Nuclear weapons are abhorrent. They are horrific devices which wreak untold devastation and which, in their current numbers, certainly contain enough power to destroy all life on this planet. A world without any nuclear weapons and without any Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, Aircraft Carriers, drones and AK-47s would be preferable. Unfortunately, these things exist, and some of them are held by people with manifestly bad incentives. Nuclear weapons provide, and always have provided, the best deterrent against nuclear weapons held and developed by those who would do harm.
In mid-July, the UK parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of renewing the Trident Submarine Nuclear Weapons system, which has acted as the UK’s nuclear deterrent since 1969. This decision was not without controversy; 117 MPs voted against, including the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and all fifty-six SNP MPs. Nuclear weapons were derided as “immoral” and useless, and those who supported them were portrayed as warmongers. Mr Corbyn pointed out that nuclear weapons had been unable to stop the genocide in Rwanda and were therefore pointless. There were protests outside Parliament calling for “NHS not Trident” and for the government to “Cut War Not Welfare.”
It is not just the UK which questions nuclear weapons. President Obama, whose country together with Russia owns 93 per cent of all nuclear weapons, was recently said to be considering ruling out a first-strike nuclear attack by the United States. Though this idea was shelved as it would only embolden America’s enemies, the fact that it was considered underlines a growing ambivalence to nuclear weapons amongst principled Western leaders. It is to this uncertainty that this article speaks – the West’s nuclear states cannot afford to equivocate about their nuclear capability.
This is a time of escalating international tensions. On 9 September, a North Korean nuclear blast was powerful enough to set off a 5.3 magnitude earthquake, a sign taken by many to show that the West may have dramatically underestimated the mostly impoverished country’s nuclear capability. Experts say North Korea may be able to mount a working warhead on a missile capable of reaching the continental United States as early as 2020. There are further threats facing Europe in the form of Russian belligerence: though defended as routine, in the context of recent events Russia’s movement of nuclear capable missiles to the Polish and Lithuanian border region (“NATO’s doorstep”) is extremely worrying. So called Unilateralists such as Mr Corbyn are correct: these weapons are scary, but they’re far scarier when only our enemies have them.
These continued arguments for a country such as the UK to unilaterally disarm are complex. Nuclear weapons are Cold War relics, not responsive to an ever-changing geopolitical situation. This is the context behind Mr Corbyn’s remark about Rwanda – wars are no longer simply on the interstate level; a Nuclear bomb cannot defeat ISIS. Clearly, as we have seen, this is naïve: there still exist states which threaten the West, especially those such as North Korea whose leaders’ incentives (and sanity) are very difficult to gauge. None of the weapons would have stopped the Rwandan genocide: this clearly cannot be the measure for a weapon’s usefulness. It is possible to have different weapons to meet different threats.
A further argument is that the UK giving up its nuclear capability could be a symbol to encourage further disarmament. The UK is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and as such is committed to eventual disarmament, but those who are anti-nuclear have supplied no reasons whatsoever why the UK’s unilateral disarmament would make a difference on the wider stage. States that currently want nuclear weapons will still want them, and may actually want them more, as the UK’s withdrawal from the Nuclear club makes being a member of said club even more exclusive and powerful. Of the countries which already have weapons – the US, Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, France and North Korea – all face direct security threats, often from each other, which necessitate maintaining their nuclear capability as the others do. The only possible exception to this is France, for whom the UK could conceivably be an example. But there is certainly a lot of analytical work to be done to convince anyone that incentivising the French to disarm is a strong enough reason for the UK to sacrifice its own security.
But what about the placard-friendly argument “NHS not Trident”? Firstly, anyone who believes that if Mrs May’s government had lost the Trident vote the money would have gone into the welfare state or the NHS or anything else is clearly deluded. Though her government perhaps strikes a more measured tone than her predecessor’s on spending cuts, Mrs May remains a fiscal conservative who has voted for huge welfare reductions and presided over large cuts to the Police budget. Secondly, this ignores the ring fenced nature of spending: there is a military budget and a welfare budget. The money that the military does not spend will likely still be used by the military on other things it needs, rather than being used to tackle inequality. Clearly the government has enough money to increase spending on education or health if it sees fit, regardless of nuclear weapons. Nobody is poor because of Trident.
The most fallacious argument used against nuclear weapons is that they are useless if a state is not prepared to use them first. Mrs May responded well to a question from the SNP about this by saying that of course she would strike first, but whether this is true or bluster is really irrelevant. The UK will never strike first, nor will other Western nuclear states, mostly because there is absolutely no incentive to do so. The implicit argument running through this piece, and the entire rationale for the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons, is that they act as a deterrent. North Korea’s leaders may well be slightly crazy; they harbour a pathological hatred for South Korea and for the West, and this writer for one is not at all confident that Kim Jong-Un would not rather see us all dead. But Jong-Un wants to survive, and moreover wants the state his family has built and ruled to survive. It is even irrelevant whether one believes it is right to kill everyone in Pyongyang if London is destroyed – so long as Kim Jong-Un and others believe that this is what will happen, nuclear weapons remain the only reliable deterrent to nuclear assault.
The UK and its allies should maintain their commitment to multilateral disarmament and a nuclear-free world. But to disarm unilaterally is to take a colossal gamble for which there are no obvious payoffs, and to jeopardise the long term security of one’s country and the wider world.