Replacing Trident – A Necessary Evil

Britain must replace Trident to maintain both her global position and security in a dangerous and unpredictable world. This is a regrettable but necessary evil.

Nuclear weapons terrify me. They have the potential to wipe from the face of the earth everyone and everything that is or will ever be, including me. I would love to see a peaceful world where nuclear weapons do not exist, apart from those hidden away by the UN to deal with the odd asteroid or hostile extra-terrestrials. There is after all no point in finally creating a peaceful world if we do not have the capacity to blast a threatening Klingon ship into smithereens from time to time.

Image courtesy of US Government, © 2003, some rights reserved.

Such a nuclear weapons-free world, however, may not actually be more peaceful. Indeed, there is a strong argument that nuclear weapons have, in fact, enhanced international security. Nuclear deterrence has a powerful dampening effect on inter-state conflict as evidenced by China-India, Pakistan-India and of course USA-USSR. A world without the prospect of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) could well find that major inter-state conflict increases as states no longer face potential annihilation.

Writing this in 2012, the year of the Diamond Jubilee, Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam victory and the remarkably, and unexpectedly, successful London Olympics, I have rediscovered a certain pride in Britain. I am proud of the UK’s position of influence in international affairs and desire that it retains this position into the future. This however requires reconciling the desire for Britain remaining an influential great power, with the necessity for it to possess nuclear weapons.

Regrettably, nuclear weapons are badges of honour. They have from their inception provided those who possess them not only with power but prestige. Indeed, it is arguable that France developed nuclear weapons primarily for reasons of prestige, as post-WWII her immediate policy goals were regaining pride and re-attaining great power status. With the decline of her overseas empire nuclear weapons were one of very few ways to increase French grandeur. Today the NPT has shifted the nuclear norm whereby proliferation is frowned upon, especially among developed countries. Conversely, some developing countries regarded nuclear weapons as symbolic expressions of status and modernity, as particularly evidenced by India in 19981.

Britain, as it stands, is a member of the nuclear club. She is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council alongside four other nuclear weapons states. That she, and to a similar extent France, are members of this council is partly understood to be due to their possession of nuclear weapons. With a nuclear-armed India clamouring at the door, Britain’s abandonment of such weapons could put her position in jeopardy. Should Britain lose her permanent seat, this would confirm the lamentable decline of Britain as a great power in world affairs. The prospect of France becoming, by default, the only European country at the nuclear table is equally unpalatable. The inevitable Gallic-jeers from across the channel are all too easily imaginable. Therefore, prestige is largely why Britain will – and should – replace Trident. The world benefits from a strong and confident Britain at the top table of international affairs and if nuclear weapons are required to keep us there, so be it.

It is unlikely that a British politician will ever admit to the above as affecting the decision to renew Trident, instead citing matters of security, as well they should. Nuclear weapons are vital for security in a world where other states, especially those that are not benign, also possess them. States exist in an anarchic system where yes, they cooperate, and yes, they increasingly abide by international norms and laws, yet in matters of security, especially regarding nuclear weapons, they must be aware of other states’ capabilities and their changing intentions. In Britain’s case, as long as other states could threaten her with nuclear weapons then Britain must have them to make deterrence theory work. The threats from the USA and France are infinitesimally small; however, the threats from other nuclear states are more concerning. China is rising in power and influence, and with what ultimate intention nobody really knows. Russia, which cast a nuclear shadow over Europe and Britain during the Cold War, is increasingly clawing back pride, purpose and military capability. What would a resurgent Russia do to the international hierarchy? Again, no one really knows. What about the other nuclear powers, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel? Admittedly these countries have no particular quarrel with Britain today, but what about tomorrow? Some may argue that these countries are a long way away, yet ICBMs or submarine launched missiles from them could one day threaten Britain or her interests. Finally, what of rogue states and terrorist groups? Iran is currently spotlighted and should it acquire nuclear weapons then the chances of nuclear material finding its way into terrorist hands could increase dramatically. In short, prudence demands that we plan our defences against capabilities rather than intentions. As long as other states have or seek to acquire nuclear weapons and might in the future threaten us with them, Britain must maintain its nuclear arsenal.

Many argue that states such as Britain and the USA should disarm as they have pledged to do under the NPT, and not doing so actually promotes proliferation. This is perhaps true, but problematic. The problem is that Pandora’s Box has been opened and the technology is now ‘out there’. To disarm with no guarantee of global disarmament and abstention from future development, would be a massive risk for any state to take, especially as today re-arming is very difficult. It is also questionable whether Britain disarming would have any effect on encouraging other states to disarm. Doing so could thus reduce Britain’s security and global position with no gain, other than perhaps a first-rate cycle network paid for by the savings.

The reasons to replace Trident are twofold. First, in security terms Britain must guard against an uncertain and unpredictable strategic future. Second, maintaining her prestige and position in the world requires Britain to possess nuclear weapons.  Many people will disagree with these assertions. For those that think nuclear weapons are unnecessary for our security today, then I think they are taking a major gamble. Today’s world was unimaginable in 1962, what will the world look like in another 50 years? For those who argue the time has come for Britain to redefine a lesser role for herself in the world then I fundamentally disagree, believing that both Britain and the world benefit by her presence among the great powers. £20bn for the ultimate insurance policy, and to maintain Britain’s enviable position in the world, seems to me a fair price-tag.