The debate around whether the UK’s submarine based nuclear deterrent Trident should be renewed is sinking to the level of national embarrassment. The ‘no’ camp claim that nuclear weapons have no use in the post cold war era, while those in favour of renewing it pretend that it is just some kind of hi-tech make work scheme. In the interests of public service, I’m going to attempt to make a serious case for the renewal of Trident. Feel free to argue.
The key thing to understand is that nuclear weapons are tools of foreign policy, not weapons of war. It has long been accepted that a thermonuclear exchange would so damage the participants that no possible strategic objective could justify it. It follows that no state will risk facing that threat.
However with or without nuclear weapons, states do face existential threats, principally from more powerful states. This is the story of human history, the strong dominating the weak. It is here that the hydrogen bomb gains its diplomatic utility. In recent years, the states that have gone nuclear, or can reasonably be said to have attempted it all have one thing in common. They have been directly threatened by a state which they have no conventional means of resisting. Nuclear weapons are the only serious response to these threats that these weak states can ever have. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq serves as a reminder of the price of not possessing weapons of mass destruction.
How does this affect the UK? After all, we are a member of NATO and the EU. Diplomatically, are we not the ‘transatlantic bridge’, an integral part of the international community which guarantees a world free of great power conflict? Frankly, this is a myopically complacent view, which confuses a fluke historical circumstance whose time is coming to a close with a serious analysis of foreign affairs.
Firstly, and most obviously, the EU is splitting in two, with the core Euro-zone edging ever closer towards being a country, and everyone else left outside. For better or for worse, we are on the outside. This in turn undermines the UK’s ‘transatlantic bridge’ role. If the USA want someone to represent their views on the continent, it will be someone inside the core Europe group, not a spectator. Indeed, as the US pivots towards Asia, where global power is increasingly heading, its interest in maintaining NATO will wane. British foreign policy, such as it is, is based on the idea that the UK is a core part of an imagined ‘West’ which is made up of developed, democratic and dominant states. That world is passing. If current trends continue, the UK will find itself a small, isolated country in a world dominated by the new superpowers; Russia, China, India, the USA and who knows, even the core EU.
The Trident program is a long term commitment. It would mean that Britain will maintain nuclear weapons until the 2040’s. If current trends continue, by that time Trident could be one of the only cards Britain holds to prevent its domination by these stronger states. In essence, the UK would use its nuclear weapons to guarantee its diplomatic independence in the way that Pakistan does today. That is the value of Trident, and that is why it should be renewed.
The pessimistic (and highly speculative) tone of this piece is deliberately designed as a riposte to the “the cold war is over, we all live in peace and harmony” argument. History does not end, however agreeable we might find the status quo. The UK is a declining country, with little capacity to affect world events. It would be wise to start planning our foreign policy with this fact in mind.