Our awful, necessary contingency
The election of Donald Trump will have far-reaching implications for United Kingdom foreign and defence policy. The problem is, we do not yet know what those implications will be. However we can draw some interim conclusions.
Trump has expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin of Russia and made negative comments about Nato. He has given the impression he would not object to Russia continuing to exercise malign influence over its neighbouring countries and is likely to press other Nato countries to take a greater share of the defence burden. Perhaps cause for most concern has been Trump’s volatile temperament during the election campaign, raising questions about his future role as commander-in-chief in sole charge of US nuclear weapons.
However, some might take a more sanguine view. Trump has a point about other Nato countries’ spending on defence, though as the Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg pointed out recently, many European soldiers have been killed in action supporting the US after the 9/11 attacks so the contribution has not been light by any means. In practice, it could be argued, there may be little change to US defence policy. With regard to nuclear weapons, Trump is also on record as being very aware of their terrible and last resort nature.
Yet, the election of Trump increases uncertainty for European nations and emphasises the need for strong collective and national defence. Defence budgets will have to increase if we are to meet our security needs and deter aggression from hostile nations and groups. This also means that the case for retaining Trident is stronger.
As I have outlined for Progress recently, ultimately the only credible argument against Trident renewal at present is moral. It is based on the view that even when faced with nuclear annihilation, the mass devastation caused by using nuclear weapons means it can never be morally acceptable to retaliate in kind. At some point, an evil is so horrendous it can never be ‘necessary’, even if the alternative is defeat and destruction. The ultimate responsibility is God’s alone – ‘vengeance is mine’, says the Lord’ – and humans should never play God, because we will instead, in the words of Robert Oppenheimer, ‘become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. On these grounds, unilateralists must campaign for the immediate end to our ownership of nuclear weapons.
The counter moral argument is that, now nuclear weapons exist, it is morally irresponsible, when faced with the threat of their use against us, to give up our deterrent unilaterally. To do so places the nation, and its millions of citizens, in greater jeopardy and leaves them vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. On these grounds, multilateralists need to be campaigning hard for worldwide disarmament.
These arguments, against and for nuclear weapons, deserve more serious consideration than they are given today. However, debates about our nuclear deterrent instead often focus on cost or on opinions about the current and future global security situation. Trident therefore becomes a matter of judgement about defence strategy and spending priorities, rather than a matter of morality. On these grounds, the case against is not strong. It is rare to hear a strong and informed argument that it is safe to dispense with the nuclear deterrent today. Too often the assumption is that Russia and other nations will be nicer towards us if we set an example by disarming and appease their foreign policy intentions. It is usually assumed the US will continue to protect us with its nuclear weapons, which undermines the moral case against. And on spending grounds, one can make the case against an aircraft carrier, fighter jet, or new tank as well as against a submarine, in favour of other important spending priorities. That is what serious politics is about; difficult choices between conflicting priorities and with defence of the nation the most important.
The UK’s nuclear deterrent increases the uncertainty facing a potential enemy. A hostile nation has to make a judgement about the actions of both the US and the UK leaderships. The UK’s nuclear deterrent acts as insurance should a US president prove a less robust ally and take the US in an isolationist direction. An enemy nation would still have to make a judgement about the last resort potential of the UK should hostilities begin. In the meantime, retaining the deterrent underlines our commitment to Western defence.
The election of Trump came as a surprise to many. There will be many other surprises in future. That is why defence decisions have to incorporate contingency. The nuclear deterrent provides an awful but necessary continuity. Until we can use it in the only way it ought to be used, as part of a widespread global disarmament initiative, it should be retained and kept up to date, silently guarding our nation.
This article was first published by Progress, on 25 November 2016.