One of the hot issues in yesterday’s UK Prime Minister’s debate is over whether to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear missile system. The fault lines on this issue have oddly unified Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron. Both support spending more than $100 billion on this project in order to fully replace the existing Trident program thereby ensuring its existence for the next half century. Upstart Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats on the other hand, has called for its cancellation, arguing that such a program is both inconsistent with President Obama’s calls to work toward eliminating nuclear weapons and is a colossal waste of money that could be better spent on equipping British ground forces — that are suffering severe equipment shortages after a decade of fighting two wars.
I say to you, Nick, get real, get real. Because Iran, you are saying, might be able to have a nuclear weapon, and you wouldn’t take action against them, but you’re saying we’ve got to give up our Trident submarines and our nuclear weapon now. Get real about the danger.
But Clegg’s position on the trident is anything but “naïve” and “anti-American.” On the contrary, calls to end the Trident program reflect a much more astute understanding both of the role of nuclear weapons and of Britain’s place in the 21st century.
The notion that the UK needs nuclear weapons because of the dangers of Iran demonstrates an outdated world view that sees Britain as isolated and sees security issues in a vacuum. The fact is that the UK is in NATO — which means under Article 5 an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. This means that an attack on the UK is an attack on the US and therefore the US nuclear deterrent is effectively a UK nuclear deterrent as well. If the UK’s nukes just magically disappeared there would be no practical change in its ability to deter a nuclear attack.
The debate over the Trident is therefore at its heart is not about questions of security but about nuclear weapons as a sign of global prestige and clout. The fact is that the role of nuclear weapons has significantly declined following the end of the Cold War, since, as Colin Powell noted, nuclear weapons are militarily “useless.” Clegg is therefore right when he states in defense of eliminating the Trident that “the world is changing, when we’re facing new threats.”
But a Britain that is willing to spend more than $100 billion dollars on a nuclear weapons program that has little real military utility, is not just swimming against the global tide, but is sending an incredibly regressive signal to the world over the importance of these weapons. Countries embedded in the international community that could go nuclear, such as Brazil or South Africa (which gave up its weapons), have chosen not too, because lacking any strong security rationale, these countries have calculated that nuclear weapons actually would diminish — not grow — their international standing. Building a new Trident therefore sends a signal that being international prestige is still tied to the possession of nuclear weapons.
This debate then is intimately tied to Britain’s broader apprehension over its global self image and its loss of its past hegemonic global status. In essence, nukes for the UK are like hair plugs — they have nothing to do with ones health, but everything to do with ones self image. However, a UK that confidently reduced its nuclear arsenal would alternatively send a strong signal to the world about the decreased importance of nuclear weapons and would in fact catapult the UK into a global leader on this issue. Far from losing credibility by passing on Trident, the UK’s international credibility and moral authority would be enhanced.
Finally, investing in a new Trident does nothing to bolster the “special relationship.” The fact is that Britain’s global importance and its military significance to the United States has nothing to do with its possession of nuclear weapons, but everything to do with its possession of a highly capable conventional armed forces that can fight alongside American troops.
There is a huge opportunity cost in having a cash-strapped UK investing billions on its nuclear forces, instead of spending on items that are actually relevant to its security and to the transatlantic alliance, such as equipment for its ground forces, helicopters, and fighter jets. David Cameron suggested in the debate that choosing between funding the two is a false “trade-off.” Well, it is only a false choice if Cameron is going to find that money for defense elsewhere, which he isn’t. If the US was in charge in the UK defense budget, the Trident would be cut in a heart beat.