Monday, 8 April 2013

Drawing the wrong conclusion

During his visit to the Trident base in Scotland last week, David Cameron referred to the situation in North Korea (and Iran) as justification for the U.K.’s retention of nuclear weapons, and the government’s plans to upgrade those weapons.

It’s impossible to disagree with his assessment of the dangers of a nuclear armed North Korea (or Iran come to that), but to use that as a justification for maintaining a nuclear deterrent is a complete non sequitur.  It’s true that the world is probably closer to the military use of nuclear weapons than it has been at any time since the end of the Cold War, but what is notable is surely that possession of  a ’deterrent’ by other countries is actually failing to deter.  If anything, the situation in North Korea proves the opposite - the deterrent not only does not deter, it actually acts as a spur for other countries to seek to acquire nuclear weapons.
The whole principle of a “deterrent” rests on two major assumptions, neither of which appears to have any validity when dealing with a state like North Korea.
  • Firstly it assumes that the leaders of the “deterred” state will calculate the benefits, risks and consequences of actions in the same way as the “deterring” state.  It’s tempting to say “on a rational basis” but it has never seemed to me that there’s anything particularly rational about the concept of mutual assured destruction; and rationality is itself relative.  Kim Jong Un is behaving perfectly rationally within his own paradigm; it’s just not the same paradigm as that of most of the rest of the world.
  • Secondly, it assumes that the deterring state really would press the button; and again in the case of a state such as North Korea that is simply not credible.  If by some fluke, the North Korean military really did succeed in detonating a nuclear device on UK or US territory, does anyone really believe that Cameron or Obama would retaliate by ordering the mass killing of millions of Koreans?  I don’t have enormous faith in the underlying humanity of either man, but even I don’t believe that either of them could or would do that; most of the North Korean people are as much victims of the regime as would be those killed by that regime.
So if nuclear weapons don’t deter those whom they are supposed to deter; and if we don’t believe that the government would ever actually use them, what are they really for?  Why are all three UK parties so keen on retaining nuclear weapons, even if one of those parties wants to retain them on the cheap and in a less effective form?
The answer has more to do with an outdated concept of the U.K.’s place in the world than with any actual potential military use.  There is a residual belief that the UK is one of the world’s great powers, and that nuclear weapons cement that fact in reality.  It’s a very expensive way of trying to maintain a fiction.


maen_tramgwydd said...


g said...

Spot on as ever with lucidity and immaculate timing.

You are describing the end of Empire on a day when Margaret Thatcher passess permanently into history