The left’s nuclear choice

David Clark

Labour has launched a defence review, the main conclusion of which will be a decision on whether to maintain support for the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent or adopt a policy of unilateral disarmament favoured by its new leader. The fact that this issue has been reopened after so many years is for many people an uncomfortable reminder of Labour’s last period of opposition, when its stance on nuclear defence often put it at odds with itself and the electorate. It might equally be argued that the left’s reluctance to think deeply about the issue since Labour abandoned unilateralism in 1989 made this inevitable. Policy based on a taboo is always likely to unravel under pressure.

It is time for the left to rethink Trident from first principles, with Britain’s security needs as the sole frame of reference. Too often in the past the nuclear question has become a cipher for internal struggles that have little or nothing to do with the issue at hand. It will only be able to develop a policy that makes sense to voters if it is prepared to clear away the ideological debris of the past and focus on the security challenges of the present.

Fallacies of left and right

Across the left there has been a tendency to cling to unhelpful shibboleths when thinking about nuclear weapons. The main error of the Labour right has been to make a false link between nuclear possession and national prestige. When Tony Blair argued that scrapping Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation” he was echoing Ernest Bevin more than half a century before. The equation is groundless. There is no real link between nuclear status and permanent membership of the UN Security Council, for example. Two of the countries best placed to get permanent seats of their own – Germany and Brazil – base their claims on economic strength. This is a far more important measure of global status, and likely to remain so.

A related fallacy is to see nuclear weapons as an eternal test of the left’s fitness to govern. Labour won a majority in 1964 on a platform of opposition to an independent deterrent and public opinion has until recently been highly sceptical of the need for Trident renewal. The British people take an unsentimental, cost-benefit view of nuclear weapons and expect their political leaders to do the same.

The moral abhorrence that is naturally felt for the idea of nuclear warfare has led the radical left to a different set of errors. One has been to deny that deterrence has any utility. This flies in the face of historical experience. Nuclear weapons have only been used twice; on both occasions by a country that possessed them against a country that didn’t. Deterrence clearly does work. The only question is whether it is likely to work in relation to the kind of security challenges Britain faces today.

A second mistake is to see nuclear possession as the problem rather than as a symptom of the problem, and therefore to pursue disarmament as an end in itself. Nuclear weapons can be a destabilising factor and their elimination should certainly be pursued as a matter of priority. But one-sided disarmament does not in itself reduce the risk of conflict and may even increase it in the wrong circumstances; the 1930s being a case in point. The preferred solution should be mutual and balanced disarmament within a confidence-building framework that addresses the underlying security concerns driving nations to arm.

It would be a mistake to support Trident renewal for reasons of national vanity or political expediency, just as it would be to advocate its abandonment without reference to the wider security implications. It is on the defence case alone that the argument needs to focus.

Rationales for a British nuclear deterrent

Various rationales have been advanced to justify the retention of a British nuclear capability. The often-repeated argument that Trident provides vital insurance against the risks of living in an uncertain world should be dismissed at the outset. All countries live in an uncertain world and share the risks associated with it. As an argument for nuclear possession it is tantamount to a call for universal proliferation. The case for Trident stands or falls on the basis of identifiable security threats that nuclear weapons might plausibly help to mitigate. Of these, four deserve consideration: threats to the territorial integrity of the UK and our NATO allies, the emergence of rogue states, terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the risk of nuclear blackmail.

1) Territorial threats to the UK and NATO

The development of NATO’s nuclear doctrine was shaped very much with this threat in mind. Throughout the cold war the balance of conventional military power in Europe overwhelmingly favoured the Soviet Union and NATO saw nuclear weapons as a ‘force equaliser’ capable of deterring the threat of invasion. That threat no longer exists in its old form. On paper, at least, NATO now enjoys conventional superiority over Russia. Although there are justifiable concerns about the effectiveness and preparedness of those conventional forces, the military threat to Britain’s territorial integrity is greatly reduced.

The same cannot be said for all of the NATO countries with which Britain shares a collective defence commitment under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Baltic states, in particular, remain the target of aggressive actions by Russia, including cyber attacks and energy supply cut-offs. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Russian foreign policy doctrine asserts a right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in neighbouring countries. While many of the security challenges this raises will have no nuclear component, there are circumstances in which nuclear weapons may prove to be a decisive factor. These will be discussed below.

2) Rogue states 

The spectre of rogue states armed with nuclear weapons or other WMD has become a popular argument for nuclear retention since the end of the cold war. In reality, North Korea is the only state commonly labelled ‘rogue’ to have developed a nuclear capability. Others have either failed or given up. The Geneva Agreement extends Iran’s breakout period to at least a year, but even if it decided to revive its nuclear programme, it is a long way from developing a missile system capable of threatening the British mainland. Some posit an Islamist takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan as a serious risk. As with all rogue state scenarios, it is far-fetched to imagine a conflict with a Taliban-controlled Pakistan in which British nuclear forces would play a unique and decisive role. In any case, it is a myth to assert that only nuclear weapons can deter nuclear use. The certainty of regime destruction achieved by conventional means would be enough to affect rogue state calculations.

3) Terrorism using WMD 

The desire of certain terrorist groups to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction is well documented. Unless one of these groups managed to get its hands on a functioning nuclear device, the threat is more likely to come in the form of a radiological bomb (also known as a ‘dirty bomb’), or possibly chemical or biological attack. Nuclear weapons are obviously ineffective in deterring such attacks. Even in cases of state-sponsored terrorism, the prospect of regime removal through conventional force is just as likely to deter as the threat of nuclear retaliation; perhaps more so, because the threat would have greater credibility than an indiscriminate response.

4) Nuclear blackmail 

The case for Trident would be strengthened if there were reasonable grounds to fear that a non-nuclear Britain might become vulnerable to nuclear threats made by another state. This is one area where the calculus of risk can be said to have changed in a negative direction. Over the past two years, nuclear intimidation, both stated and implied, has become a regular feature of Russian diplomacy. In summer 2014 President Putin said: “Russia’s partners… should understand it’s best not to mess with us… I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.” The following spring, Russia threatened to target Denmark with nuclear weapons if it participated in NATO’s missile defence system. In March 2015 a group of retired Russian security officials was asked by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to convey a private warning to American officials attending a meeting of the Elbe Group that Russia would be prepared to use force, including nuclear weapons, if the west built up its presence in the Baltic states, armed Ukraine or attempted to restore Ukrainian control over Crimea.

Russia’s force dispositions are intended to buttress these intimidatory messages. Russian nuclear bombers have resumed patrols of UK airspace, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles have been deployed in Kaliningrad and Russia has started testing a new generation of cruise missiles in breach of the INF Treaty. Russia’s 2009 Zapad military exercise included a simulated nuclear strike on Poland. The implications of this for British defence policy should be carefully considered.

New military risks

One conclusion to draw from the analysis above is that threat scenarios in which British nuclear forces might become a significant factor are geographically specific. Britain is not a power in the Asia-Pacific region and it is difficult to envisage a confrontation with China in which an independent British deterrent would have a role to play. Likewise, Britain remains beyond the missile range of any rogue state likely to acquire nuclear weapons or other WMD in anything other than the long-term. It is in Europe that Britain’s fundamental security interests are engaged to an extent that might justify Trident renewal.

Historically those interests have been pursued through efforts to maintain a stable balance of power. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 they have been closely tied to the creation of a European security order based on the rule of law, the renunciation of power politics, the right of self-determination and respect for the sovereign equality of all states. The threat of a continental war between ideologically antagonistic blocs has receded and the vision of a “Europe, whole and free” has been substantially advanced. Yet there are at least two senses in which the assumption that the post-cold war European security environment is safer and more benign needs to be qualified.

The first is that the all-encompassing American security guarantee that covered European members of NATO for 40 years has been progressively scaled back. A US military deployment in Europe that by the early 1980s totalled 350,000 troops and 6000 tactical nuclear warheads has been reduced to 65,000 troops and 200 warheads today. American financial and political priorities have changed and are now focussed on a rising China and the prospect of strategic rivalry in the Pacific. President Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’ is an expression of this new reality. Even America’s reduced commitment to Europe cannot be taken for granted. Opinion polls show isolationist sentiment among the American public at a 50-year high. Russian policy makers have more reason than ever to believe that the goal of decoupling America from Europe is achievable.

In this context the case for a ‘second centre’ of nuclear decision-making within the Atlantic Alliance becomes more relevant, not less. This was the doctrine developed by Denis Healey as defence secretary in the 1960s as a way of providing additional credibility to NATO’s deterrence posture. The idea was that the ability of a European NATO member to deploy nuclear weapons independently would discourage an aggressor from gambling that the US might stay out of a European war for fear of exposing American cities to nuclear attack. A British nuclear capability meant that the aggressor could face unacceptable retaliatory damage even if American willpower faltered.

The second reason for concern is that Russia under Vladimir Putin has evolved into precisely the sort of aggressive, risk-taking adversary the ‘second centre’ doctrine was intended to deter. In relative terms, the Soviet Union was a fairly cautious foreign policy actor. It was willing to use force to maintain control over its satellite states, but avoided direct conflict with the west and refrained from crude nuclear blackmail, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. President Putin has no similar inhibitions. He is prepared dismantle the post-cold war security order, re-arrange borders by force and threaten nuclear use in order to impose what he regards as Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence on the countries around him.

Critics of Trident argue that it did nothing to prevent Russian aggression against Ukraine. It would be more accurate to note that no real effort was made to deter Russia by either conventional or nuclear means. In any case, the argument for a British nuclear capability isn’t only about our ability to deter Putin; it is also about his ability to deter us. We can easily imagine a scenario in which Russia decided to launch a new offensive across the Minsk II ceasefire line towards Odessa, Kharkiv or possibly even Kiev itself. One response might be to give Ukraine the lethal defensive equipment needed to fight off an attack, something President Obama has refused to do. If Britain decided to arm Ukraine on its own, Putin might repeat the threat he conveyed privately in March 2015. As things stand, Britain could afford to brush such a threat aside. A non-nuclear Britain would probably have reason to take a different view. In other words, we would be deterred, giving Russia a free hand to dismantle Ukraine as an independent state.

A similar situation could be replicated in the Baltic states where Britain has Article 5 defence commitments. Russian covert forces and local proxies could seize parts of those countries and invite the regular Russian army in to protect them. Fulfilling our treaty obligations would involve the deployment of British troops to expel Russian forces or at least stop them from advancing. Again, with first-mover advantage, Russia would be well placed to deter a conventional military response from a non-nuclear Britain. In reality, it is unlikely that the US would fail to honour its own Article 5 commitments, but Russia might be tempted to test that proposition, especially at a moment when the US was distracted by a crisis in another part of the world. Any signal that encouraged Russia to take that chance would heighten the risk of conflict.


In 2009, President Obama announced his support for the vision of a nuclear free world. At that time there was reason to be optimistic about disarmament and even cold war veterans like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz were arguing that ‘global zero’ was a realistic long-term goal. There was an arguable case that Trident was becoming irrelevant. The intervening years have not been kind to that hope. As the crisis in Ukraine has shown, deep divisions remain over the structure of European order with Russia prepared to use military force to assert a dominant role over the countries around it. It would be a mistake to believe that these tensions are the product of a misunderstanding that might therefore be amenable to a diplomatic solution. They arise, instead, from a fundamental clash of values and the unwillingness of Russia’s current leadership to accept the principle of sovereign equality in relations between states.

The left should aim to create the conditions in which a nuclear free world once again becomes a realistic goal. But we cannot pretend that those conditions currently exist. For the time being we live in a Europe threatened by the return of armed conflict. It is dangerous to assume that disarmament in all circumstances is a step towards peace. To those with aggressive intent, it can also be taken as a signal to act. Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be an aggressive risk-taker with no respect for international law or Russia’s treaty commitments. The last thing Britain should do is give him or his successors additional reasons to miscalculate. Whatever the intentions, a decision to scrap Trident now would be the wrong signal at the wrong time.

David Clark was special adviser to Robin Cook MP at the Foreign Office 1997–2001. He is chair of the Russia Foundation and a senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft. He writes here in a personal capacity. This piece was originally published in Outward to the World. 

David will be speaking on defence and security at our New Year Conference on January 16th, where Jeremy Corbyn MP will be our keynote speaker. Tickets are available here


  1. Mike Smith

    The question David has not answered is why a submarine based system? That made sense in the days when we could be certain that the vessels could not be traced by an enemy and that communications between the Prime Minister and the captain of the submarine would always be secure. Can we be certain that will remain the case throughout the lifetime of the new fleet. Is there not a cheaper more effective land-based deterrent that would do the job David envisages?

  2. Eric Shaw

    In many ways a thoughtful and balanced argument – but with one very major omission. Since the formation of NATO the real guarantee of UK security has been the American nuclear umbrella under the aegis of NATO. The notion that the UK would confront an existential security threat which did not entail activating the NATO guarantee is extremely far-fetched. The article leans heavily on worst-case scenarios (e.g. the US would not abide by treaty obligations) which is precisely the reasoning which justifies endless military spending. As a result, despite its merits, it is not a rational assessment.

  3. Gerald Holtham

    If Russia threatened the use of nuclear weapons these would be tactical, used in the theatre of conflict. Russia is not going to risk Armageddon with an ICBM attack on a western capital,to which the US would have to respond. Russia sells its oil and gas to Europe, and Russian oligarchs own some of the best real estate in London so they won’t be nuking it anyway. A supposed deterrence to the threat of tactical use of nuclear weapons which consists of claiming that we would escalate to using Trident to annihilate European Russia lacks all credibility. If the Russians need deterring from tactical use the answer would be our own tactical nuclear weapons. The French have that capability but we do not. If we wish to retain a nuclear capability it should be adapted to the risks we think we face.

    For David Clark to claim that nuclear weapons are not a status symbol is absurd. For the UK that is the main, if not the sole, justification for retaining them. Or government does not want to be the only permanent member of the Security Council without the bomb. As a deterrent to the only risk we face, on DC’s own account, Trident is an ineffective irrelevance. As a status symbol it is hideously and unnecessarily expensive. The Lord Owen solution of nuclear tipped air-launched cruise missiles giving our aircraft stand-off capability is the most that is required. One is told that would not be “much” cheaper. Depends what you mean by much. As Everett Dirksen said “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money”.

  4. Dave

    Mostly a well thought out piece, but with a bizarre conclusion. If Putin invaded the Baltics, then the U.S would never stay out. Which brings us to the key point: to the extent that nuclear deterrence can work in some (very rare situations), the argument is never made as to why an INDEPENDENT UK deterrent is necessary. Simply put, there is no feasible situation in which the UK could be existentially threatened without being able to rely the U.S’ nuclear and security umbrella. Russia would thus NOT be well placed to deter a non-nuclear Britain (nor a very nuclear U.S right behind it).

    So, as the author rightly points out, we should evaluate things from a pragmatic, cost-benefit perspective. And from this perspective, Trident is ruinously expensive and does virtually nothing to bolster UK national security.

  5. Jennie Selman

    Was most appreciative of the clear view which this article gives of our present position on defense and the part which a nuclear deterent plays in this.

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