The papers would have you believe that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is just around the corner and a prominent topic during his campaign has been the UK government decision to renew Trident, our nuclear deterrent. It’s a common opinion among the far left that nuclear weapons are an abhorrent artefact of the past.
We cling on to the possession of nuclear weapons on the deluded fantasy that we will at some point have to dissuade some rouge state from attacking us with the deadliest force possible. Armageddon is simply too hard to stomach, so surely it’s just common sense to scrap a weapons program that wastes billions of pounds each year when that money could be going to the NHS or Pensions?
So why would I argue for the case for renewing such a disgusting symbol of destruction, why should we not, like many are suggesting unilaterally disarm? The answer lies not in nuclear weapons as a usable tool of war, but in nuclear weapons as a critical tool of diplomacy and influence. The power of nuclear weapons doesn’t come from a state’s willingness and actual ability to blow several hundred craters into the Russian countryside. But rather the unthinkable idea, we might, however small the chance, actually do that one day. I may sound like a sadistic maniac seemingly embracing with open arms the potential for a nuclear apocalypse but in a way that’s sort of the point.
The value of nuclear weapons lies in how implicit messages about their potential use and possession are conveyed to other states. The incredibly small risk that a state may one day commit the impossible, commands a respect and authority in the international system that can’t be guaranteed in any other way. Possession of nuclear weapons is an expression of ultimate power and it both creates and reinforces the idea in other nation-states that we are a force to be reckoned with in the world, both in terms of diplomatic influence and military operations.
If we were to give up nuclear weapons, it’s certain what type of message that would convey to other states. It would send the message that we’re no longer serious about standing up for our interests, including standing up to dictators who abuse human rights across the world, and standing up for minorities in places like Hong Kong that are slowly having their political rights eroded by the Chinese government. Giving up nuclear weapons also means we have to start giving up how we are perceived globally, the perception that we are a state that commands authority and respect and whose views and interests should be respected.
Britain needs and should aspire to have influence in the world because of the values we promote. Giving up nuclear weapons means we could one day jeopardise our veto power on the UN Security Council as the nations around us lose their perception of the UK as a major world force.
Undoubtedly the UK has made its fair share of past foreign policy mistakes, but willingly scaling down our global influence would leave oppressive regimes in China and Russia, to encourage non-intervention and exploit our weakened diplomatic reputation and exacerbate the problems of human rights abuses across the globe.
Nuclear weapons are inherently immoral and shouldn’t exist in the world and multilateral disarmament should be a key global priority. But it is naïve and misguided to assume that morally it would put pressure on states like the USA, China and Russia to disarm. Unilaterally disarming would on the contrary be inherently immoral, as it swings the balance of diplomacy and international prestige straight to nation-states that do not have the interests of our country or humanity at heart.
In short it’s a far too simplistic view to look at nuclear weapons as a pointless tool of destruction and warfare. Portraying the renewal of Trident as a £30 billion insurance policy against ISIS or North Korea is insane. However, renewal of Trident doesn’t just buy some shiny new submarines; it also buys you the immeasurable and unquantifiable ability to gain prestige and the international perception of authority to exert global influence.