Food for Thought
The Politics of (Non) Proliferation
Cartoon: Mustafa Zaman
It is hard to escape a sense of deja vu (in the most unpleasant sense possible) while observing the current debate taking place in the UK about the nature of Britain's future "nuclear deterrent". Indeed, it is hard not to conclude that the discussion involves little real debate, and will ultimately provide even less of a real deterrent!
The Blair government's decision to push ahead with the full replacement for Britain's ageing fleet of Trident missiles, in an attempt to modernise its nuclear arsenal, has already garnered considerable criticism - much of it justified. The latest to weigh in against the decision is Dr Hans Blix, the respected chairman of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the former UN weapons inspector. Not that opposition - however justified! - has ever held back Mr Blair, famous for once remarking that he had no "reverse gear". A recipe for dangerous driving if one has ever heard it...!
To make matters worse, it appears that in line with this Labour administration's past record, there will be little or no meaningful debate over this crucially important decision. Gordon Brown, the current Chancellor and likely successor to Mr Blair, has already made it clear that he will support the nuclear replacement for Trident. And while the forthcoming White Paper setting out the government's preferred option will officially allow Labour MPs three months to debate the issue, it has already been made clear that they will be "whipped" to support the Cabinet decision in a vote in the House of Commons early next year.
For those who can remember the fears of nuclear conflict in the last quarter of the 20th century, and the sense of relief when the ominous threat posed by the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union was exposed as a fallacy, it seems bizarre to wilfully perpetuate the myth of a so-called nuclear deterrent. Nor is it easy to ignore the parallel between the Reagan era bogeyman of the so-called Evil Empire, and the subsequent Bush 'n Blair hype over the fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction - a worthy successor indeed, in terms of spurious claims used to justify immoral and/or illegal decisions!
The initial logic behind the nuclear weapons programmes of countries like Britain was to create a stand-off whereby the perceived threat from enemy such as the Soviet Union could be neutralised by a Cold War weapons system designed to hit fixed targets within that country. Global geopolitical fault lines in today's world are rather different. There is general agreement that the threat to countries such as Britain comes from rogue states or terrorists, not necessarily involving conventional nuclear weapons.
This begs the question of how the development of a more powerful nuclear weapon with multiple warheads will address an enemy that operates in a far more fluid fashion, frequently not defined by national boundaries. Terrorist cells are unlikely to be "deterred" by the existence of a nuclear arsenal in the country under attack - unless of course they find a way of sabotaging a nuclear weapons facility or a nuclear power plant. Experience from the horrific meltdown at Chernobyl leaves little doubt that the latter option would be the ultimate achievement in terms of a terrorist strike!
If there is already considerable doubt that the modernisation of Trident will not deliver the goods in terms of making Britain any safer, the situation is made even worse by the realisation that replacing outdated nuclear weaponry is likely to be ruinously expensive. The option favoured by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, consists of a new generation of submarines equipped with US designed missiles and a new nuclear warhead. A group of senior MPs that reportedly includes the former defence secretary Geoff Hoon has already questioned the wisdom of selecting such an expensive system; a cheaper alternative would have been to use nuclear tipped cruise missiles on planes. But clearly, money is no object!
As it stands, early estimates have suggested that the proposed weapons system could cost as much as 25 billion pounds. But some experts have claimed that the true cost is likely to be nearer 76 billion pounds over a 30 year period (UK Independent). Is this really the best use of the UK taxpayer's money?
Last but not least, as Dr Blix has pointed out in his inimitable fashion, Britain and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council are in no position to claim the moral high ground in their support of nuclear non-proliferation, given that they are failing to comply with their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty by not taking more effective action to eliminate their nuclear arsenals (clearly, elimination of the arsenals is the last thing on their minds!).
Behaviour such as Britain's decision to modernise its nuclear arsenal clearly sends the wrong message to non-nuclear states that meeting their obligations under the treaty would be the right thing to do - after all, if that is the case, why are countries like Britain failing to meet their own obligations? On the contrary, these double standards inevitably contribute to the perception of that the permanent members of the Security Council are motivated by the desire to safeguard their own unique position, and cheat others of the chance to become equally powerful!
As a number of observers have pointed out, Dr Blix was proved right (and Mr Blair wrong) on another key decision that remains etched in recent memory - the issue of the existence (or rather, non-existence!) of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is not difficult to believe that Dr Blix will be proved right once again, on the inappropriateness of the UK's decision to develop a whole new nuclear weapon system.
If the policy of nuclear non-proliferation is to stand any chance of success in reality, the existing double standards of "nuclear club members" need to be addressed. Until then, the current approach to "preventing nuclear proliferation" (albeit only for some!) will have inevitable echoes of parental discipline exhorting children to "do as I say, not as I do".
Given that the usual reaction to this approach from its recipients includes accusations of authoritarianism and hypocrisy, and very rarely yields the desired results, it is hard to see that the UK and the other permanent members of the Security Council will get a different reaction from those whom they are seeking to exclude from "proliferat
ion", even as they expand their own nuclear arsenals...
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