Fears change. Half a century ago, it was widely believed that a nuclear catastrophe was the worst fate that might befall the world. Millions of people in many countries engaged in passionate debate about disarmament.
Today, by contrast, climate change and threatened economic collapse loom vastly larger in public perceptions. Last week three respected retired British soldiers, Lords Bramall and Ramsbotham and Sir Hugh Beach, signed a letter to the Times newspaper urging the cancellation of the projected £25 billion (US$34.5 billion) replacement for the UK’s Trident nuclear system.
“Our independent deterrent has become virtually irrelevant except in the context of domestic politics,” they wrote.
Yet, after causing a brief ripple, their appeal vanished to the bottom of the pool.
No major political party in Britain sees any advantage in raising the nuclear issue. Two years ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown followed Tony Blair in insouciantly pledging to create a new-generation deterrent, largely to confirm the government’s electoral credentials as being “safe with defense.” A quarter of the parliamentary Labour party voted against the measure in 2007. This suited the leadership very well, by highlighting its separation from the left.
The Opposition Conservatives (the Tories) are most unlikely to make waves about the Trident system ahead of an election, because they see no votes in it. If Tory leader David Cameron committed himself to dumping the deterrent, he would merely provoke a gratuitous and possibly fatal party split. So the UK’s Trident submarines will continue to sail the seas. Design work goes ahead on a new system, for which the big building decisions are due out by around 2013.
Yet it seems mistaken to allow the UK’s politicians to bury this debate merely to suit their own tactical convenience. There are strong, though by no means one-sided, arguments in favor of abandoning the British nuclear deterrent. A real public argument about it, and about defense generally, is badly needed.
The least convincing case for renunciation is the moral one, the flatulent notion that we would thus give a lead against nuclear proliferation. It is risible to suggest that Israel, India, Pakistan or even France would be encouraged to give up their bombs because the British set an example, or that Iran and other nations might thus be stimulated to forgo nuclear pretensions.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s great-uncle Salvador de Madariaga, a prominent figure in the old League of Nations, wrote in his memoirs: “The trouble with disarmament ... [is] that the problem of war is tackled upside down, and at the wrong end ... Nations don’t distrust each other because they are armed, they are armed because they distrust each other.”
Israel might renounce nuclear weapons only if its dispute with the Arab world becomes sufficiently diminished that it no longer fears annihilatory attack; likewise India and Pakistan, if they settle their Kashmir dispute and become peaceful neighbors. Iran might stop trying to build a bomb only if other reliable security guarantees become available, and the Israelis give up theirs.
A UK disarmament precedent is irrelevant to the world’s regional disputes, and almost universally perceived as such. The only questions that should matter in our own debate are: do we need our own deterrent, and can we afford it? The second point may be addressed first, because it is simpler. Many of Britain’s soldiers have always opposed Trident because it absorbs such a large part of the defense budget and diminishes funds available for conventional forces.