It seems likely that the UK’s Trident nuclear system will be be renewed in 2016. The question of whether or not to update Britain’s creaking nuclear deterrence was a contentious one during the 2015 election campaign, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) fiercely opposed (not least because a key part of Trident involves a permanent submarine base on Scotland’s west coast). However, the unexpected Conservative victory means that the Tories will almost certainly be able to push through their manifesto pledge of updating Trident.
So, the United Kingdom and France will both remain nuclear powers, whilst Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands continue to participate in the NATO policy of nuclear weapons sharing with the United States. But are nuclear weapons a relic of the Cold War? Do they still have a place in the 21st Century?
Last year, when we interviewed General Philip M. Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, we had a comment sent in by Theharmonicaman with a set of follow-up questions:
I think we should ask Breedlove what the role of nuclear weapons will be in the future, how NATO is going to defend against nuclear arms [and] how far a nuclear threat can influence major crises (like the crisis in the Ukraine right now) and limit the possibilities of conventional warfare today?
We recently had the opportunity to interview General Breedlove again, and we put this question to him for his reaction. What does he see as the future role of nuclear weapons?
To get another perspective, we also put Theharmonicaman’s question to Derek Johnson, Executive Director of Global Zero, a non-partisan campaign group working towards the phased elimination of nuclear weapons. How would he respond?
I would say that not only do I see no role for nuclear weapons in the future, I think they serve no role today. Global security can’t be based on threats of mass destruction. And I think Russia and the Ukraine crisis is a perfect case-in-point.
Through NATO, the United States keeps almost 200 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. These weapons did nothing to prevent the crisis from developing in Ukraine, and they’re useless in addressing it.
So, I think the crisis in Ukraine a great example of the fact that these weapons can’t address the many challenges that we face in the 21st Century. We can’t use them to tackle threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare. None of these problems can be solved by nuclear weapons. In fact, their existence only magnifies the potential danger. Nuclear weapons are a barbaric tool of the 20th Century that have no place in the 21st.
Finally, we had a comment from Goncalo, who was concerned that nuclear weapons will inevitability fall into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups. Can we stop states such as North Korea, or groups like Al-Qaeda or Islamic State, from obtaining nuclear weapons?
How would Derek Johnson respond?
Fortunately, in the case of non-state actors, nuclear weapons require such a significant financial and scientific infrastructure that they can’t make nuclear weapons on their own; it still takes a nation to develop them. So, the only way for non-state actors to get their hands on a bomb is either to acquire the nuclear material – highly-enriched uranium or plutonium – which is really difficult to produce, or to get their hands on a ready-made weapon.
There will always be a risk that nuclear weapons will be developed by another state or will be acquired in some way by non-state actors so long as those weapons exist. The only way to bring that risk down to zero is to drain the swamp, eliminating these weapons and all weapons-grade material.
No nuclear weapons program has ever gone undetected, not even the United States’. In a global zero future, if a so-called “rogue state” tries to develop nuclear weapons, they would be subjected to intense international isolation and pressure – as with Iran today – or even collective military action.
What do YOU think will be the future role of nuclear weapons? Are nuclear weapons a relic of the Cold War? Do they still have a place in the 21st Century? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!