The voice of young liberal democrats

Re: Nuclear Policy by londonliberal
October 25, 2007, 2:44 pm
Filed under: Foreign Affairs


Thank you for your response. It is a pleasure having this debate with you and I shall now submit my reply.

First, my rebuttal.

1) In your last post you said: “Indeed even though India and Pakistan are not signatories of the NPT, does this not demonstrate even more that for 180 signatories, in fact the rest of the world, that the NPT does work?”

Surely just one state ignoring the NPT is enough to undermine the entire agreement and start a chain of proliferation? Indeed you yourself mention that Iran would be less likely to pursue the development of nuclear power if Israel didn’t already have nuclear weapons. How has Iran responded to pressure to cease this development? By threatening to renege on the NPT fully aware that, unless the US is prepared to go to war over it, any attempt to impose hard-hitting sanctions through the UN would be vetoed by the Russians and the Chinese.

2) You said: “However you can not hide nuclear weapons, they require technology, resources, and above all testing that is impossible to hide”

Bearing in mind that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons was only revealed by an Israeli whistleblower and that Pakistan and India, not to mention North Korea were only revealed to be developing nuclear weapons when they started testing them, I would assert that the prisoner’s dilemna remains with its fundamental assumptions intact. This is because a country that has disarmed totally is still at a significant disadvantage compared to another still in the process of testing and refining their technology and who are thus likely to have access to nuclear weapons much sooner than any of their rivals.

3) Finally, you said: “They (nuclear weapons) are even under a joint NATO command and so face restrictions in their use, except in the “extreme national interest”. If this is about sovereignty, why does Britain not develop a truly independent deterrent?

Here I think you may have mis-interpreted my point about sovereignty, which I will come back to in a moment, as it is firmly my belief that shared sovereignty between like-minded liberal democracies over the very instruments of war is a far better way of safeguarding us from total destruction than leaving us open to those whose nuclear disarmament we can barely oversee, let alone enforce.

Furthermore, my point about the UN Security Council was that even though the Security Council in 1945 represented the balance of power in the immediate post-war world, the main reason the UK have not lost their seat or been usurped by a single EU seat -not that I would necessarily be opposed to that- is that they are a nuclear power. As for the likes of those applying for UNSC status such as India, the reason they have been declined is simply because none of the P5 members can agree on a settlement that doesn’t clash with their own individual interests. At the same time, however, in this age of unilateralism, I accept that the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council is harldy an accurate barometre of the global balance of power today.

As for my main points: I would like to clarify my reference to sovereignty, re-emphasize why a nuclear free world would be both unworkable and undesirable and lay out my own vision of how best to achieve a lasting peace. Furthermore, as appropriate as I think it is to make this debate as much about British nuclear policy, as we are after all young Liberal Democrats, I would stress that my aim in referring to British nuclear policy is simply a means of practically applying and qualifying my arguments about the benevolence of a nuclear world as opposed to the other way round. I mention this to avoid restricting the boundaries of this debate purely to Britain.

My point about sovereignty was not that nukes were necessary to protect a nation’s sovereignty but simply that they are necessary to protect it from the absence of sovereignty in the international system. International law is not binding and any decisions and actions that are depend on the major powers, who often have divergent interests, co-operating with each other. As a result the capacity of one state to advance its interests is not based on principles of fairness or justice but on power and as power is relative unless states keep updating their arsenal to make sure they can inflict as much damage on their enemies as they would inflict upon them, their power wanes.

This used to result in periodic arms races and recurring wars when only conventional weapons were available as quantity was everything and meant that state leaders could calculate ‘acceptable’ losses to justify conflict.

The advent of nuclear weapons has greatly reduced this although, as mentioned before, the targeting systems available along with the total number of nukes can affect a state’s rationale to strike first or second with significant ramifications for the MAD doctrine. This is why the major powers should strive to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons amongst smaller countries at all costs, whilst retaining their own.

This said, I share just as much as you the aversion to nuclear weapons and the destruction they can cause. However, I can’t imagine a nuclear free world resulting in anything other than a return for the constant wars of yesteryear where the cost to human progress, not to mention human life, would probably be greater -albeit incrementally- than any nuclear war. Therefore, the answer surely lies in finding a way to make nuclear weapons redundant whilst still retaining the option to use them even if just for political rather than military ends.

This is where Nuclear Missile Defence comes in. However, I do not mean the nuclear defence shield comprised of ballistic missiles to intercept nukes in space, as originally envisaged by sequences of US administrations. Even if they did one day manage to actually hit something (West Wing fans take note), they would probably do little to stop the attack from succeeding as every missile carries a multiple of decoy or duds warheads. The only visible difference between the two is weight, but considering that missiles only break up releasing loaded and decoy warheads at the same time in space…well you can see where this falls down. Therefore, you need to take them out before they leave the atmosphere and the only way to do this in time is to launch interceptor missiles from close range of the nuclear missile silo. This is called boost-phase missile defence and is the reason why the Americans are setting up launch sites in Central and Eastern Europe from where an Iranian -or a Russian- missile could be tracked and interecepted much to the Kremlin’s dismay.

Incidentally, this affords those states effective protection from nuclear attack without necessitating them to develop nuclear weapons of their own due to the leverage they will have over the United States. Of course they will also be able to use this leverage for political ends, whilst the Americans will be keen to remain close politically to such nations to ensure that their interests do not diverge in order to protect such agreements. This in turn creates a more sustainable series of political networks from which evolve common moral norms and values. Thus, the security community, as first envisaged by Deutsch, is born with a ready made example of how successful such an arrangement can be in the European Union. The EU of course began merely as a small community of states whose first big decision was to fuel the industries of war -coal and steel- as the first step of many to peace and unity in Europe. 

Although this may sound awfully idealistic, it is in my view the most pragmatic course of action. And as for where this leaves Britain: although we would be a natural site for the posting of interceptor missiles, this would have to become a reality before we could even consider disposing of our own nuclear weapons. Until then, it would be unfathomable to rid ourselves of Trident, but it is also crucial that we take the necessary steps to maximise our diplomatic influence such as passing the EU Reform Treaty and empowering an effective European foreign minister to represent the EU as a whole to international community.


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A couple of notes for you. Your arguments are well put, even if I disagree with you, but you need to get your facts right.

The BMD system to deployed in Europe is precisely mid-course interception capability to shoot down warheads in space. Boost phase interceptors would have to be much, much closer to Iran (or elsewhere) to work.

Second, the defensive nature of this system is highly doubtful. Indeed, in US nuclear use doctrine, the purpose of BMD is to give commanders (from the lowest field commander to the commander in chief) the confidence that they could use nuclear weaopons without suffering a nuclear or other WMD response. So, if the system ever worked, it would make the use of nuclear weapons more likely, not less likely and the world would be a more dangeorus place.

The UK has no nuclear sovreignity as it relies on the United States for the design, testing and maintencance of its missiles, for the design and testing of its warheads (although UK warhead engineering is said to be excellent), for the design of submarines, and (perhaps most importantly) for the targeting of warheads. There are simply no circumstances in which the UK could use nuclear weapons without having got the permission of the President of the United States first. This is why we trot off to Iraq and geenrally do the bidding of American administrations.

You neeed to start doing some research before you comment on these issues.

Comment by Martin Butcher

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