So here on Nuclear Hitchhiker we are not afraid to discuss controversial topics. But I must admit when our senior editor Mark asked me to write on nuclear disarmament I was somewhat apprehensive. This is a topic on which it is all too easy, yet all too dangerous, to sit on the fence. On the one hand I think of the strong argument for nuclear weapons being a prerequisite for strong national security but on the other the appalling consequences of ever actually making use of them. But as the UK faces the decision of whether or not to renew trident fence sitting is no longer an option…
‘They are essential to keep Britain safe’
There is no avoiding the fact that since 1945 we have lived in a world with nuclear weapons. So in a world where a future enemy can destroy you at the push of a button, it might seem the only way to feel safe is having the capability to do the same, Mutually Assured Destruction as it came to be known. This argument is somewhat reduced by the existence of NATO. As part of the treaty, most European members host American ICBMs and are covered by the knowledge that any aggression toward them (nuclear or otherwise) would be met with full retaliatory force from all other members. So unless the American’s suddenly become our enemies, Great Britain without its own deterrent is still covered by these same protections.
‘We need them to be taken seriously in the world’
To me this is the most convincing argument I have heard in favour of the nuclear deterrent. When the UN was established the nations that were chosen to sit on the permanent Security Council (and so have the most power) were the nuclear armed states. If the UK were to abandon its nuclear deterrent a large number of other countries, some of which are economically more vibrant and militarily more ambitious may start asking questions about why the UK has a seat and they don’t. Therefore the question of nuclear disarmament for the UK is really a question of our place in the world. If we give up nuclear weapons we may have to give up being a major world power. I for one would not be happy about this as I am proud that the UK has a seat at the top table and think it has an important role to play there.
‘Modern threats require conventional forces’
The cold war is over & the days of grand nations facing off against one another has been and gone. The modern threat to Britain is much more one of small scale radicals with conventional arms rather than autocrats with nukes. Most of the conflicts the UK has been involved in this century have been messy guerrilla wars against small pockets of islamists. The domestic threats are home grown jihadists not foreign governments. Nuclear weapons are of no help in either case, either as an offensive play or a deterrent. So why do we need them? Well if you had made the argument 5 or maybe just 2 years ago I would have agreed with you. But the newly aggressive Russia and the expansionist China (both nuclear armed states) suggests that this century is unlikely to be free from posturing for a large inter-state war. However, the existence of NATO and the US deterrent would leave the UK far from vulnerable from these threats even if it were to give up Trident.
‘Disarming would send a powerful and positive message to the world and encourage others to do the same’
Most sane people were appalled by the use of nuclear weapons and the potential that they could be used again. The only way to avoid this is complete disarmament of all nuclear armed states. Despite many governments agreeing to this, none are yet to make any serious moves towards it. If the UK were to disarm it would become the first state to do so. This would set a powerful example that giving up nuclear weapons is not disastrous and may encourage other nations to follow suit. However, all of this presumes that there are no negative consequences which is an extremely large gamble to make for the sake of moral superiority.
On balance, I must reluctantly support renewing Trident. However, as I said above, the most convincing argument for me is not that of defence but rather of international influence. I think it is important that the UK continues to be a major world power with all the rights and responsibilities that brings.
Adam Fuller is a postdoctoral research associate at The University of Manchester