Op-Ed: David Cameron’s nuclear fantasy land


David Cameron insists we must replace the Trident nuclear weapon system because the future is uncertain. None of us has a crystal ball so we had better keep Trident just in case. He points to the dangerous escalation of tension by the Kim regime in North Korea and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme as justification. All well and good, until you scratch beneath the surface and realise what a highly contingent argument this is for the economic, political, opportunity, and moral costs at stake (yes, moral, because the practice of ‘nuclear deterrence’ rests inescapably on the threat of use – the threat of indiscriminate and catastrophic nuclear violence).

First, we procured the current Trident system in the early 1980s as the Cold War resurged under Reagan. Mutual hostility and suspicion between East and West reached all time lows until Mr Reagan, increasingly fearful of the realities of nuclear violence in his second term, and Mr Gorbachev, head of a new breed of Soviet reformers, began to imagine together some light at the end of the Cold War tunnel. Back then the Soviet Union had over 30,000 nuclear warheads, over 8,000 of which were ‘strategic’ warheads deployed on long range bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Mr Cameron is today invoking North Korea to justify the long and expensive programme to replace Trident over the next few decades beginning with the procurement of a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines. This is a country that might have a handful of nuclear warheads but certainly has no proven long-range delivery system and that, more importantly, has no interest in the UK whatsoever. Under what fantastical scenarios does Mr Cameron imagine the UK facing a direct, existential threat to the very survival of our state from Pyongyang that would warrant recourse to threats of nuclear societal annihilation? Nuclear deterrence is a process, yet we are not in any sort of a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea. How does Mr Cameron envisage that we might somehow end up in one? These are exotic scenarios not worthy of a serious policy planners time given the very many other security challenges we know we will face by mid-century from the effects of climate change, socio-economic inequality, resource scarcity, nationalism and exclusivist ideologies, and failed and failing states.

Second, the successful practice of ‘nuclear deterrence’ is far from assured. It is a fragile logic built on a host of fairly heroic assumptions about an adversary’s ability to act ‘rationally’ in ways that we understand that term, about mutually understood perceptions of credibility and resolve, about the ability of leaderships operating in different cultures to make the ‘right’ decision under the most intense threats of nuclear extermination. The common ‘deterrence culture’ that gradually emerged between East and West enabled a degree of stability to ensue, but only a degree. The Cold War was still a frighteningly dangerous time. But even that does not pertain with the likes of North Korea or for that matter Iran. That is not to say they are ‘crazy irrational’ but that we cannot be certain at all that how we think threats of nuclear violence will modify their leadership’s behaviour in some hypothetical confrontation will actually modify their leadership’s behaviour in that way. The oft-asserted certainties of nuclear deterrence are illusory. Nuclear deterrent threats might work in a set of very narrow circumstances, but to insist as Mr Cameron does that our nuclear weapons will unproblematically deter in all scenarios in which the use of nuclear weapons is a real possibility is to live in fantasy land.

Third, We cannot escape uncertainty, but what sort of uncertainties does Mr Cameron want us and our children to live with? Do he want us to live with the uncertainties of a ‘high salience nuclear world’ in which the multiple security challenges we know we will face are suffused with nuclear weapons spread amongst a growing number of states, with unsecured stockpiles of fissile material keenly eyed by non-state actors (what Ken Booth calls ‘radical nuclear multipolarity’)? Or does he want us to live with the uncertainties associated with building the global institutions to facilitate a world free of nuclear weapons through a more cooperative, just, and secure society of states?

These are surely our choices. But Mr Cameron seems to think otherwise. He thinks we can somehow eliminate uncertainty through a well-managed nuclear world of 15-20 or more nuclear-armed or near-nuclear-armed states. This is a world in which nuclear deterrence operates impeccably. One in which it forever stabilises relations between all nuclear armed states all of the time such that the potential for global nuclear relations to spiral into nuclear conflict is eternally held in check. This is the real fantasy.

Necessity in the face of uncertainty, then, lies at the heart of Mr Cameron’s argument. He draws a direct line between ‘future uncertainty’ and a ‘requirement’ for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the solution to uncertainty according this view. And, yes, we will face a whole range of transnational and sub-national security threats arising from the uncertainties and future instabilities of an increasingly integrating/fragmenting globalised world. And, yes, it is tempting to look to the apparent certainties of nuclear deterrence for comfort, but it is a false comfort. Nuclear deterrent threats offer no such certainty and nuclear weapons provide little solution to the vulnerabilities we will face from the types of conflict and security challenges resulting form current and projected diverse and interdependent sources of insecurity.

We can all construct dark scenarios of a Cold War redux or a 1940-type situation where we faced an existential threat from the German armed forces sweeping across Europe. But the circumstances are now so remote for the UK and the global security context so different as to very seriously question the necessity and opportunity costs of continued possession of nuclear weapons after Trident.

Mr Cameron tells us to get real but the strategic security case for the UK investing in another generation of nuclear weaponry is woefully thin, the opportunity costs for the Ministry of Defence are substantial as its budget is cut, and cut again, in the current age of austerity, and public opinion is broadly resistant.

He and his supporters use a familiar tactic of framing alternative views as dangerous, utopian, naïve, or incompetent. It is a tactic of power to delegimitise contradictory argument that exposes the stark inadequacy of his own. But it is Mr Cameron that lives in a nuclear fantasy land.


These views represent those of the author. Nick Ritchie is a lecturer in International Security at the University of York. If you are moved to write a substantial response to this opinion piece, please get in touch with Paul Ingram, BASIC Executive Director (pingram@basicint.org).



About the author(s)...
  • Dr. Nick Ritchie Dr. Nick Ritchie is a Lecturer at the University of York. .
  • Click the author's name to view their profile and content