Trident is Britain’s nuclear weapon system. The government likes to refer to it as the nuclear ‘deterrent’, but whether or not it actually works as a deterrent is an open question which we shall consider in a moment. What cannot be disputed is that Trident is a weapon system, designed and ready to be used as means of destroying entire cities and killing millions of people.
Deterrence is nothing other than a threat to inflict punishment for doing something we don’t want somebody to do. It is hoped that the threat alone will be sufficient to prevent that person from doing whatever it is we don’t want them to do, but the threat is only ever effective if we are ready, able and willing to carry out that threat. Even then, as we all know from parenting as well as from the criminal justice system and from many other everyday applications of deterrence theory, the threat may or may not work.
Is Trident A Credible Deterrent?
In the case of nuclear deterrence, the late Sir Michael Quinlan, who was the undisputed ‘master’ of deterrence theory in the UK, made it very clear that ‘weapons deter by the possibility of their use and by no other route’. In other words, for Trident to act as a deterrent, the government has to be ready, able and willing to use it as a weapon. That is why David Cameron made it very clear when the issue came up only a few months ago that if the circumstances required it, he would press the nuclear button.
Now whether he actually would or not is another question. And whether the Russians or the North Koreans or whoever else believe he actually would or not is yet again another question. In the case of Russia, which is and always has been the only realistic target for Britain’s nuclear weapons, we are talking about a country which has roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons as compared to the UK’s 200 or so nuclear warheads available for Trident.
Those 200 warheads are capable of causing an unbelievable amount of death and destruction. Just one Trident submarine has more destructive power on board than all the bombs dropped by all the countries in WWII combined, including the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most if not all of Britain’s 200 nuclear warheads are at least six times more powerful than those two atom bombs which utterly destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed more than 250,000 people in those cities.
However, does anyone really imagine that the UK could launch a nuclear attack on Russia without Russia launching a nuclear attack back at the UK? In what sense is it a deterrent to threaten the leaders of Russia with a massive nuclear attack when those very leaders could launch an even more massive nuclear attack on the UK that would leave the entire country a smouldering pile of cinders?
Since Trident is, in fact, assigned to NATO, it is meant to act as a deterrent, not only against a Russia attack on the UK, but against a Russian attack on any NATO country, for instance Estonia. But is it realistic to think that a British Prime Minister would press the nuclear button, knowing that doing so would almost certainly result in a massive nuclear retaliation against the UK, all for the sake of protecting a ‘far away country’ such as Estonia?
These are just a few of the many unanswered questions raised by the theory of nuclear deterrence. We are told that nuclear weapons deter. We are told that they have ‘kept the peace’ for the last 70 years. We are told, as recently as last November, by Britain’s highest ranking general, that Trident is protecting the UK ‘every second of every minute of every day’ and that we need to retain Trident indefinitely as an ‘insurance policy against an uncertain future’.
The Truth About Nuclear Diplomacy
But is there actually one shred of evidence to show that nuclear weapons have deterred any country from doing anything they would otherwise have done at any time in the last 70 years? Even the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is still assumed by most people to be the final blow that ended WWII, may have had surprisingly little to do with the Japanese decision to surrender in August 1945. It is now increasingly clear from the historical archives that Japan was on the verge of surrender by that point anyway, and that the only condition -which the US refused to accept – was that the Emperor remain on his throne. Once Japan did surrender, the US let the Emperor remain anyway. But in the meantime, far more decisive in ending the war than the dropping of the atom bombs was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Japan which took place at the same time.
Since then, the world has come perilously close to a third world war – and nuclear Armageddon – on at least 13 occasions. The most well-known of these was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This is often touted as the best example of nuclear deterrence working successfully. President Khrushchev of the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba which could threaten the US mainland in a matter of minutes. President Kennedy of the US threatened him with all-out nuclear war if he did not remove these missiles. President Khrushchev backed down and removed the missiles, so the threat ‘worked’.
This popular version of the Cuban missile crisis does not take into account however, that prior to the Soviets installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, only minutes away from the US mainland, the US had installed Jupiter nuclear missiles in Turkey, only minutes away from landing in the heart of Russia. The Cuban missile crisis was not resolved because Khrushchev unilaterally backed down. It was resolved because President Kennedy agreed to remove the US missiles from Turkey if President Khrushchev would remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba.
Furthermore, what the Cuban missile crisis tells us about deterrence is that even at a point in history when both sides in the Cold War had enough nuclear weapons to completely annihilate the other, neither side was actually deterred by the other from carrying out increasingly provocative military activities. In what sense was Khrushchev deterred by all those US nuclear weapons if he was prepared to risk annihilation of his own country in order to have a few nuclear missiles installed in Cuba? And most significantly, how was President Kennedy deterred by all the nuclear weapons the Soviets had pointing at him if he was willing to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war simply in order to face down his Soviet counterpart over a comparatively minor issue like this?
Since the end of the Cold War more than 25 years ago, historians looking more objectively at the Cold War years and especially those with access to Soviet archives and other newly available information are increasingly dubious about claims that NATO and the nuclear deterrent are what prevented the Soviets from invading and conquering Western Europe or kept the Cold War from turning ‘hot’.
According to George Kennan, former US Ambassador to Moscow and one of the key architects of nuclear deterrence and the US policy of ‘containment’ during the Cold War years, ‘the Soviet Union had no interest in overrunning Western Europe militarily and would not have launched an attack on Europe in the decades after the Second World War even if nuclear weapons did not exist’.
In fact there are many, many plausible historical explanations for why the Soviet Union did not attack the UK or other NATO countries without needing to invoke nuclear deterrence as an explanation. The simple fact that nuclear weapons have existed since 1945 is not in itself a sufficient explanation for why they have not been used since 1945.
For a start, the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually became the European Union, has had a profound effect on the peace and stability of Western Europe since 1945. The United Nations and the many other instruments and institutions of international law that have come into being since 1945 must also be taken into account when trying to understand and explain why the world has evolved the way it has since the second world war.
The Better Angels of Our Nature
Stephen Pinker, in his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues quite convincingly that humanity has become less and less violent over a period of many thousands of years and this process, like many others, has been speeding up over the last century. On this reckoning, we might be expected to reach a point when human beings simply find it unacceptable to threaten and kill each other on the kind of scale we saw in the last two world wars. Perhaps we have already reached that point.
As we saw in the parliamentary vote against bombing of Syria in August 2013, the British public has grown weary of involvement in wars and bombings that appear to achieve very little and may actually make the UK less safe rather than safer. Even when that vote was overturned in December 2015, the justification for bombing and the arguments being made indicate a level of scrutiny and concern for the possible impact of bombing on civilians and other such considerations that would not have been taken seriously even as recently as the Falklands War in 1982.
The present government is called to account for every civilian death in Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. They must present every attack as a ‘precision’ bombing and even claim to target individual ‘terrorists’ for assassination. And yet the whole premise of Trident is to wipe out entire cities at one go – women, children, the elderly, the infirm; schools, hospitals, prisons, churches, museums, playgrounds, fall-out shelters – all are presumed acceptable ‘targets’ for a weapon of mass destruction that cannot distinguish the innocent from the guilty
Since the mass fire-bombing of cities in WWII and the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the international laws of war and the international institutions for prosecuting both countries and individuals for breaking those laws have been considerably strengthened and clarified. The Geneva Conventions of 1949, the additional protocols of 1977 and a range of other treaties and conventions make it absolutely clear that the deliberate targeting of non-combatants and the causing of unnecessary and prolonged suffering to combatants are illegal and unacceptable, even in situations of total war.
The International Court of Justice gave an advisory opinion on the legality of nuclear weapons in 1996, which allowed countries like the UK a very small window through which to claim that the use of nuclear weapons might be legal. That window, however, does not apply to Trident. So long as Trident is considered purely a ‘deterrent’ it remains by definition a weapon of mass destruction that would cause indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties as well as unnecessary and prolonged suffering to combatants from the radiation.
The UK Boycotts Multilateral Disarmament Talks
Any use of Trident as it is currently configured would be illegal under international law. But in any case, the UK is breaking international law by continuing to develop and upgrade Trident while at the same time refusing to take part in multilateral efforts to get rid of all nuclear weapons. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, the UK promised to negotiate ‘in good faith’ and ‘at an early date’ the complete elimination of its nuclear arsenal. In 1995 it signed an ‘unequivocal undertaking’ to fulfil that commitment.
Yet, the UK government has for decades, along with the US and other nuclear weapons states, boycotted multilateral disarmament talks, blocked disarmament initiatives in the UN Security Council and voted against literally hundreds of disarmament proposals being voted on each year at the UN General Assembly. Other countries are now moving forward, without the UK and other nuclear states, to create an international treaty that would ban nuclear weapons on the same basis as landmines and other weapons of mass destruction have been banned. Therein lies perhaps our best hope for an eventual shift in UK policy and the eventual abolition of all nuclear weapons.