Britain, NATO, and the Nuclear Way Forward

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The British general election has come and gone, the UK has once again been humiliated at the Eurovision song contest, the May bank holiday is behind us, and all appears ready for another dreary summer.

Well, almost all. Except for ISIS. And Iran. And the NPT Review Conference. And, most of all, recently, Russia.

Since we at BASIC pride ourselves on peering behind the headlines to come up with deeper meanings, we thought we’d take a look at the big stories in international news to see if we can tease out any common factors.

First, the Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL. It is hard not to conclude that what we are seeing is the result of a power vacuum, pure and simple. Or rather, a series of such vacuums, starting with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by the destruction of the Saddam Hussain regime in Iraq in 2003, followed by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by December 2011, followed by the rapid diminution of state power exercised by the Assad regime in Syria over the past few years. And we all know what Nature abhors.

Then there is Iran, now on the cusp of an agreement which will, in theory, prevent it from producing nuclear weapons any time soon. Iran can also be viewed as benefiting directly from the power vacuum created by the U.S. takedown of the Saddam regime in Iraq. Beyond that, efforts to control Iran’s nuclear program are deeply undermined by the great dissatisfaction that non-nuclear weapons states feel with the five official nuclear weapons states and their lack of interest in fulfilling their NPT treaty obligations to get rid of nuclear weapons. This has a direct bearing on the UK and its policies, as we shall see shortly.

Finally, there is Russia. We have written about the troubled NATO-Russia relationship recently, and sadly, things seem no closer to improving. Our question this time around is this: What is the UK’s role in the current situation, and what can we do to improve things?

Let’s start our answer by looking backward just over 100 years to the start of the First World War – the Great War, the War to End All Wars. And let us begin with a word from one of the great political historians of the 20th century, the late Sir Herbert Butterfield:

The struggle which began in 1914... was fought on a basis that was bound to give the maximum scope to the hysterias and frenzies associated with the fury of battle. Precisely because it was conducted as a war "for righteousness", a war "for the destruction of the wicked", that whole conflict was turned into one that could admit of no compromise.

Precisely because of the myth of "the war to end all war", we made it more true than it had been for centuries that war breeds war, provokes revolution, generates new causes of conflict, deepens resentments, and produces those reversions which we call modern barbarism.

The decision to fight an unlimited war, for the vindication of morality as such, amounted to a decision to give war a greatly enhanced role in history, but it did not alter the dreadful character of the role which warfare always plays. And since we cannot yet say that we have produced a world in which the possibility of war is at all ruled out, it is a question whether the more terrible moral responsibility does not lie upon those who insist on war à outrance than on those who had perhaps only the marginal responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities in the first place. (Sir Herbert Butterfield, Christianity, Diplomacy and War, 1953, p. 17.)

Assuming we agree with Sir Herbert, what did World War I lead to? World War II, certainly, another “war for righteousness”, especially following the absurdly vindictive Treaty of Versailles. The Cold War, arguably, where the wartime consensus on anti-fascism turned quickly into a global battle for and against communism. And therein hangs a tale, one of the development of tactical and theatre nuclear weapons for use against the Soviet armoured hordes, straining on their leashes from across the North German Plain. A class of weapons which was largely, but not completely, disposed of by dual unilateral actions by the U.S. and Russia in 1991.

Which leaves us in 2015, here in the UK, doubly nuclear armed. As owners (if not also renters) of the Trident nuclear submarine missile system, but also as members of the 28-Ally consensus within NATO to base 180-odd U.S.-owned B61 nuclear gravity bombs in five NATO countries spread around Europe. (See paragraph 50 of last year’s NATO Summit Declaration if you are unsure about that last bit.) And this is doubly unfortunate.

Trident is far more than the minimum deterrent that the UK needs (and claims it has in Trident), and as a true first strike weapons system is much more of a target for pre-emptive and/or retributive nuclear strikes on us than a true minimum deterrent force would generate. In addition, supporting nuclear “sharing” by the U.S. of its B61 bombs with the five NATO “host” Allies (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey) places the UK in an extremely weak position to lecture non-nuclear weapon states about proliferation – not least among them Iran.

Beyond the UK’s nuclear stance, there is the sense that Butterfield’s admonitions against “wars for righteousness” are still being ignored, with sabres rattling ever louder over Russian incursions into British airspace and the like, and the inability to dispel rumours that the British are willing to consider hosting Ground Launched Cruise Missiles which, at the height of the Cold War, were deeply controversial. And perhaps the monopoly-on-virtue mindset which such thinking invariably leads to is as important to root out as are unnecessary nuclear weapons in Europe – both NATO’s and Russia’s.

As we have noted many times before, BASIC seeks a world free of the menace of nuclear weapons, and we have a preferred tactic: we “seek to engage diverse perspectives and broaden the scope of the discussion to find ways past existing frustrations.” U.S. B61s belong back in the U.S., unilaterally and without prior conditions, which is the only way to start real negotiations with the Russian Federation on the removal from Europe of 1,000+ of their own theatre nukes. Beyond that, the issue of Trident replacement should be re-opened in a transparent manner, to allow other potential courses to be considered. Above all, the UK and all of its NATO Allies need to stop behaving as though they hold a monopoly on virtue.


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About the author(s)...
  • Ted Seay, Senior Policy Consultant served at the US Mission to NATO as arms control advisor from 2008 to 2011.
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