You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who thinks that nuclear weapons are a good thing. At best, people who support states retaining or developing nuclear arsenals say that they are a necessary evil. The argument runs something like: you can’t un-invent nuclear weapons, so the world has to learn to live with them.
It’s true you can’t un-invent them, but that’s not an answer. What we should be asking ourselves is “Where do we go from here?” Do we want to promote policies which encourage an arms race where more and more countries obtain nuclear weapons, making the risk of their use increasingly likely? Or, do we want to work towards a world where this technology is limited through legal frameworks; dismantlement verification systems and diplomacy - in the same way other abhorrent and indiscriminate weapons such as landmines have been outlawed.
As the UK approaches decision-time on whether or not it will be replacing its ageing Trident nuclear weapons system, those in favour of replacement are trotting out the same old narrative: we have to have it, at all costs. But I can’t agree with that. That’s why I work for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Britain could be a global leader in progressing the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But to be able to do that we must first understand, and act on, the logic of why we don’t need them ourselves.
So why don’t we need them?
In the first instance it doesn’t make strategic sense – because the threats we face (as identified by the government in its own National Security Strategy) like terrorism, cyber warfare, climate change, and humanitarian disasters would not be deterred by nuclear weapons. It’s no surprise that senior military figures describe Trident as a “completely useless” “cold war weapon”, or that they’re concerned that we’re currently sacking around 60,000 military and civilian army personnel to be able to afford something we’re never going to use.
It doesn’t make economic sense – because we’d be committing more than £100bn to building and maintaining a replacement nuclear weapons system at the same time that we’re slashing funding to hospitals, schools, and other essential public services. Just ask the public what they would rather have.
Nuclear weapons make the world a less secure place, because they encourage nuclear proliferation.
The use of nuclear weapons would be illegal under international law – as such destructive weapons cannot discriminate between military targets and civilians and using them would almost certainly be a war crime.
Keeping nuclear weapons while telling other states that they can’t have them is hypocritical. If we are to have any reasonable foundation on which to discourage states from seeking nuclear weapons, how we can say “do as we say, not as we do?"
You don’t have to look back far to see just how ludicrous we appear to most of the world.
Just last week, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced a further £350m for the design work for a new generation of nuclear submarines, and in the same week the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stressed “the UK’s continued commitment to preventing Iranian nuclear proliferation."
All of this just goes to show the refusal to see logic over nuclear weapons shown by global leaders.
But there are reasons to be hopeful – and there was one such telling example in the past week.
Speaking on the BBC’s This Week programme, the former Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Portillo (who previously defended the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons while in office) was absolutely categorical about what a phenomenal “waste of money” nuclear weapons are. It’s “all nonsense” he said, Trident is not “any sort of deterrent” and it’s “entirely for reasons of national prestige.”
That’s the man who was previously in charge of the Ministry of Defence.
Similarly, Tony Blair reflected in his memoirs that the purpose of nuclear weapons was "non-existent in terms of military use" and that "the force of common sense" demanded that he oppose them. And yet he didn’t. So what’s the point of all this?
Well, firstly, it shows that the people who are making the decisions to keep building and modernising nuclear arsenals across the world tend to think it’s absolutely ridiculous. And that’s no insignificant thing. One common argument against measures towards global disarmament is that there isn’t the political will for it. That’s just not true. But the key is harnessing that political will – in just the same way that unconscionable technologies such as landmines have been outlawed and their use restricted, with robust legal mechanisms and through the establishment of international norms. And to be honest – what’s the alternative to controlling nuclear weapons? A world where nuclear proliferation spirals out of control: we all know where that ends.
If nuclear weapons states continue to pour billions into ever more destructive weapons, non-nuclear states may come to the conclusion that they want to join the club. If this were to happen in volatile regions like the Middle East, for example, where countries like Saudi Arabia have threatened to pursue nuclear programmes unless there is concrete progress towards creating a WMD-Free Zone, the implications are deeply concerning.
A Way Forward
It may surprise people to know that there are already models for achieving a nuclear weapons-free world. In fact, Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZs) already cover a majority of the planet: including over 100 states across Central Asia, South America and Africa.
These are collective security frameworks where states agree that it is in their interests – as well as their neighbours’ interests – not to pursue nuclear weapons programmes, or allow the transportation of nuclear materials through their territories. Sounds reasonable right?
Transposing the structure of NWFZs to a global security apparatus must begin with a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which is a crucial first step towards global disarmament. It would be take the form of an international treaty which is borne out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Britain and other nuclear weapons states are signatories. As such it would simply be the culmination of our legal obligations to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament."
A nuclear weapons-free world won’t happen overnight, but if we are to learn anything from the lessons of Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones, it is that you don’t need to un-invent a technology to reject its use and prohibit its proliferation.
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