Building Dialogue: The Trident Commission and our nuclear future

Dialogue is the most crucial ingredient in determining a future where we no longer live in the shadow of nuclear destruction. Without dialogue we will not be able to overcome the widespread orthodoxy that claims it is now impossible for nuclear weapons to be abolished. Without dialogue we will not be able to convince potential proliferators not to take the nuclear path. Without dialogue we will not be able to build the trust and confidence necessary to ensure that states can relinquish their nuclear arsenals and move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

The desire to open up dialogue was the central driving force behind BASIC, the transatlantic organisation that I chair, choosing to facilitate the three year Trident Commission that published its results yesterday. BASIC (the British American Security Information Council) brought together several members of the UK foreign policy and defence establishment from across the three main political parties – a former Conservative foreign minister, a former Labour defence secretary, a former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, two former diplomats, a scientist, a general, and even an academic – to investigate the arguments for and against Britain’s retention of a nuclear deterrence and the renewal of Trident.

“Trident gets thumbs up in report that will dismay anti-nuclear campaigners”, screamed The Guardian headline yesterday morning. Yes – the Commissioners, not surprisingly perhaps, given who they are, concluded that Britain must retain its nuclear weapons to deter what they perceive as tangible threats to national security. BUT, the Report and the work of the Commission behind it holds so much more than the headlines suggest. Delve just a little deeper and it’s clear the distance travelled in the thinking of Des Browne, Malcolm Rikfind, Ming Campbell, Alyson Bailes, Jeremy Greenstock, Charles Guthrie, Peter Hennessy, and Martin Rees. Read the whole report and it’s clear where the dialogue on Trident and Britain’s nuclear future has been cracked further open, not closed down by the Commission’s findings.

The Commissioners argue for the retention of Britain’s nuclear weapons based on only three possible scenarios under which an independent nuclear deterrence might be decisive – that Russia or another significantly armed nuclear state might aggressively threaten Britain; that a smaller existing or emerging nuclear state might gain global reach and threaten the UK; or that some other existential threat from bio-weapons or another as yet undeveloped WMD might be arrayed against the UK. In all three scenarios, they conclude, Britain’s nuclear weapons might act as an effective deterrent. Crucially, they explicitly discounted the Blair Government’s argument that Trident presented some sort of vague insurance policy against an uncertain world. They believed this argument was dangerous and irresponsible.

The Commissioners contend that “We cannot expect the United States to shoulder indefinitely the awesome responsibilities that lie in providing extended nuclear deterrence to Europe”, yet where is the evidence that the US would withdraw its commitments should the UK or any other NATO ally face the sort of threats described above? Indeed, the Commissioners themselves conclude that “the relationship with the United States is critical to the maintenance of our nuclear programme and to the broader credibility of the UK’s security and place in the world.” Essentially then, Britain would NOT have to face these threats alone, and its nuclear programme would in fact lack credibility if they did have to go solo in this barely imagined future.

While anti-nuclear campaigners might decry the headline conclusion that the Commission has called for Britain to retain its nuclear deterrence they should actually be encouraged by the soft underbelly of their reasons for this conclusion. Not least they should note, as the Report makes clear, that the Commissioners themselves were not in agreement over the relative probability of the three scenarios they observed nor the degree to which having a British nuclear deterrence would prove relevant in their prevention.

The real headlines coming out of the Trident Commission should be focusing on the absolute rejection of some of the main arguments that are conventionally run out in favour of Trident renewal, which the Commissioners have found to be “irrelevant or unconvincing”. In his memoirs, for example, Tony Blair admitted that his ultimate reason for retaining Trident was because he “thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation.” Yet the Report dismisses this view entirely: “the Commission does not think that the UK’s status in the world is a compelling reason to retain its arsenal.” They also reject out of hand the economic arguments concerning jobs and the potential impact on British industry, concluding that such factors “cannot play a key role in determining whether the UK continues to deploy a nuclear deterrent” and that alternative activities could equally stimulate the economy.

Fundamentally, the Trident Commission advocates for Britain to take a leadership role in “taking steps towards multilateral disarmament”. It recognises unequivocally that “A world with fewer nuclear weapons and fewer states that possess them is not only a safer world if achieved in a stable and controlled manner, it would also be a very large gain directly for global security.” Even more strikingly, the Commissioners agreed, “A world with no nuclear weapons would be a bigger gain still.”

The Trident Commission then, in passages entirely missed by the widespread press coverage today, has argued for the British Government to consider reductions in warhead numbers and changes to its targeting positions, to have a stronger declaratory policy that makes clear the UK would not threaten the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states or under threat or attack from chemical or biological weapons, and to potentially step away from the belief that at least one of our nuclear armed submarines must be on patrol at all times.

Most significant of all, perhaps, the Commissioners believe that the Government should consider a further delay to the final decision to renew Trident that is due in 2016. As they make clear, there could be great advantages from further delay in terms of costs, in technological developments, and not least in terms of the diplomatic successes that might be possible to make renewal unnecessary. The Commission has, therefore, effectively thrown open the debate on Trident renewal and raised questions about almost every assumption relating to the conviction that Britain absolutely must retain its nuclear weapons, no matter what, and that the decision for renewal must be made soon.

This process over the last three years has taught me without doubt, that if we cannot speak openly and honestly with those with whom we assume we disagree, to challenge each other’s perceptions and prejudices, and to imagine different ways of being, then we will never overcome the massive obstacles we face in our struggles to deal with threats to our security, or to our very existence. Ever since I was a teenager in the renewed Cold War of the 1980s, I have feared losing not only my life, but the lives of everyone, absolutely everyone, in a nuclear conflagration. It is easy to forget that this gravest of all human threats to the survival of our planet is still very much with us, every day, as we tweet and cappuccino our way through the first part of the twenty-first century. Britain’s role can appear small and insignificant. But I believe that the strength of character that the Trident Commissioners have shown in confronting their own assumptions about our nuclear future, to consider alternatives, to challenge the conventional, is something we must all learn from and build upon. We may not agree with their conclusions. We may be sad, or disappointed, that they have not gone further in their thinking about how to achieve the multilateral disarmament they espouse, but they have engaged in a dialogue that we cannot afford to let fall silent. The final decision to renew Trident is just two years away. We must make sure that the issue of this Report is not the end but the beginning of what could be one of the most important dialogues this country has ever entered into.

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