Last week, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister (for the time being, anyway) invited us to consider the scary prospect of the whole world giving up nuclear weapons – except for North Korea. Who, he invited his audience to consider, would fancy living in such a world? To him, the answer was obvious – but it’s one of those rhetorical flourishes which don’t stand up terribly well to detailed analysis.
Even from a simplistic perspective, would a world in which the Russian, American, Chinese, UK, French, Israeli, Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals had ceased to exist, leaving just a handful of weapons in the hands of one small isolated state, be better or worse than the situation today? I can’t immediately see any argument which says that it wouldn’t be better.
But of course Benn was looking at a much narrower context than that. If I understand his argument at all, it is that the UK needs to retain its nuclear deterrent so the North Korea wouldn’t ever dare to attack us with its own nuclear weapons. But hold on a minute there – why would they want to? I mean, it seems to me that they have other enemies which they are much more likely to pick on than the UK. In that context, if they really did decide to fire one of their bombs at South Korea, say, would the UK really respond by firing a Trident missile at them? It doesn’t seem a very credible scenario to me.
Perhaps the argument is that they are so irrational that they just might decide to go for the UK, and that’s why we need Trident to deter them. But the whole point about a nuclear deterrent is that it assumes that ‘the enemy’ is not irrational, and will think very carefully about the potential consequences of their actions – if they cannot be depended on to rationally weigh up the costs and benefits of their actions, then there is no deterrent, only a mechanism for exacting revenge.I suspect that the US Defence Secretary was much closer to the truth about why so many Labour-Tory politicians want to keep nuclear weapons, when he talked about the UK ‘punching above its weight’. It’s nothing to do with deterring anyone, it’s all about being the big boy in the playground; one of the ones with the biggest sticks. So, let me ask a variant of the question which Benn posed: “And finally, who fancies living in a world in which those with the biggest sticks tell everyone else what to do?”