Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Should we renew our Nuclear deterrent?: Two arguments based on different attitudes to risk

1: The minimise risk argument

“I believe climate change is, without doubt, the major long-term threat facing our planet.” Tony Blair, February 2006

“Terrorism is the greatest 21st century threat.” Tony Blair, November 2003

The two greatest threats to the security and stability of our planet and the UK are climate change and extremist-Islamic terrorism. The rise in global temperature of anywhere between 2 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century will cause flooding, starvation and migration on an unprecedented scale unless we act now. Dirty bombs or biological terrorist attacks could destabilise the world’s economy and prompt retaliatory attacks which could plunge the planet into a growing cycles of violence. In this framework how do we decide whether or not to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent?

Our current system of approximately 200 trident missiles based in four vanguard submarines is due to expire in the mid-2020s. It will have cost us £15bn in today’s prices to acquire (about £0.5bn for every year of service) and between £1.2bn and £2.2bn per year to maintain. Costs of upkeep are budgeted at 3 and 5.5% of the MoD’s annual expenditure and come out of the department’s standard budgets. As a comparison the annual budget of the NHS in 2007/8 is predicted to be £105.6bn, a bill exceeded only by Social security expenditure. A new system would cost around £20bn, again probably for a lifespan of around thirty years in addition to an ongoing maintenance budget. It is clear that if we want a new system or we wanted to extend the lifespan of trident we could afford it.

But is it worth the money if it is not addressing the two main threats that face our planet? Should we not be prioritising huge investment in research into clean energy sources and invest resources to protect us from terrorism and address root causes around the globe? Nuclear weapons do not contribute anything to dealing with either of these threats – against whom would we retaliate if an Islamic extremist drove a barge up the Thames and detonated a nuclear device on it? Some will argue that it is not possible to know the threat that we will face in thirty years time from an authoritarian Russia, a dominant China or another state. Old fashioned interstate warfare may be out of fashion, but is likely to return in the future. We need to maintain our deterrent for such a future to ensure that we are not bullied in international affairs by those that retain nuclear weapons. There is a possibility that we could retain a ‘virtual nuclear arsenal’; that is we would retain a stock pile of fissile material without having any warheads. We could revive our nuclear weapons capability within 6-24 months. The problem with this idea is that we would not have a delivery system available – we have no plans for suitable aeroplanes (e.g. stealth bombers) and if we decommission trident, no submarines. It is a truism to say that we don’t know what the future holds, but again it comes down to an issue of priorities. If after we’ve worked out what we need to spend on climate change and international terrorism we feel we can afford a trident replacement it should be pursued.

2: The maximise peace argument

The argument for retaining the nuclear deterrent is based on the concern that if other nations have it then we need it in order to ensure that unscrupulous states cannot threaten us with weapons with no fear of reprisal. Yet everyone, including those who support maintaining a nuclear deterrent agree that we should move towards a world without nuclear weapons. Although multilateral arms reduction has significantly reduced the size of some nation’s arsenals (noticeably the USA and Russia, but also the UK) no state that has possessed nuclear weapons capability has ever renounced it (South Africa never tested a nuclear weapon) and there seems to be no likelihood of it happening in the near future through multilateral negotiations.

For the UK to renounce the nuclear deterrent would be an historic move and allow Britain to commit itself to leading the way to push for the world that we all want where we don’t think that we might have to blow each other up. Giving up the deterrent would need to be seen as a first step as we committed ourselves to ‘making peace with as much effort as we put into going to war’ (Ron Sider). To unilaterally renounce our nuclear deterrent would be a risk, but it carries the possibility of a huge peace dividend in the long term. It would be a calculated risk. It is never comfortable to do something different and lead the way. It is always easier to keep the nuclear deterrent because everyone else has, but history is not made by people or nations that don’t have the vision to challenge the status quo. The principle behind argument 1 is to maximise and manage our safety within existing political boundaries, but doesn’t believe that it’s possible to push back those boundaries and deal with the root causes of our fear. Unilaterally disarming would be a prophetic action by a nation in that we would show that we had a vision for a world without nuclear weapons.

It would have to be a decision by a nation. This could not be made by leaders alone, but would need to have the understanding and support of the country. If in forty years time we are being bullied by China into actions because they are threatening us with nuclear weapons if we don’t comply and we don’t have the capacity to retaliate, we as a nation need to be able to say that we took the decision to disarm understanding the risks because we believed that it was worthwhile pursuing peace.

We’re not in that place as a nation now and to be honest, I don’t know whether we will ever be in that position. It is the place of our leaders to open up the discussion to see whether the UK as a nation can be strong enough to count the cost, take the risk and resolutely pursue peace.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful dream - and we could even recover some sense of national pride/identity by doing something entirely opposite to US policy and arms industry interests! - to renounce our nuclear capability for the cause of peace...maybe we could persuade the Evangelical Alliance to lobby and rabble-rouse for this cause instead of sending me flyers egging me on to complain about the prospect of Gay adoptions (which, however theologically plausible and/or morally correct the argument does not further the cause of displaying Christian love to Joe Bloggs vis a vis the reaction to 'Life of Brian'). Oh yeah, and I suppose we could pray for it too!