All The More Reason

Unilateral Thinking
March 15, 2007, 5:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

One cannot help but sympathise with members of the government who have the feeling of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1997, even Tony Blair might have thought it incredible that his party would still be in government ten years hence, at a time when, unluckily enough, the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons system needed to be considered.

If the Tony Blair of ten years ago would have found the present scenario improbable, one can only imagine what the Tony Blair of twenty five years ago might have made of the decision that his government would finally arrive at. Might he have condemned the renewal of these ‘nuclear boomerangs’ and furthermore insisted that the government use ‘unilateral steps [to] secure multilateral solutions on the international level.’? He might well have: after all, these are the words of the Labour Party manifesto on which he ran for election in 1983. A member of CND, as he was at the time, would be unlikely to resile from these positions.

Not unreasonably, the weather-beaten Tony Blair of today would point out to his callow counterpart that we now live in very different times. The rhetoric of 1983 no longer arrests us in the way it did when mutually assured destruction was a very real possibility, rather than a horrific curiosity gawped at by students of the Cold War. It is true that in a multi-polar world the potential threats to national security are less predictable. The question one needs to ask though is this: are nuclear weapons the best way – both practically and ethically – of insuring against future risk of attack?

The government cites ‘state-sponsored nuclear terrorism’ as one of the new threats that could materialise within the lifespan of the upgraded Trident missiles. Having the capacity to eradicate a state would, it is argued, deter that state from supplying terrorists with the means to wipe London, New York or Tel Aviv from the map. This, of course, assumes that a return address would be possible to discern with enough certainty to sentence thousands, if not millions, of its addressees to death. Who would we trust enough to make this call? Who would trust their self enough to make it? Who, furthermore, would wish to have such a responsibility at the tip of his finger when the recipients of your payload might be, let us say, the helpless non-citizens of a Shi’ite theocracy which rather presumptuously insists that ‘its’ ummah could, and would readily, ‘absorb’ any such attack? Who could entertain facilitating the ‘martyrdom’ of a people who, until the white light of the blast had blinded them, would be unaware that they had auditioned for such a role?

The other ‘known unknowns’ are rather more familiar, but no more comforting for it. We know that there are states who may directly threaten us in the future. We don’t know exactly who they are at present, although it doesn’t take too much imagination to figure out which countries with either nuclear capabilities or nuclear aspirations our deterrent might seek, one day, to deter. However counter-intuitive it may sound, psychopathic regimes may well be susceptible to the nuances of ‘game theory’; irrational systems do not necessarily act irrationally. For as long as there are countries with nuclear weapons, it is wise to assume that arming ourselves with systems like Trident will reduce any risk of attack from states that value their own survival.

Prudent as it may be for the government to renew Trident on the basis that it is taking out ‘insurance’ against the possibility of unknown future threats, it must not overlook the ultimate goal of total, global disarmament. In the halcyon, ‘bi-polar’ days of the Cold War, when Trident’s missiles were targeted in dreadful symmetry at a known target, the balance of terror was readily apparent and, therefore, containable. This was a house fire that could be kept under control. But its dying embers now threaten to spit themselves into the scrub. If Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others will surely follow, and we should not be so naïve as to think that we can shield ourselves from the ensuing inferno. Or holocaust.

In 2010, the next round of Nuclear Non-Proliferation talks will take place. Delaying a decision on Trident until then would make little material difference to the effectiveness of the British nuclear deterrent, but it would make a huge difference to the international perception of this country’s good faith. How could any government minister seriously engage in these talks in the knowledge that the cheques for a weapons system that will last until 2050 have already been signed? Established nuclear powers must be willing to take the moral high ground in facing down immoral regimes. When Iran invokes the rhetoric of tu quoque to justify its nuclear ambitions, what will our response be? Until we abandon our policy of defensive genocide, we will continue to fight fire with fire.

Michael P


1 Comment so far
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As usual, tonnes of interesting stuff here, including details about British parliamentary politics and history that I know so little of and long so much for…

I can’t help wonder though if the moral high ground should be sought after more in our relations with other countries. I’m thinking for example of Pakistan and Japan (totally different countries, one nuclear, the other not so much). As it stands, no matter how high our moral high ground with Iran, I don’t see it necessarily making much of a difference for the time being. Perhaps there are aspects I’m missing there.

Comment by Jonathan Smith

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