by that time Trident could be one of the only cards Britain holds to prevent its domination by these stronger states. In essence, the UK would use its nuclear weapons to guarantee its diplomatic independence in the way that Pakistan does today. That is the value of Trident, and that is why it should be renewed.

The pessimistic (and highly speculative) tone of this piece is deliberately designed as a riposte to the “the cold war is over, we all live in peace and harmony” argument. History does not end, however agreeable we might find the status quo. The UK is a declining country, with little capacity to affect world events. It would be wise to start planning our foreign policy with this fact in mind.  


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  2. V interesting post. I think the end talking about Pakistan is perhaps a country proving *against* your line of argument. Despite being nuclear-armed, Pakistan's territorial integrity is constantly being abused by NATO in regards to cross border attacks on Afghan fighters.
    It seems Pakistan's nuclear muscle is no deterent on Nato to do as it pleases on Pakistani territory.
    Equally I'm not sure whether N Korea's nuclear weapons offer it much security from international isolation?
    Anyway, just some musings, would be interested to hear your views......

    1. I think you raise a very important issue here, and I left the blog brief on the subject in the interests of readability. In the case of Pakistan, it faces a security threat not only from NATO, but also from India. The late Benazir Bhutto argued that during the 1999 clash over the Kargil, Pakistan was shielded from the full might of Indian conventional retaliation because it possessed nuclear weapons. She is quoted as saying:

      “top Pakistani army officers were convinced that India “could not resort to conventional war” in retaliation for these Pakistani provocations “because we had nuclear deterrence.” In the Pakistan army’s view, the Indians “knew that if they resorted to conventional war and we suffered a setback, we could use the nuclear response.” (cited in Guthe, K. 2011. Nuclear Weapons Acquisition and Deterrence. Comparative Strategy, 30:5, 481-507)

      I would also argue that Pakistan suffers heavily from drone strikes at the hands of NATO, but if NATO was consistent, and treated North West Pakistan the same way that it treated Afghanistan because it harbored Al-Qaeda operatives, then the US military would have occupied the place by now. Instead the US followed a strategy of attempting to buy the support of the government of Pakistan for most of the Bush years (the strategy failed, but I think it is telling that it was tried).

      North Korea is another case in point. Yes it is the most isolated state in the world. That is a matter of its own policy-the border guards face inwards. When it was named part of the axis of evil, the implication was that it would face the same fate as Iraq and now Iran, namely 'regime change' as punishment for being a 'rouge state'. All its nuclear weapons have brought it is safety from that. From the point of view of the Kims, that's not bad. Whether it is good or bad from the perspective of the North Korean people is another matter.

      Thank you very much for your comment (your my first one!), and I hope this made sense.

  3. What about Iran...? Israel consistently attack Iran because of its paranoia about Iran's nuclear potential,how does this fit into your rationale of reasonable defense against threats of a weaker state?
    Isn't nuclear warfare yet another example of capitalist hegemony? Accepting that there is a nuclear threat is merely to promulgate the idea that trillions of pounds can be spent on nuclear armament. In reality this money (tax payers) in simple terms is the deposit from which governments and profiteers of war benefit. For every subsequent bomb threat announced or missile dropped these organisations see dollar signs. I think you skirted around the financial implications of this 'maintenance' to the detriment of your argument.

    1. I would hold up Iran as the perfect example of my argument. The modern history of Iran is a tragic tale of colonial domination, from the overthrow of Reza Khan by British and Russian backed forces, to the western backed 1953 coup. From an Iranian perspective, the story of strong states dominating weaker ones will have painful resonance. The Iranian nuclear program is their answer to this, and the increasingly desperate attempts to stop it, by both Israel and the US, are a good indication that they think it will do the job.

      As for capitalist hegemony, no, I disagree. The security dilemma posed by the existence of strong/weak or ideologically opposed states predates capitalism as a form of economic organisation-think Rome and Carthage, or Greece and Persia. Of course people will profit from defence spending, they always have. It does not mean the need for it is not real, and I don't think you can argue that the need for increased profit opportunities is the primary cause of international conflict.

  4. Not to mention that a nuclear Iran is a regional game changer - Israel, and many other countries to be fair, do not want their game in the region to change. This comes back to your original point Chris, nukes carry influence. Good article.

  5. Don't you guys think that in this day and age using a nuclear bomb is political suicide anyway? Bearing in mind the public reaction to Iraq and Gaza?
    For example u talked about the axis of evil - true n Korea wasn't given Iraq treatment, but neither have Iran or Syria, and realistically I don't think either have anything to worry about in the medium term.
    Equally I'd say China's huge influence has everything to do with economic muscle and little to do with nukes? In that sense I completely agree with Grace; Britain can try to pretend to be one of the "big boys" but if it used that investment in constructing a big "green" industry for example, it could deal with unemployement and become an industrial power again......?

    1. In an aggressive sense, yes, I think there is a very real nuclear taboo. I'm very much in favour of not using nuclear weapons by the way!

      If I remember correctly the public reaction to Iraq (I'm assuming you mean the public reaction in Britain and the USA) was to re-elect the governments responsible. Iran hasn't had the Iraq treatment YET. A cynic (or perhaps Grace) would observe that there is no real strategic interest (read oil) for western powers in Syria, and the benefit to them of depriving Iran of a regional ally does not excede the probable cost of the war it would require.

      I fully agree with you (and Paul Kennedy) that shifts in global power are the result of economic shifts. However these economic shifts bring new conflict and competition in their wake. I guess I'm thinking of the 19th century race to empire by European states (obviously I'm not condoning it), or more recently China's assertiveness in the Pacific and the US responding with the much touted 'pivot to Asia'. However I strongly reject the idea that Trident would make us "one of the big boys". My argument is that its needed because we are not. As an aside, I am personally all for a serious Keynesian industrial policy, but I think we are kidding ourselves if we think that we will ever be an industrial great power again.

    2. Ok fair enough, I still want to push you on the nukes though - if you look at Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, we could say the main reasons that these states were defeated was overwhelmingly because of NATO's airpower. I'd say with or without nukes, it is this that is the key factor in what wins wars today. Either relatively strong states and militarys like Libya/Iraq to guerilla fighters like Taliban in Afghanistan - the winning factor is still airpower. I honestly think none of the above ever once was concerned about a USA/UK nuke strike.
      As for the UK I think the worse case scenario for decommissioning nukes would be to lose our seat on UN Security Council. Which frankly if we weren't so concerned about nosying in other countries' business, wouldn't be a huge deal in my opinion.
      Granted we are never going to be an industrial giant again, but countries like Germany and Brazil have such economic leverage that even without nukes they will never be realistically targeted.
      I do agree with you that Global South countries have a strategic interest in nukes though. Iran being the perfect example. I honestly believe Israel are dying for the opportunity to let one off on Iran, and Tehran getting a nuke will be the end of that. You could even argue it would create some sense of stability in the region, with Israel having to be much more controlled in it's cowboy foreign policy.
      However I just can't see a strategic value in the UK. We're not in danger of being nuked. The worst threat the UK has is another big terrorist attack, which a nuke has no deterrence for. Scandanavia and some of the other big European players are a much better example, in terms of avoiding nukes and diplomatic isolation......

  6. As I said in the blog, I do not see nuclear weapons in military terms, but as tools of foreign policy. Absolutely NATO air power is a decisive factor in the campaigns you mention. The problem, from the perspective of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, is that the war was started at all. They would never have had the ability to resist the conventional superiority of NATO (or any 21st century superpower for that matter). From the perspective of Gaddafi or Saddam, any war against a foe that powerful represented an existential threat (the fate of both men tends to bear this out).

    However if these governments had possessed nuclear arms the western calculation changes. From the point of view of NATO, no military strategy could be followed that made these regimes face an existential threat, because that is when it is more likely that the small states would use nuclear weapons-as a sort of hail mary gamble. The chance of this would not have to be that great to scare the bigger side off, remember all the wars in question were essentially wars of choice.

    Right now, you are right, the UK does not face any danger. My point is that the circumstances that guarantee this (the special relationship, harmony in Europe etc) are not permanent, and in the near future, geopolitically speaking, we will find ourselves being a small, isolated and backward country, which would be easily threatened by more powerful neighbours. Pessimistic I know, by I think any analysis of long term trends sadly points this way. I might expand on this in a future blog BTW.

  7. Chris, you have definitely entered into an important and challegning debate. Perhaps I am nieve, cynical, optimistic or even romantic, however I think talking about nuclear warfare is just as backward as you purport not talking about it is. Surely the biggest threat to states in this time is that of digital warfare? Are we to agree to trillions of pounds in order to prop up the state against this too? You sound as if we are still a civilisation that needs to fight because of some primal need, surely we have developed since the crusades! If, as I am sure you will agree, we have then we can emphatically reason against any sort of chemical warfare at all?
    Thanks Chris, I have enjoyed this thread.
    More soon please...

    1. Thank you for coming along! And there's nothing wrong with being optimistic. Cynicism wears thin after a while, I admit.