In The Daily Telegraph on 3 April 2013, David Cameron declared that Britain would be unwise to give up its nuclear deterrent given the real risk of new nuclear armed states such as Iran and North Korea emerging. North Korea’s recently conducted nuclear test, its missile capability and its recent belligerent behaviour offers one of the strongest arguments in favour for Britain to maintain its nuclear capability. It ‘would be foolish to leave Britain defenceless against a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat,’ the Prime Minister iterated (Cameron, Daily Telegraph, 3rd April 2013).
Such a position, however, is intellectually lazy and fundamentally flawed. As any student of International Relations knows, there are limits to deterrence, nuclear and otherwise. First of all, there remains always the risk of accidental war. Nuclear proliferation increases the number of nuclear armed countries. Cameron’s argument does point to the dangers posed to UK security by nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran and North Korea. But surely, the same danger exists for other countries as well? Should we, on those grounds, really support a substantial global increase in nuclear proliferation? Following Cameron’s argument, Japan, for instance, ought to re-consider its strategic options. It is a much more likely target for a North Korean nuclear attack than the UK. Furthermore, it is a latent nuclear power, possessing the technological know-how and the financial resources necessary for developing a military nuclear capability. Such a move, however, would be likely to trigger a nuclear arms race in East Asia. Within Europe, countries such as Germany, Poland, the Ukraine and others possess the capacity to develop a nuclear capability. It does not really take a complex analysis to outline the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Of course, Cameron does not argue in favour of nuclear proliferation. However, the logic of his argument is suggesting exactly that. Widespread nuclear proliferation will not make the world a safer place.
Let us now turn to the strategic utility of Britain’s nuclear deterrence. It is unlikely, that Pyongyang will be deterred by Britain’s comparatively limited nuclear capability. After all, it is directly challenging the US and thereby threatening the biggest nuclear power with nuclear strikes. It just underlines the fact that some actors cannot really be deterred, and this is one of the fundamental weaknesses of any strategy based on deterrence. And last but not least, in order for deterrence to work, one does not only need capability. Credibility is also essential. Let us consider, for instance, the more than questionable morality of a nuclear counter-strike. Is it ethically justifiable to kill thousands or more North Korean civilians in retaliation for a North Korean nuclear strike? In other words, in the more than unlikely scenario of a North Korean nuclear strike on London or Birmingham, would it be justifiable to obliterate Pyongyang given the likely death toll that this would reap among North Korean civilians? Also, consider Korea’s geography. One might argue that North Koreans are a legitimate target in a nuclear war, but how does South Korea factor into this? Are they to be mere ‘collateral damage’, given the likelihood of a nuclear fallout over South Korean territory?
These are a just a few points to stimulate a discussion. Many more could be made against Trident. Whatever Cameron’s real motivation for hanging on to a nuclear capability (imperial hangover, posturing of a medium-sized country, support for the military-industrial complex?), using North Korea as a justification is just wrong!