The folly of maintaining Britain’s nuclear weapons
T his week 120 nations have re-convened at the UN headquarters in New York to formulate a treaty aiming to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The British government however, as one of nine known nuclear armed countries, have chosen not to attend. Despite the United Kingdom being a signatory to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, thereby requiring it to further the goal of achieving complete nuclear disarmament, Theresa May and the Conservative UK government have decided to boycott these peace talks.
The official line from the Foreign Office is a surprising one, arguing that the negotiations “will not bring us closer to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.” Considering the UK is mandated to pursue ‘complete nuclear disarmament’ one might have thought attending talks with this primary objective at its core might be worth considering. Apparently not. The UK aren’t the only nation seemingly confused about whether they really want to see a world free of nuclear weapons. France, the US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea all oppose a nuclear weapons ban treaty. Coincidentally all of these countries are currently believed to be in possession of nuclear weapons.
The primary argument for maintaining weapons of mass destruction usually stems from the fear of other potentially hostile governments possessing them. The theory of deterrence is based on the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which theorises that the act of possessing nuclear weapons is sufficient within itself to deter others from attacking with these same weapons. An equilibrium is created whereby neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm. The majority of the world’s 196 nations are therefore expected to tolerate the perpetual possibility of humanity’s total annihilation merely because a handful are unwilling to give up weaponry the rest are not even allowed to possess. They can certainly be forgiven for at least attempting to hold countries like Britain to their word.
The UK nuclear deterrent is maintained using four Vanguard-class submarines, with the expectation being that at least one is fully operational and capable of deployment at any given time, commonly referred to as ‘continued at sea deterrence’. Whilst in theory Britain retains independent operational use of these warheads, an all-party Trident Commission concluded in 2014 that in reality this is very much an illusion. The commission stated that Britain’s nuclear capability is “hostage to American goodwill”, and that without the full cooperation of the United States, the life expectancy of the UK’s nuclear capability could be measured in a matter of months. The folly of reportedly spending between £160bn and £200bn on a quasi-independent deterrent is amplified further still when the UK’s membership of NATO is taken in to account. As a member state the UK is fully covered by both ‘Article 5’ — the principle of collective defence: an attack against one ally being considered an attack against all allies — as well as NATO, along with Japan, Australia and South Korea all being fully protected by the US nuclear umbrella. Even ignoring the United States considerable leverage over the UK’s ability to wage nuclear war, the likelihood of Britain ever using its nuclear weapons without the backing and support of the U.S. is virtually non-existent.
British abolition would therefore do nothing to alter the current balance of power;
in fact the insistence of countries such as Britain and France in maintaining their nuclear weapons simply makes it more difficult to convince the likes of Iran not to pursue them. Furthermore, the fact that nuclear weapons do nothing to protect us against the threats we face today such as terrorism, climate change, cyber warfare and pandemics does little to justify spending such vast sums of taxpayer money on a cold-war era weapon described by senior figures in the armed forces as “militarily useless”.
It is often stated that Britain’s nuclear arsenal is an important factor in maintaining its ‘seat at the top table’, a reference to its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and plays a part in helping the country ‘punch above its weight’. This antiquated view merely serves to perpetuate the colonial-era mind-set that nations must compete for power and resources, rather than accept that the major issues our planet faces today such as climate change and mass migration require all nations to work together to find long term solutions to potentially catastrophic problems. Avoiding international discussions to find ways of making the world a safer place suggests the UK Government’s approach to global affairs still occurs through a fairly insular prism.
Successive governments have continually talked up the need for Trident not because they believe it to be an essential part of our armoury, rather they are terrified of being portrayed as ‘soft’ on defence. While a significant proportion of British media continues to delight in regaling the populace with scaremongering tales of ‘Russian aggression’ as their ships sail through international waters en route to Syria, Argentinian plans to re-invade the Falklands, and even accusing Spain of “an act of war” after one of its boats entered waters off the coast of Gibraltar, UK governments will consider dismantling Trident a political non-starter. However there is a precedent for nuclear disarmament. In 1989 the apartheid government of South Africa voluntarily dismantled its six nuclear weapons, going on to play a leading role in establishing the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. Whilst it goes without saying the Apartheid regime shouldn’t be considered favourable role models using most reasonable metrics, Britain would do well to consider following their lead when it comes to playing their part in minimizing the possibility of human extinction and leading by example where others fear to tread.