British Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious (c) Ministry of Defence

British Trident nuclear submarine HMS Victorious (c) Ministry of Defence

Trident Alternatives Review: response shows global ban on nuclear weapons must go ahead with or without UK participation

The publication of the government’s Trident Alternatives Review is a sign that suggesting changes to the status quo on nuclear weapons in the UK is at least possible within the UK’s coalition government. However, this needs to lead to a much wider public and parliamentary debate on the meaning of Trident for the UK and internationally in the 21st century if it is to help us move towards a safer world. The way in which opponents of any reform on nuclear weapons have heavily criticised the report even before its publication suggests that the blind faith in nuclear weapons is still a major stumbling block to clear thinking on nuclear weapons in the UK. Their vocal commitment to retaining nuclear weapons indefinitely further supports the need for a process to begin negotiations on an international treaty banning nuclear weapons, with or without the UK and other nuclear-armed states.

This is especially true given that the report does not even challenge the possession of nuclear weapons by the UK, it simply considers alternative ways to maintain UK nuclear weapons. Yet it is characterised as “reckless and naïve” before it is even published. Yet whilst the necessity of “continuous at sea deterrence” is queried in this report it does little to challenge the concept of “nuclear deterrence” or the central idea that having nuclear weapons somehow makes us safer.

Deterrence theories rely on the theoretical perfection of complicated systems and the human beings operating them; past near misses and accidents are evidence that this is not a sustainable model and that, unless we eliminate nuclear weapons, eventually an accident will happen – with catastrophic consequences. The vision of UK security espoused in the report is also rooted in Cold War ideas. Who are we deterring here? Are we seriously concerned about a Russian nuclear strike on the UK? Polling by the United Nations Association of the UK suggests that only 8% of UK public sees a nuclear attack as the greatest threat to the UK’s national security. How do nuclear weapons address any of the major security threats that the UK government says it is concerned about? The answer is that they don’t.

The report – like the mainstream media reporting on it – is bizarrely insular given that nuclear weapons are a fundamentally global concern. There has been next to no analysis of how the report fits with the UK’s commitments to eliminate its nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The report dismisses these NPT obligations as irrelevant to Trident renewal and the UK’s fellow NPT states parties will not take much confidence from this report that the UK is serious about these disarmament commitments.

Similarly there has been a failure to engage with the most significant recent development in international discussions on nuclear weapons, namely the focusing of attention on the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. The consequences of using these weapons have been totally ignored by the report and the mainstream coverage of it. It is left to NGOs to remind us of these consequences, as Scientists for Global Responsibility did earlier this year:

the firepower of just one Trident nuclear submarine could not only devastate 48 cities and cause tens of millions of direct casualties, but also cause a global cooling lasting several years and of a magnitude not seen since the last Ice Age.”

We expect that the recent moves to refocus international discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will lead to negotiations towards a new international treaty that prohibits these weapons unequivocally. Supported by the majority of the world’s nations, these negotiations will achieve a meaningful international treaty even if the nuclear-armed states boycott them, in the same way as they boycotted the Oslo conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons attended by 127 states in March 2013.

Internal communications amongst UK officials released under the Freedom of Information Act display a recognition that the acknowledgment of the actual humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons could lead to efforts to prohibit them:

“At the heart of the “humanitarian disarmament movement” is the thread that any weapons which are indiscriminate in their effect should be outlawed. This is how the Cluster Munitions Convention campaign began. The Oslo meeting will seek to establish as gospel that nuclear weapons have such an indiscriminate effect, and must therefore be banned. So we need to establish a strong counter-narrative which reflects our broader disarmament and deterrence strategy.”

If the UK were genuinely focused on progress towards nuclear disarmament, it would support these discussions and negotiations and welcome all efforts to move towards a nuclear free world. As CND noted in its alternative review also published today, the UK could provide moral leadership in disarmament by joining the vast majority of the world’s nations in rejecting nuclear weapons. UK thinking on these discussions, however, appears to be more focused on rhetoric and projecting “counter-narratives” about disarmament. Confidence in UK statements about nuclear disarmament is further eroded both by the timid nature of this Trident Alternatives Report and by the aggressive and coordinated dismissal of it.

By exposing the limited political space for serious reconsideration of the UK’s commitment to nuclear weapons, by providing a platform for strong assertions of such a commitment indefinitely into the future, and by illustrating that this discussion can apparently be undertaken without any consideration of external commitments or the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapon use, this review makes it all the more clear why states without nuclear weapons must take a lead towards their prohibition. 

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