Nuclear weapons are naturally controversial. They are, after all, the most devastating and destructive weapons ever devised, with explosive yields equivalent to thousands or even millions of tonnes of TNT. A single warhead detonated in the centre of London would reduce the entire city to dust and kill millions of people. When one looks at nuclear weapons in that context it is completely understandable that many people want them to be eliminated. However as with any political debate as you delve deeper into it, it becomes more complicated.
Recently George Osbourne visited Faslane in an attempt to score political points on a bank holiday monday against the SNP, who don’t believe any nuclear deterrent is required. The belief of the SNP is that continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is not required and that our current Trident missiles and submarines should not be replaced on a like-for-like basis. This policy recognises that nuclear weapons deeply immoral due to the inevitable death and destruction they create, however it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the true purpose of nuclear arms, which is deterrence. The whole point of nuclear weapons today isn’t so we can blow other states to smithereens, but to ensure wars are kept at bay, many recognise that nuclear weapons were the reason why the cold war stayed cold.
So why if people like me believe nuclear weapons can make the world safer aren’t we calling for mass proliferation all over the world. Surely if all states are rational and nuclear weapons stop wars escalating then nuclear weapons for all would be a positive move. However this isn’t the case, states aren’t always rational and can make bad decisions. Bad decisions with nuclear weapons don’t lead to a happy ending. States also have to be militarily secure from non state actors so non-state actors cannot acquire nuclear weapons. This is why the Iran nuclear deal was so important, if Iran did ever create a bomb it would start a chain reaction across the region. As we all know if countries across the Middle East gained a nuclear device it would create a security risk unlike anything we have ever known. Can nuclear weapons be effective deterrents to non state groups in the modern-day? Or are they an outdated form of deterrents based on state actors who act in a calculated bi-polar world which no longer exists? If they don’t deter non-state actors which evidence from attacks on the mainlands of countries which do have nuclear capability suggests, then what would the damage be if they got hold of such a weapon? Would they exercise rational thought and not use it? Or would they believe in religious fervour that launching a nuclear strike would be the best option?
Contrary to popular belief, the United Kingdom does not possess nuclear weapons because of a deep-rooted desire for annihilation. As George Osbourne recently stated it’s the ultimate insurance policy. Nuclear weapons thus far have kept wars if there are wars to limited ones, such as the Falklands war. The threat of annihilation stops wars from escalating in an ever more globalised world. The reason that the Cold War stayed cold, even during the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the knowledge on both sides that the use of nuclear arms would result in the destruction of everything and everyone. The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction sounds like its acronym – MAD – but it has kept the peace for almost seven decades.
In fact as Steven pinker has highlighted the world in general is becoming a more peaceful place, war despite the popular belief is in the decline. There are many reasons for this, one of them is the Golden arches theory. The Golden arches theory argues that two countries with Mcdonald’s in them don’t go to war with each other, this has generally been proved correct with an exception with the Russian Georgian war in 2008. The theory argues that as globalisation has occurred it creates a reduced chance of conflict amongst nations which share an economic interest. This is certainly a logical view to take, after-all if you’re economically tied to a nation you don’t want to harm that relationship if you’re a rational actor. Democratic peace theory also postulates that if nations are democracies they are less likely to go to war because they share common norms and values. They also have to justify going to war to the public which as seen over Iraq is not an easy task. So maybe it isn’t nuclear weapons that are responsible for stopping wars from occurring, maybe it is far bigger and more global movements which affect the world. After all there are still only 9 countries which have nuclear weapons, and only 5 of those countries are legally entitled to hold them.
The most effective nuclear deterrent is one that never needs to be used, but that is not the same as not having nuclear weapons. The SNP would have us adopt a policy that destroys our legal nuclear deterrent and it would only save a couple of billion pounds a year in the defence budget. I believe nuclear weapons do help keep conflicts at bay when in the hands of rational actors, and also help keep conflicts to a minimum with state actors. Are they useful for non state actors? I don’t believe so, any non-state actor which becomes powerful enough to be fearful of nuclear weapons will become a state as we are seeing with ISIS. Of course there are wider forces at work besides nuclear weapons which help keep peace, the golden arches theory shows that trade is growing ever increasingly important to states and in an ever connected world waging war is a risky business unlike before. As more and more states are opening up to democratic regimes and democratic ideals it also helps keep war at bay as nations who hold the same values rarely if ever feel the need to compete or destroy one another. Nuclear weapons are becoming a rarer thing in the world today as the U.S and Russia are depleting their stockpiles, maybe one day the world will be nuclear weapon free. However I believe moves towards complete disarmament will make conventional wars more likely and cause death and destruction.
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