December began in Britain with a government announcement that the country’s nuclear deterrent would be replaced. The decision of the Thatcher government to proceed in the early 1980s with the Trident program of nuclear submarines guaranteed the country a nuclear deterrent into the modern era. But within two decades, the existing nuclear submarines will be rendered antiquated, and Britain is now faced with the decision as to what should take their place.
The proposal backed by the Blair government is to build a new generation of submarines, to be equipped with nuclear missiles purchased from the United States. The program is trivially expensive—about 3% of the annual defense budget for two decades—and would preserve a strategy of nuclear buildup and deterrence within NATO, whose proven success in defeating Soviet communism should cower any critic.
Unsurprisingly, the left of Blair’s Labor Party and other critics of nuclear deterrence within Britain are far from chastened by recent history. With a shameless dose of chutzpah and no apparent sense of irony, they cite that very success in ending the Soviet threat as evidence that a modern nuclear deterrent is no longer necessary. The threats of the 21st century, they argue, require very different defenses. The moral argument has also been resurrected by 19 Anglican bishops, claiming in a letter that a British nuclear deterrent is actually "evil." Yet none of these arguments hold up in the face of serious scrutiny.
The seemingly pragmatic case that time has moved on is only the latest to be adopted by an anti-nuclear lobby whose profound opposition to nuclear deterrence leads them to interpret all changing circumstances in world affairs as demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament by free societies. When the world seems more peaceful, as in the 1990s, they argue that no one any longer needs to be deterred. Alternatively, when threats to national security undeniably exist, as after 9/11, they are presented as being without precedent, unstoppable and undeterrable by nuclear means.
While new threats may require new approaches and technology, nuclear weapons were of course not even designed to fight the Cold War, but at a time when both of that conflict’s chief combatants were allies against a common enemy. Plainly they were effective weapons and deterrents in the very different circumstances of both World War II and the Cold War, yet it is casually assumed that new circumstances will this time render them worthless. Irrational actors and currently unforeseeable threats may force nations to develop new strategies—such as the missile defense so often opposed by the same nuclear critics demanding a new approach—but no imaginable threat would suggest a strategic advantage resulting from nuclear disarmament.
In turn, many of the threats that can be foreseen suggest obvious advantages to nuclear deterrence. With Iran making blood-curdling threats and part-way through a nuclear program, with North Korea exploding nuclear devices and firing test missiles in the direction of Japan, with nuclear Russia’s designs on its neighbors (and its domestic critics) plainly hostile, and with nuclear China a very plausible revolutionary state and superpower in the international system of the 21st century, it should be clear that non-state actors are far from the only possible threats to Britain and her allies. It may prove to be the case that nuclear armaments fail in the future to deter terrorists or hostile nation states. But with the price of erring too much on the side of caution so low in comparison with the alternative, circumstances cannot plausibly dictate nuclear disarmament.
Though sincerely believed, the moral argument is still weaker, utterly lacking in the ethical discrimination that recognizes evil as being expressed in the character and actions of a state, not by its armaments. It is wicked for a barbarous regime such as Iran’s to call for the destruction of neighboring civilizations while pursuing the nuclear weapons that would make this possible, but the military capacity and strength of the free and democratic world is the only thing preventing morality in the international arena from being empty posturing. In absence of a means of self-defense greater than or equal to the means at the disposal of tyrannies, free societies can only walk on by in the face of evil.
By leaving the nuclear club, the United Kingdom would be choosing a diminished role in world affairs, departing from her status as a nation able to summon the greatest force in self-defense, and thereby aid in deterring both conventional and nuclear attacks. But far from being a damning flaw in the case against Trident, for some opponents of a British nuclear deterrent, this would appear to be a positive advantage. Their cynical sneers at any British wishes to use her military status to influence the course of international relations are revealing of where they wish British people would instead concentrate their attention. Already Clare Short, a left-wing former minister in Blair’s cabinet, has spoken hopefully of the extra money scrapping Trident would provide for social programs. For these critics, the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent has an adverse domestic as well as international impact, encouraging Britons to value the importance their country continues to have, and to elevate their sights and hopes. In its absence, British people would be all the readier to leave world affairs to others, ignore the longer-term, settle down to spend ever more of the defense budget on welfare programs, and enjoy decline.
In the face of this opposition, the replacement of Trident is nonetheless very likely to go ahead, with Britain retaining that presence on the world stage so detrimental to the questionable ambitions and ethics of some. But even these greatest of opponents of nuclear weapons might be encouraged by a cursory look at history, and the good done for the world by a strong Great Britain. Her choice to retain her strength in the form of nuclear power status is very much for the better.