By scrapping Trident, Britain could make a real difference to global non-proliferation effortsby Michael MccGwire / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
The exchange between Lewis Page and Rodric Braithwaite over the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent proved disappointing, since neither party addressed the fundamental question of whether a nuclear capability continues to be in our wider interests.
Braithwaite considers the need for a British nuclear deterrent to be unproven, but he also believes that no political party will expose its electoral flank by renouncing our nuclear capability. Some form of replacement being inevitable, Braithwaite’s objective is to limit the damage to British national interests that stems from our nuclear thralldom to the US. He argues for cruise missiles, which are inherently flexible and would not depend on US technological support and political approval.
Lewis Page is a firm supporter of Trident replacement and believes that only ballistic missiles can provide a credible delivery system. He sees a nuclear deterrent as the all-purpose answer to an unpredictable future, but is weak on geostrategy and seems to believe that because a threat is conceivable it is therefore a live possibility.
No one doubts that dangers lie ahead, but it is virtually impossible to envisage plausible situations in which a British nuclear capability would have a role to play. Perhaps this is why the ministry of defence refused to give evidence to the defence select committee earlier this year, why the ministry’s nuclear planning staff dismiss planning scenarios as unimportant, and why successive ministers have refused to discuss possible contingencies, incorrectly asserting that uncertainty enhances deterrence.
Writing in the July issue of International Affairs, Michael Quinlan, former permanent under-secretary at the MoD, notes that the strategic case for a nuclear capability “rests primarily on long-term uncertainties rather than nearer-term probabilities.” He goes on to state, “Scarcely anyone would claim that the highly unspecific arguments sketched above would now amount to an adequate case for shouldering the political and economic costs of creating [a] nuclear capability from scratch if it did not already exist.”
In other words, the case for retaining our nuclear capability is not national security, let alone strategic necessity. It is about sunk costs—as we already have it, we might as well keep it—and the strategic justification is that it may come in handy one day—and that we’re better safe than sorry. This is somewhat slim for such an awesome capability, and it ignores the balance of costs and benefits.
The most important opportunity costs are, however, political. They relate to Britain’s role in the world and, more specifically, to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. If Britain were no longer seen as America’s glove puppet, our political status would rise and a range of new policy options would open up. Britain would be able to argue publicly against the further development of nuclear weapons, to forcefully reassert the nuclear taboo and to challenge the existence of double standards.
This is a large subject, but Braithwaite and Page are too cavalier in dismissing the demonstration effect of such an initiative. Although British renouncement would not affect the policies of existing nuclear states, it just might influence “virtual” states which are still of two minds. National security is only one reason for going nuclear (although for a country in Iran’s situation, it is decisive). But status is also important. It was pressure for greater political status, including potential membership of the UN security council, that determined India’s decision to conduct nuclear tests in 1998 for the first time in more than 20 years.
Meanwhile, the demonstration effect works both ways. Safe off the coast of western Europe, claiming that nuclear weapons are essential to its national security, Britain is a standing incitement to proliferation. With the IAEA arguing that some 40 states are already technologically capable of producing nuclear weapons, it is as well to ask which is the greater threat to Britain’s wellbeing: further nuclear proliferation, regional arms races and a world of 40 or more nuclear states, with varying precautions against theft and misuse? Or unspecified dangers in the distant future, derived from “worst-case” analyses of hypothetical scenarios in an unpredictable world?
Britain faces mutually exclusive choices. Either we concentrate our efforts on halting and reversing nuclear proliferation. Or we retain a nuclear capability, in case it comes in handy in the unforeseeable future. We cannot do both.