Danny Alexander, discussing his recent policy review of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, sought to highlight the need to ‘move on from the Cold War postures of the past’; unfortunately, it seems that the senior Liberal Democrat apparatchik is forgetting the lessons of history. Mr. Alexander’s recent foray into the perennial nuclear weapons debate suggests that his party’s proposals can only be the product either of ignorance or, as Liam Fox alleges, politicking of the worst sort; that which compromises the long-term interests of the state. Certainly, they are not based on a holistic, historically-minded or even realistic assessment.
The nature of state on state conflict is that it is often unpredictable. Major wars can and have in the past come about due to, in various assortments and to varying degrees, diplomatic misunderstanding, mismanaged gun-boat diplomacy, foolish posturing, poor leadership, and a myriad of other factors. As the International Relations scholar Christopher Coker recently pointed out in a sober lecture on the possibility of a major conflict involving China in the twenty-first century, previous conflicts have come about with very little warning. Even the argument commonly made today, that our intermeshed global economic system would prevent state conflict from taking place, has historical precedence. The same arguments were made concerning the supposed peace-keeping effect of the gold standard and the international credit system in 1913.
When one makes the judgement, as Mr. Alexander has done, that Britain must reduce its nuclear deterrent’s effectiveness in order to save a few million pounds over a decade - 0.17% of the overall budget to be precise - one puts a low price on national defence indeed.
Simultaneously, one puts a huge amount of faith into the ability of politicians to make accurate, long-term calculations regarding future needs. Danny Alexander’s vision of Britain’s nuclear deterrent is fundamentally based, and can only be based, on his long-term vision of a world in which inter-state conflict will not take place. To confidently assert that major interstate conflict - of the kind relatively historically common up to this point - is no longer a threat, one must not merely be assured of the inherent goodness of modern states and the unprofitable nature of modern war. One must also be assured that states always make the most logical decision, always act in the most intelligent manner and always function as a comprehensible, cohesive whole. This is folly.
The Liberal Democrat’s half-baked idea that there should be a ‘surge’ capacity betrays their awareness of their own dangerous optimism and highlights their lack of serious strategic consideration. A ‘surge capacity’ – as if such a thing were possible in the context of nuclear weapons – is exposed as lunacy given a moment’s thought. What might be the effect, I wonder, on an already tense international political landscape, if the United Kingdom were to decide things had become dire enough to initiate a nuclear weapons surge? I would argue that attaching such a function to our nuclear weapons policy might be more than counterproductive.
The Liberal Democrats’ apparent awareness of the limitations of their proposals, combined with the utterly trivial amounts of money that could be saved by a reduction in the Vanguard fleet or a conversion to cruise-missile deployed weapons has lead some observers, including former Defence Secretary Liam Fox, to suggest that the their stance on this issue has more to do with internal politics than national defence. Whether or not this is the case, these musings on nuclear deterrence represent a familiar beast; the reasonably unrealistic and realistically unrealisable Liberal Democrat pet policy. Thankfully, such policies are generally harmless, though there is the potential that similar views, if they became Labour policy, might be very damaging to the United Kingdom’s interests indeed.
Britain isn’t engaged in the Cold War, a major world conflict is not imminent, and defence policies should not be maintained solely on the basis of possibilities; what really matters in international defence are probabilities. Yet it is not ahistorical to suggest that today’s political landscape is particularly uncertain, and as such inevitably to a degree unstable. Furthermore, the Trident programme is already the perfect size for the United Kingdom. A four submarine fleet allows for a constant deterrent, with sufficient training, refitting and rest capabilities, at the lowest possible cost. The UK Trident programme is powerful and limited in scope, it is effective and it represents ultimate security at low cost in an uncertain world; one that is not disarming, in nuclear or even general terms. The Liberal Democrats think that their nuclear policy would represent a step forwards for Britain; in reality, it would represent a foolish and unnecessary leap.
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