This week’s non-debate of Trident at the Labour Party conference is now an opportunity to reframe the issue and set the UK on a more stable path towards a non-nuclear future. But it will take collaboration between people on different sides of the current divide.
After all the expectation of a show-down, the Labour Party did not debate Trident at this conference after all, but will be subject to a process led by the Party’s National Policy Forum over the coming months. Whatever the result of the policy process Labour MPs will probably be given a free vote in Parliament next year on the final Trident investment decision, and will be divided. Given a Conservative majority (with a few exceptions they are not split), the result may appear a foregone conclusion, but many people seem encouraged that at least there will be an open debate on the issue.
But this is insufficient. Restating arguments that marked previous polarised battles may leave those involved feeling virtuous and clear (and a Conservative government looking strong and united), but it will fail the country. This issue may have become a touch-paper for British politics, and the current divisions may serve some political agendas, but the underlying issues are still so fundamentally misunderstood. This is not a cry for greater knowledge of the technical details, but rather a refocus on the political issues. We need to start again.
A point of departure: raising our eyes beyond the parochial
There is plenty of common ground in this debate when you look for it. Whilst many people believe strongly in the stability that nuclear deterrence can bring, they also recognise that current arrangements hold a terrifying risk that nuclear weapons could be used and will in time lead to further proliferation, perhaps even to non-state groups. In other words, there is general agreement the status quo holds mortal risks likely to worsen and is unsustainable long-term.
Whilst some would claim that nuclear deterrence has worked to prevent large-scale global war, they recognise the theory is full of challenging contradictions and uncertain outcomes particularly in crisis situations. We know for sure that leaders do not always act rationally under pressure in a crisis. In fact any decent psychologist will tell you that at the best of times rationality is a regressive trait at the best of times. Mixing human beings with nuclear weapons and deterrence theory is not a recipe for long term survival.
It was the fright that leaders experienced during the Cuban missile crisis that led directly to the partial test ban treaty and then to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). There have been so many documented incidents of near-misses and misunderstandings over the seven nuclear decades that we can only conclude that either luck or God has saved us from catastrophe.
Of course, many people understand this, but believe that in today’s environment disarmament simply a pipe dream. With Russia challenging NATO and the EU over influence in eastern Europe, invading Crimea and fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, and engaging in dangerous nuclear signalling in northern Europe, now is not the time to be slowing the modernisation of our nuclear forces.
There is deep division of opinion between those that believe we need to engage in the modernisation of nuclear forces because an adversary like Russia only understands the language of threat and containment, and those that believe we can track some of the sources of Russia’s retrenchment as a reaction to some degree of provocation, not least the expansion of NATO and the EU and the development of missile defence and other destabilising technologies. According to this latter belief, we need to be particularly careful not to exacerbate the situation. We get this wrong either way and the consequences are enormous.
We can all agree that the politics of the situation today looks grim and works against the trust conducive to states taking big steps down the nuclear ladder. But we can also agree that this situation demands far greater efforts to achieve stability and avoid events spiralling out of control. Fearing the consequences of further deterioration of relations and an escalation in nuclear signalling is not weak, it’s rational. Understanding of the fears and concerns that drive each side into confrontation is not a luxury. We need now more than ever greater efforts to engage in arms control, crisis management and confidence-building.
A question of responsibility
So let’s start a national discussion on what it means to be a responsible nuclear-armed state today. Seventy years on after they were first used on Japanese cities, nuclear weapons remain unique as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction chosen by some states to mediate strategic outcomes. Everyone recognises either that it is immoral ever to brandish nuclear weapons, or that the choice to do so comes with grave responsibilities towards the international community. Let’s talk about what we think those responsibilities include, in general and in particular in the case of the UK. Some believe they involve rapid disarmament on the basis that any benefits accusing from possession are minimal and outweighed by the costs, risks and the damage to the international community. Others would emphasise responsibilities around stewardship, including safety, security, tight command and control, strong crisis management procedures, restraint around signalling, engagement in arms control and respect for agreements made, controls over testing and fissile materials, development of technologies useful to verification and compliance etc.
Most people would recognise that recent Russian nuclear threats point to an urgent need for such a dialogue. But in so doing the UK needs to be open to the possibility that its own behaviour has not been the model many would like to assume.
The United Kingdom has a particular responsibility within the international community – as a recognised nuclear weapon state close to the United States and inside NATO. Whilst it would be wishful thinking of some to believe that UK nuclear disarmament would break the global log-jam, the UK remains quite influential. It set up the so-called ‘P5 process’ in 2008 (first meeting in 2009). This may have been a disappointment to its principal architect, Des Browne, but it was the first attempt to open a multilateral process and is a framework that could be used for more serious negotiation in future. There are a number of initiatives on the international agenda – such as a comprehensive test ban, a fissile material treaty and tightening of declaratory policy – that deserve a much higher priority in promoting their entry into force. Unfortunately at present there appears to be a distinct defeatism, perhaps complacency, and certainly insufficient political and budgetary support for this agenda with the Foreign Office.
This government has overcome objections to prioritise trade deals and generous credit arrangements with China. The same could be done in vigorously pursuing the multilateralist global disarmament agenda we all claim we believe in. The UK cannot sit back and wait for others to change or claim that it will be ready to disarm when others lead.
It is an inescapable responsibility for all nuclear armed states, whether they have negotiating partners or not, to do all in their power to bring about the conditions to facilitate disarmament by all. That includes assessing the British contribution to the threat perceptions of other states.
To do otherwise, to renew Trident with little regard to the international dimension, is to damage the reputation of the United Kingdom and its soft power abroad, weaken its ability to positively influence outcomes in other dimensions, and is to put the security of the country and the wider global community in further doubt.
This dimension is also true closer to home. In the lead article in this month’s Survival, William Walker outlines the continued challenge that Trident presents, not to the Labour Party but rather to the Conservatives and the SNP. The government’s ability to muster a majority in the House behind Trident next year is not under question, but if they do so against 58 out of 59 Scottish MPs without any compensatory move towards Scotland this will feed the narrative that London runs the UK without regard to Scottish wishes. And if the referendum on EU membership results in withdrawal, we could yet face the prospect of an early second referendum and the separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK, creating a question-mark over the future of Trident. Trident renewal could feed the dissolution of the Union it is ostensibly there to protect, and thereby call its own future into doubt.
A question of utility
Of course, whilst this helps clarify our goals and objectives in the strategic field, but we are still left with the question is it reasonable to invest in a new generation of Trident submarines for deployment out to 2060? Too often this is characterised as morality against realism. Those opposed to Trident must recognise that there is an ethical case (we can debate its strength) in deploying nuclear weapons, based upon the idea that without deterrence there would be instability and conflict, and that walking away from confrontation simply leaves the field open to those willing to impose authoritarian power. It has been said that giving up a national deterrent but then free-riding upon another country (the United States) to protect us under their nuclear umbrella is also immoral (though in a world where we justify extended deterrence by its assurance in order to discourage further proliferation this argument needs explanation).
Similarly, those in favour must understand there is a case to be made that nuclear weapons are ineffective as well as dangerous. They may be clumsy and not credible – the opposite of useful (which is increasingly precision-guided, networked, small and intelligent). James Doyle of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab wrote in 2014 that the ‘belief that nuclear weapons have solved the problem of war between major powers’ is ‘dangerous and delusional’.
These elements go to the core of the debate around how we best manage the truly horrendous risks that nuclear weapons have brought upon us. They involve evidence, assumptions and belief, but do not require detailed technical expertise for people to follow them and come to a view. But they are far too important to be played by the media as simple, short-handed political weather-vanes to establish a party’s general political leanings.
What to do now
Those involved in Labour’s policy-making process have an opportunity to frame this debate on common ground, and better establish the objectives behind any policy on nuclear weapons. Are these weapons really useful? What are the ethical considerations, and how do they impact upon other objectives? And in particular what are our responsibilities today as a nuclear armed state in the 21st century? These are questions that should concern us all. If the process were to be wide-ranging and open, beyond the Labour Party, there is a chance that the Party division in the Commons lobby over the issue next year will be a sign of strength and confidence, a reflection of a broader national debate that will go on, past that vote, and focus on measures to achieve the conditions for nuclear disarmament.
This article was first published on The Huffington Post Blog on 29 September 2015.