Thursday, March 15, 2007


I was impressed with Simon Jenkins's piece on Trident in yesterday's Guardian. Those on the Left who oppose nuclear arms have, it seems to me, always done so using the main argument that their use would be both unthinkable and morally reprehensible. These were the sentiments held most trenchantly by members of the CND even throughout the Cold War. However, yesterday Jenkins's focused less on the tangled moral complexities of such weaponry and more on the demonstrably pragmatic reasons for Trident's abandonment.

"Unlike Blair, I thought unilateral nuclear disarmament during the cold war was misguided. At a time when two centralised states, America and the Soviet Union, had large nuclear arsenals poised in equilibrium, keeping that balance required precision discipline, as did their subsequent dismantling. In 1982, Blair said that to reject unilateralism would be "an error of enormous proportions". He was wrong and irresponsible. Multilateral disarmament yielded treaties on arms reduction and nuclear non-proliferation that helped end the threat of communism and made the world incomparably safer, more than can be said for the west's present generation of leaders."

Indeed. During the Cold War the stakes were higher, the threat manifest and clear. Not so today.

"The case against Trident hardly bears repetition. Its value as a deterrent depends on a coherent enemy with a leadership capable of being deterred. This applied to America and Russia in the cold war. That is now over. Even if Nato restarted it by reckless meddling in southern Asia and the Caucasus, Britain's use of nuclear weapons in such aggression would be unthinkable. As for the west's nuclear shield, that would continue to be supplied by America."

And as I've stated elsewhere today, the possibility of Britain using American-provided nukes without American permission is just as unthinkable. Besides: everyone wants one but no one wants to be the person or government to use one.

"The truth is that the west's nuclear status has not deterred any aggressor. It did not deter North Vietnam from invading the south, Galtieri from invading the Falklands, Saddam Hussein from invading America's ally Kuwait, Syria from invading Lebanon or Milosevic from massacring his fellow Yugoslavs. It does not matter how devastating a weapon is. If its use is inconceivable, its deterrent value is zero."

Its deterrent value is zero if its use is inconceivable but its value on its own is little if there is no substantial opponent on which to train it.

"The wars being fought by the west's current leaders are "fourth generation" wars, post-conventional, post-nuclear and post-guerrilla. They are not against states but against groups, insurgencies and public opinions."

"The non-proliferation treaty is being shot to pieces by America appeasing the nuclear ambitions of Israel, India and Pakistan and goading Iran's fundamentalists into wanting a bomb too. These states want bombs not to threaten the west but, as with the east-west balance in the cold war, to balance regional deterrence. We may not like this but we can't stop it; nor does it threaten Britain or the non-nuclear states that comprise most of the world. We have lived with this appalling weapon for half a century, in which it has never been used in anger. The genie is out of the bottle, and diplomacy is her most effective chaperone."

A majority of MPs did not agree. My assumption had always been that even if Trident were decommissioned, a quantity of nukes would be kept in stock in case the unlikely ever occurred. A tacit understanding would exist between the post-nuclear nations that we might not be wearing a gunbelt around the waist but that we'd probably have a smaller, less costly weapon concealed in a boot just in case. The alternative simply makes for a more competitive market.


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