The next UK strategic defence and security review won’t be held until 2015, but debate about whether or not Britain should retain its expensive Trident ballistic missile nuclear deterrent is already hotting up.
The Shadow Defence Secretary, Vernon Coaker MP, has called for an “open and inclusive” debate over Britain’s future role in the world, with greater focus on “long-term strategy and smart power”.
Last year the Prime Minister said that we needed Trident because of the existing potential threat from North Korea and developing threat in Iran. Conservative MP Julian Lewis recently put the case for maintaining a nuclear deterrent in light of the political situation in Ukraine, which brings back cold war memories of the way international relations were conducted when the stakes were mutually assured destruction.
Yet curiously, despite being surrounded by these bellicose nations, in the government spending plans for 2015-16 Chancellor George Osborne announced an eight per cent cut in the Foreign Office resource budget. Now is when our need for exemplary and well-funded Foreign Office diplomacy is at its greatest.
Monet painted the same view of Rouen Cathedral more than thirty times; in each picture the stones remain the same while the shifting and changing light reveals a different character. In a similar way, if the light falling on international relations presages a violent storm, then relations between states might be construed as anarchic. The function of trade becomes economic gain to be used for creating and equipping armies to defend against ever present threats. The very existence of 'statehood' is the result of frightened people coming together to build ever-higher walls and forming governments whose primary purpose is to dedicate the economic and political apparatus to home security.
Seen in another light, without a constant threat of war, the function of a state is to provide a platform for diplomacy. Here, trade is a means to enhance cooperation, treaties are forged for the purpose of mutual benefits, arrangements are jointly profitable, and compromise is not a weakness but a means of reaching common goals. Like the stones of Rouen Cathedral, the countries are the same, but the approach of government must be completely different.
It doesn’t take an art lover to realise that liberalism, trade and diplomacy are preferable to military isolationism, or that organisations such as the European Union are preferable to the destruction unleashed between neighbours twice in the same century. The cold war polarised politics and economic activity in the second half of the 20th century to the extent that trade, finance and science was coerced into building weapons of annihilation so potent that their use would have blasted civilised life off the planet – hardly the best way for our shrinking planet and its expanding population to survive. Trident, our fleet of ever-vigilant nuclear submarines, is a relic. What purpose could ever be usefully served by retaining a weapon so powerfully destructive that it could never be used?
Did the silent deadly presence of Trident lurking in the depths of the oceans hold aggressive North Korean nuclear posturing at bay? Were Iranian negotiators convinced to come to an agreement on their nuclear programme by the knowledge that the UK held a trump card in the game of mutually assured destruction? Did Russia, rather than nuking Ukraine for wanting to become a member of the EU, merely annex Crimea as it feared the unleashing of terrible reprisals? Probably not. The intense diplomacy that surrounded North Korea, Iran and now Russia, tends to suggest that Trident is not playing a major role in the active resolution of these political hot spots. In this, the cold light of reason, it seems clear that the money would be better spent on the foreign office than a nuclear deterrent.
Jon Lovett is Chair in Global Challenges, School of Geography, University of Leeds.