In defense of non-proliferation

Britain’s left has a proud tradition of supporting just causes overseas, and a non-proliferation and disarmament platform could form the centrepiece of a new, human-centred Labour foreign policy strategy. 

Following years of international focus on the threat of religious fundamentalist terrorism, in recent months the once forgotten danger of nuclear war has returned. These developments highlight the need for renewed non-proliferation efforts, which a Labour government would be well positioned to lead. 

Earlier this year, North Korea’s dictatorial regime began fresh tests of its inter-continental ballistic missiles and started sabre-rattling about their supposed nuclear capabilities. The United States’ Trump administration, not one to shy away from a fight, duly began returning threats of “fire and fury” should North Korea continue with provocations. This is just one example of the volatility caused by nuclear weapons. Of the nine nuclear powers, all are inexplicably linked with conflicts worldwide, and owing to an irrationality of the human condition recent events have reminded us that nobody is safe.

In recent years the Labour Party has seen much debate on Britain’s need for Trident renewal, most recently with Jeremy Corbyn being an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. At the 2015 Party conference a little-noticed vote on the ‘Britain in the World’ policy passed a commitment to support the continuous at-sea deterrent, and in 2016 a majority of Labour MPs voted to renew Trident in the House of Commons.

International politics always needs a standard bearer for change. According to Game Theory, even if people rationally follow their own self-interest, the best outcome is hard to reach when they can’t or don’t cooperate. And since the Prisoners Dilemma explains why no country wants to be first to disarm – risking the other reneging on their promise – Britain should take the first step. Why? Neither Russia or North Korea are our main antagonists, and under the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction one could reasonably assume that a ‘nuclear option’ in conflict is off-the-table anyway. Also, the United States could not tolerate a nuclear attack on a European nation, both under the terms of NATO and strategically, so our need for nuclear arms is militarily questionable.

As the world’s second largest soft power according to The Soft Power 30, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the United Kingdom would be well-placed to lead on non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. Since our nuclear deterrent is currently up for renewal, we are in a position to make the unilateral step of becoming non-nuclear, and then encouraging other world powers to engage in multilateral talks with the aim of following suit.

The Labour Party has been reluctant to declare itself as against Britain’s nuclear arms for a couple of reasons. First, Trade Unions worried that scrapping Trident would equal job losses have applied pressure on MPs. Second, some right-leaning party members have argued that our national security would be at risk, but since New Labour’s foreign policy has been largely discredited their military advice is misplaced.

Most troublesome to Labour MPs and party officials, however, is the perceived electoral disadvantage that declaring Labour as anti-Trident would cause. Yet the British electorate is not, contrary to popular belief, largely pro-Trident. Approximately 25% of the population consistently advocates disarmament, and in a majority of the 13 representative polls between 2005 and 2016 when asked about renewing Trident, respondents have favoured disarmament. Instead, our nation votes for policies which would keep them safe.

If the Labour Party were to agree on increased funding for military personnel and equipment where it is needed most, such as a fresh generation of tanks for the Army to meet the new Russian T-14 and more sailors for the Royal Navy to operate its entire fleet at once, whilst securing a renewed collective security pledge from NATO members, the British electorate could be nudged into accepting disarmament.

A Labour government could then act as the global champion for non-proliferation and disarmament, with a newly legitimate national voice. And whilst non-proliferation and disarmament efforts have been ongoing for many years, there is clearly the need for a new leader. Currently the US Department of Energy is the global leader in matters of nuclear security, spending over a third of its annual budget on the National Nuclear Security Administration. But since the United States is also the world’s largest nuclear power – and has fractious relationships with over half of the global nuclear powers – the current non-proliferation regime lacks legitimacy.

The Labour Party has been timid on matters of foreign policy since New Labour's actions at the turn of the century. In spite of this Britain’s left has a proud tradition of supporting just causes overseas, and a non-proliferation and disarmament platform could form the centrepiece of a new, human-centred Labour foreign policy strategy. This, along with some other well-articulated flagship policies to form a manifesto, could propel the Labour Party into government when the next election comes. 


Adam Kearns is a Young Fabians member

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