Trident or the EU: which is better for peace and security?

Mutual security and deterrence with fewer risks has been a conscious, crucial, and underestimated role of the EU.  A Brexit vote would put this at risk and make Britain less secure.

Rebecca Johnson
15 June 2016
Trident being tugged to Faslane REJ06.jpeg

Trident being tugged to Faslane Scotland. Photo: Rebecca Johnson


Two decisions, Trident replacement and British membership of the European Union, that are usually considered separately, but which are both claimed by their advocates as serving a vital security role for Britain and beyond. Then along comes UKIP's Nigel Farage, who is not known for championing women's safety, deploying nuclear imagery to scare voters and demonise migrants with his claim that remaining in the EU will unleash a "nuclear bomb" of "sex attacks on women".

Equating migration with nuclear weapons is of course ludicrous and needs to be challenged on all levels.  Not only are such claims racist and bizarre, but they ignore or downplay the serious risks and prevalence of sex attacks on women in Britain – and in all patriarchal societies. 

Farage appears to have used the nuclear metaphor because of the widespread understanding that nuclear bombs are a really really bad thing.  About that at least, he is right.  So why is he gung ho for Trident replacement, by which the UK would build new submarines and keep making more nuclear bombs at an estimated price tag of £205 billion?

While Farage was likening violence against women to a nuclear bomb, I was one of three women protecting guerrilla projectionist Feral X in lighting up the Ministry of Defence and Parliament with the stark messages "Stop Trident Replacement" and "Trident is a War Crime".  These London actions drew attention to the start of the Trident Ploughshares month of action at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Burghfield, where Britain's plutonium warheads are packed with high explosives and then transported up to Faslane in Scotland. 

Trident Ploughshares' blockade – now into its second week - is intended to highlight the alternatives.  As stated by Liz Khan, from London Women in Black. "Instead of squandering our money on building more weapons of mass destruction it's time for Britain to join negotiations with the majority of UN member states to ban and eliminate all nuclear weapons."  Though multilateral nuclear disarmament talks are taking place this year at the United Nations in Geneva, David Cameron's government decided to boycott.

The Trident and EU debates are both highly contested and go to the heart of Britain's role in the world and what is best for our peace and security in the 21st century.  Given Cameron's demonstrated predilection for risky political behaviour, which of the two decisions he is gambling with should we worry about most? In terms of deterrence and war prevention, which should we keep, Trident or the EU?

Opponents of both the EU and Trident have made a big thing of the costs. But the real issue should be what we get for that money. Trident advocates like Cameron and Farage are fond of equating it as deterrence and an "insurance policy".  If such weapons really provided us with 100 % security, peace and war prevention (which Cameron seems to assume nuclear deterrence is able to guarantee), then no-one would question the price.  But no weapons are capable of delivering such a guarantee, and any mistake with Trident could cause mass destruction and unspeakable humanitarian suffering.  

Arguing that it's "foolish to neglect the role" of the EU in securing "relative peace in Europe",  Anders Fogh Rasmussen joined four other former heads of NATO to make the security case for staying in the EU, using language more often associated with a justification of nuclear deterrence.  

At some point in our lives, people and countries face situations in which they want to signal "don't mess with me".   An important component of deterrence from time immemorial is to communicate: "I'm stronger than I might look, so don't threaten or attack me because you'll find that whatever you hope to gain will be much less than you risk losing". 

We're told that Trident deters by threatening our potential enemies with mass destruction.  To help people believe in Trident, we are taught to call it "the deterrent". This helps us believe in it and turn a blind eye to the costs and problems. But if you don't have nuclear weapons does that mean you can't have deterrence?  If that were true, any leader failing to acquire nuclear weapons would be in dereliction of the first responsibility of government – the safety and security of the people.  Though the occasional analyst, such as Kenneth Waltz, makes an argument for nuclear security in numbers, the notion of nuclear bombs in many hands actually causes the rest of us – including the pro-Trident lobby – to shudder.

As I've argued in a recent UN working paper, deterrence is not an inherent or failsafe property of nuclear weapons.  Deterrence is, rather, a communicative relationship and process of defensive signalling to anyone who might want to attack us. Applied appropriately, deterrence is practised by most of us in different ways. For nations, it can prevent and contain military escalation of rivalries and disputes about territory, resources, regional power, ideological, religious or economic interests.  Deterrence entails convincing a potential aggressor to refrain from any plans they might have to attack, coerce or blackmail us. It's useful to do this at times, but not with nuclear weapons.

While NATO governments remain stuck in contradictions and dangers arising from nuclear deterrence policies and deployments, the large majority of UN member states exercise deterrence as part of their defence and security policies without depending on nuclear weapons.  The mechanisms the non-nuclear nations rely on for deterrence and security have much in common with the best of the tools developed by the EU for mutual peace and security.  Instead of sacrificing the EU and building more nuclear weapons, we need to think about deterrence more intelligently.

If deterrents are thought of as weapons, then one country's deterrent is another's dangerous threat.  In preparation, military operations and impacts, nuclear deterrence requires the UK to operate credible threats to commit the mass murder of innocent noncombatants (including children), environmental devastation on a massive scale, and our own probable national suicide.  What does that say about the British?

The trouble is that deterrence only works if the threat is believed. So according to today's arguments, relying on nuclear weapons for deterrence means having armed nuclear submarines doing 'continuous at-sea deterrent' patrols, with the Trident missiles physically able to be fired at a moment's notice.  Any failure of any component in the weapons or the military and communications elements assigned to nuclear deterrence could lead to unintentional catastrophe.  Any firing of Trident would lead to intentional catastrophe, not just for the people in targeted countries, but for humanity, including future generations.

Trident is a war crime on parliament1.jpeg

"Trident is a war crime” projected onto the House of Commons on 6 June 2016. Photo: FeralX"

US nuclear policymakers George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn noted in 2007 that expecting nuclear weapons to provide deterrence is "increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective". In a later critique they described nuclear deterrence as "precarious" and "psychological, depending on calculations for which there is no historical experience".  Former nuclear weapons commanders, including General Lee Butler, and the US Defense Secretary at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert McNamara, have ascribed the avoidance of nuclear war to "dumb luck", not deterrence.

Trident is a weapon of mass destruction.  Cameron, Farage and other proponents may believe it is a deterrent, but they hold that belief irrationally, without credible evidence, and only by dint of ignoring relevant events, warnings and experiences of nuclear commanders and practitioners from the past 70 years.

At least one UK nuclear armed submarine has supposedly carried out continuous deterrent patrols, but since Trident was deployed in 1994, has there been one incident anyone can point to where it has played an actual security or deterrent role?  On the contrary, Trident has been involved in a series of accidents, collisions (including with a nuclear-armed French submarine in 2009) and fires. Thankfully none of these resulted in nuclear detonations, but as Chatham House reported in its 2014 report "Too Close for Comfort", miscommunications and miscalculations involved in nuclear deterrence and war games have brought us perilously close to nuclear use, not just in the cold war (like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and 1983 Able Archer near miss), but since 1991 as well.

By contrast, the EU's security role is less about military forces and hardware than about fostering cooperation and mutual interdependence.  The founding 1950 Coal and Steel Community was not just an industrial venture, but a means to prevent further European wars. Its purpose was to embed essential industrial cooperation and interdependence and make it much harder for individual countries to equip themselves for military aggression against each other. 

Over time the EU developed a range of collective, democratic institutions and actions for peace, security, human rights, and environmental protection, as well as workers' rights, equality, fairness and justice. Though notions of "national security" continue to drive old military thinking, the EU sought to advance human security rather than issue threats of military force.

When nuclear deterrence theorists argued the importance of creating uncertainty and fear in a potential aggressor’s mind about the risks and consequences of threatening any vital assets or allies, they seemed to assume this would induce restraint rather than increased insecurity. There appears to be little evidence on which to base such an assumption.  As demonstrated by the brutal experiences and mistakes of 20th century militarism, uncertainty is more than likely to increase the perils of crisis instability. Target states, regimes and actors often fail to recognise a deterrent warning – especially if conveyed through a military build-up or exercise.  Instead, they perceive such actions as threats to their own interests and security. The immense destructiveness of nuclear weapons and short flight times of ballistic missiles such as Trident mean that uncertainty can accelerate the fears that lead to pre-emptive strikes in a "use them or lose them" fog of war panic. 

Mutual security and deterrence with fewer risks has been a conscious, crucial, and underestimated role of the EU.  A Brexit vote would put this at risk, increase uncertainty, and make Britain less secure.

By contrast with the serious risks and rigidity inherent in nuclear weapons, as well as the humanitarian consequences if they are used, the EU's long-standing and largely effective security role can adapt to different situations, reduce and address the causes of risks, and overcome mistakes.

The EU has had some notable successes, including its leading role in persuading Iran to move away from developing nuclear weapons.  But there have also been failures that shame us all. Fortress Europe is not the answer when desperate refugees are seeking safety and dying on our shores.  European security needs to be built on humane values, shared with those in need.

Tragic though some of these EU failures have been, they are survivable in a way that failures of nuclear deterrence are not.  And while it is refreshing to hear NATO leaders acknowledge the vital security role that the EU has played, we should admit that NATO's own policies of expansion and nuclear reliance have exacerbated and sustained the insecurities of some neighbours, notably Russia, and that EU independence from NATO's military alliance and agenda is complicated by the fact that all but six EU members are in NATO.  

The EU's security institutions and agreements have benefitted British people in myriad ways.  Brexit would not end that overnight, but it would make it very much more difficult for us to contribute our skills and personnel, and we would also lose our access to participating in the day to day decisions. 

The EU is still a work in progress.  Integrating so many countries since the Cold War ended has been undoubtedly very expensive, but not as costly as war.  We shouldn't gloss over the EU's problems of wastefulness, economic corruption and accountability, which need to be tackled collectively.  But as Caroline Lucas and progressive Greens and socialists argue, "Another Europe is Possible", and the transformations necessary to achieve this are best undertaken together with our EU partners, with the shared objectives of cooperative security and war prevention.

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