The debate within expert communities over nuclear deterrence and disarmament can be infuriatingly complex and unrelated to the decisions taken in a political context. Disarmament is often dimsissed by commentators in both arenas as naive and dangerous, yet it is at root about a cooperative search for security.
In a populist age of strong opinion, radicalisation, Brexit and Trumpism, it remains unclear whether public leaders suffer as much as many assume when they display a reckless approach to nuclear weapons, or accused of nativity in rejecting them. Will the effort to highlight Trump’s apparent ignorance of nuclear systems (the image above was created to warn of the risks of a Trump Presidency) harm his support? Or will they simply reinforce his messaging that he is a free-thinker, the best hope for a change in a damaged system driven by interests concentrated in Washington DC? Does his confusing answer on first use of nuclear weapons in last week’s first US Presidential debate simply reflect the public response to the logical cartwheels performed by officials when justifying current nuclear practices?
Many think it prudent to have a big stick when facing a dangerous world, but there’s more comprehension out there of the downsides from such a strategy. Leaders that highlight those risks and offer credible strategies we can understand to safely escape them are likely to receive a more positive response than those that start from a position of either moral purity or aggressive posturing. We elect leaders to make difficult choices after genuine consultation and to explain them to us in a manner we can understand and get behind.
When a year ago, soon after his election as leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn said he would never launch a nuclear weapon, many accused him of hopeless naivety. But his statement laid bare the inescapable contradictions at the heart of nuclear deterrence.
For nuclear deterrence to work leaders have to convince their adversaries that there is a red line that if crossed could lead them to launch nuclear weapons. This has featured heavily in last week’s statements by US Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, clearly looking for support in both investing heavily in modernising the US nuclear triad and strengthening NATO’s nuclear posture in relation to Russia. Political debates are a chance to signal strength and resolve to electorates and to foreign governments. When Theresa May was challenged in Parliament to declare her willingness to use nuclear weapons against hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians she immediately responded with a ‘yes’.
But the definitive enthusiasm in which she answered the question left many commentators uncomfortable. Had she moved away from the ambiguity at the heart of the established framing? It is a really difficult tightrope to walk. Everyone knows that any decision to authorise launch would mark the failure of deterrence and the beginning of a nuclear war. It would be irrational, illegal and inhuman in any scenario. Talking about willingness to use nuclear weapons is almost felt to be vulgar and crude… perhaps because it risks exposure of our dark secrets. The prospect is deeply scary to many people, and has been used as a leading attack line by Clinton surrogates on Trump for some time.
At the other extreme, Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear position based upon a lifetime of campaigning plays strongly to his identity as a consistent politician that can be trusted to say what he believes. This is something even his political opponents can admire. So, how then are we to interpret his effort to nuance this position last week by shifting the frame from unilateral disarmament towards global disarmament?
Corbyn-ally and his Shadow Defence Secretary Clive Lewis sought last Monday to clarify the collective Leadership’s position, hammered out the week before, that whilst personally against Trident renewal they would not in the foreseeable future seek to reverse the Party’s policy to support it. Instead, they would focus their attention on concrete measures to achieve progress on multilateral disarmament.
Clearly the Trident controversy was seen to have damaged party unity and its image as fit for government. But it also damaged the cause of disarmament by inadvertently framing it as a conflict between principle and security. Evoking the international angle is important for two reasons. First, people’s fears lie most obviously with the nuclear threat levelled at them by other countries and are unconvinced that Britain’s own disarmament would impact upon that threat. Second, the risks arising from nuclear weapons deployment and use do not respect boundaries, and thus the goal is one of global disarmament. It doesn’t take much to realise that a country relying upon the threat of nuclear annihilation for its security has weak grounds for criticising others that seek to do the same. And a state’s modernisation of its nuclear arsenals clearly puts pressures on others to follow suit in a classic arms race.
Lewis’ attempt to reframe in his speech sparked controversy and push back from within the leader’s team. But this only attracted greater attention to the attempt. Corbyn’s own clarification later that it is Trident’s damage to the NPT and multilateral disarmament that is its greatest weakness underlined it. He announced that they would be working with the UN General Assembly First Committee (meeting throughout October) to promote multilateral disarmament.
This pointed to perhaps the most important lasting development of last week, the announcement of Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa of their joint resolution to the First Committee to start talks in 2017 on an international ban on nuclear weapons. Whilst the resolution is very likely to pass and the negotiations may well commence next year (the logistics and budget may yet derail it), no-one expects this process to trigger disarmament anytime soon.
The nuclear weapon states have already branded it a dangerous distraction, one that could put at danger the fragile consensus that keeps the NPT together and prevents further proliferation. None of them will take part in the process. Shades again of fear around the Emperor with no clothes. Such a reaction only further exposes the failures of nuclear armed states to negotiate progress and exacerbates the anger expressed at last year’s NPT Review Conference. Multilateral disarmament is in a mess, and the rock-bottom ambitions behind arms control have states pointing the blame at others.
The need for new initiatives is stronger than ever. Having coherent political pressure from a political party within a nuclear weapon state could be very helpful to the international agenda, and could yet catch the public mood. The ban resolution offers Corbyn a chance to further develop his reframe. He is the only leader of a major political party in a nuclear weapon state to welcome it. And as a multilateral instrument with the support of much of the international community, tackling at source the nuclear risk as a point of departure for policy has greater chance of attracting public sympathy than a moral appeal for Britain’s unilateral disarmament.