BASIC and WMD Awareness kicked off their Talking Trident: A Conversation with the Next Generation event series on July 9th in Shoreditch in east London. These events are a series of debates being held to give young adults in Britain the opportunity to express their opinions on the issue of nuclear weapons before the government makes a decision on whether to renew its nuclear system, Trident, in 2016.
A number of themes and issues were raised throughout the evening that require further exploration and development as the debate on Britain’s nuclear future continues.
Nuclear symbolism and the nation’s identity
Participants in the event were urged to question what role Britain should play in the world, and what nuclear deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons says about the United Kingdom. The argument was presented that nuclear weapons are tied closely to the UK’s identity as a world power and our ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Whether we like it or not, Britain plays an important role in determining outcomes on the international stage, and in the current world order, some believe that attempting to do this without nuclear weapons whilst others are wielding them could be extremely challenging. Even if it is rational and if there were a reallocation of resources to other means of projecting soft or hard power, if the UK were to give up its nuclear arsenal now some believe it might send a damaging signal of a lack of interest in strategic outcomes.
This way of thinking, however, attaches a symbolic “magic” power to these weapons of mass destruction. If this much of the symbolism and associated myths attached to the possession of nuclear weapons is seen for what it is, then we are able to understand that these weapons are only tools and as Ward Wilson argues in his book Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons: they are not magic.
The many international privileges experienced by the United Kingdom, and its influences on international outcomes, are not tied to the country’s possession of nuclear weapons. Such a myth was thrown out even by the Trident Commission in their concluding report, which explicitly stated: “There remains no legal or practical connection between the permanent membership of the Security Council and those states recognised by the NPT as nuclear weapon states.”
Conversely, it was suggested by one panellist at the event that the UK’s nuclear weapons possession is tied to the country’s unique history. It is a complex history enshrined with things such as technological and social achievements alongside war and imperialism. As a country with a deeply entrenched history, it has become difficult for its leadership to move away from Cold War thinking as is reflected in the retention of nuclear weapons. Renewal or replacement of the Trident submarines will tie Britain to a nuclear weapon system for the next fifty years – leaving the cost burden and moral concerns as a legacy for the next generation to deal with. The question was posed: is this the legacy that they will want?
Nuclear weapons and future security threats
We are facing emerging global threats that range from climate change to over population and cyber terrorism and it is likely that traditional hard security will have little relevance as a response to these future threats. The nature of external and internal state relations, and on-the-ground conflict and warfare has also been changing dramatically. Why do we think nuclear weapons continue to have relevance?
It was suggested by at least one panellist that nuclear weapons have been irrelevant to all of the wars in the past 30 years. Perhaps spending money on a nuclear weapon system that we will never use may appear to be a poor return on investment in the face of tough budgetary choices in defence and other future conventional conflicts.
Another suggested that the utility of nuclear weapons lies not in their use, but their threat, so that the lack of use shows the value of the investment in them. It was argued that nuclear deterrence may be suitable only for a narrow set of threats including nuclear blackmail, nuclear piracy, or strategic bullying, but that these are critical threats nonetheless.
Increasing stress on social structures will continue to grow as resources dwindle and the world’s population expands; arguments about the relevance of deterrence were countered with the suggestion that adding nuclear weapons to a future riddled with instability and inequality could be a dangerous mix. We were warned about the devastating humanitarian and climate change impacts of nuclear weapons - the effects on the climate and environment, food and health security, and the millions of deaths that would be the result of even a limited nuclear exchange or accidental use. Further to this, nuclear weapons continue to threaten worldwide security not only with the threat of proliferation to state or non-state actors, but by driving frustration and challenges to global governance. This in turn furthers mistrust between states and undermines essential global co-operation on a range of issues such as climate change, global economy and public health.
The unfortunate reality is that these weapons of mass destruction have the potential to affect all generations, a wide range of industries and large-scale global issues. And yet it is only a limited number of people who are talking about nuclear weapons and the major decisions that our governments are taking in regards to them. It is important, as was suggested at the event, for us to continue to probe our government and leaders for answers about what is possible and start making this debate accessible to a wider audience. The nuclear weapons debate is complex and is closely linked with our future security. We should break down the barriers of complexity by exchanging ideas and continue talking. #TalkingTrident.
This is a reflection on the first Talking Trident panel event, but these are the opinions of the author.