Tuesday, July 19, 2016
One of those inconvenient aspects of the Spirit of 1945 that we tend not to talk about is the Attlee administration's decision to lead Britain into the nuclear part of the special relationship with the United States. This followed logically ineluctably from the decision of the first majority Labour government to continue the foreign policy of the wartime coalition government. Attlee himself had already said in a 1943 cabinet meeting that any government he headed would not preside over the dissolution of the empire. During the Potsdam negotiations, Secretary of State James Byrne was terribly pleased to note that "Britain's stance on the issues ... was not altered in the slightest". And so it was that the Labour government, the most radical in history, signed the UK up to participation in a nuclear weapons system without consulting parliament. That part of its gift to the world is what is now likely to be challenged by a majority of Labour Party members.
It should be stressed the extent to which the nuclear alliance is part of the relationship with the United States, and the orientation of power to which a declining colonial power gave all of its weight in the aftermath of the Second World War. Ever since the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement, the UK has leased its nuclear weapons systems from the United States. It purchases access to, but doesn't own, a pool of nuclear weapons produced by Lockheed Martin. It purchases 'off the shelf' components that it doesn't have the capacity to produce. It cooperates with US nuclear research laboratories, bases its nuclear deterrence programme on the strategic logic of NATO membership, and takes its targeting strategy from US deterrence doctrine.
So what is Britain's participation in the nuclear weapons programme supposed to be good for? We are often told that the weapons would be used purely in self-defence, and that there would be 'no first use'. Many commentators have pointed out the absurdity of irradiating an urban population centre as a response to the nuclear annihilation of a part of the United Kingdom. Now this automatically conscripts all of us into a war that we did not ask for, and haven't really been informed about. All we are allowed to know is that our defence posture is that we are potentially, at any moment, in a nuclear war with another country, that we are all in the fucking trenches, and that our only solaces should we or loved ones be exterminated are: 1) the brain stem will be destroyed before we feel any pain; and 2) any surviving military infrastructure will immediately be mobilised to inflict the same devastation on other unwitting conscripts.
But it is actually worse than you think. The 'no first strike' policy has never been the position of the United States or the United Kingdom. The nuclear defence posture is based upon the credible threat that it could deliver a first strike, including "the launch of one or a limited number of missiles against an adversary as a means of conveying a political message, warning or demonstration of resolve". Trident must be able to deliver a first strike, as an essential part of the rationale for possessing it. It is important to bear this in mind when politicians are asked whether they would push the button and answer, effusively, "yes".
We are also given to believe that the use of nuclear weapons necessarily constitutes a special case, that we would not be looking at their wider use, and that effectively they would act as a kind of security blanket: a reassurance to the world that the British state could, if seriously screwed with, deliver an insanely disproportionate mass murder and that it would stand vindicated before its citizens with its justifying doctrines intact. This isn't necessarily the case; it depends on US policy.
There has been, it is fair to say, the beginnings of a shift in US defence doctrine, such that the military establishment increasingly regards nuclear weapons as a liability rather than as an asset. That is in part because the strength of nuclear weapons depends upon a form of sovereign power that is increasingly displaced. Assymetrical warfare, with different scales of kinetic force used by networked agents linked on a capillary basis rather than through state hierarchies, has been changing the game - slowly, but tangibly. You could use nuclear weapons in a world war, to hasten the demise of a rival. You could dangle it over a non-nuclear state to ensure its acquiescence, provided you were prepared to use it. You could conceivably nuke every single member of Daesh if your scope was wide enough. But in the latter case, that would probably guarantee their replication on a grander and more vicious and millenarian scale. And any such mutation might well get hold of some sort of nuclear capacity. What is more, when imperial power depends more and more on the political dominance of the US Treasury and Wall Street, with military power there as a permanent enforcer rather than as the foremost principle of international order, it is questionable what use nuclear weapons are. Obama's high-profile anti-nuclear speeches reflected this, and he introduced a number of policy shifts intended to scale back US stockpiling.
Of course, far more effort was put into frustrating the development of notional non-US nuclear weapons - the Iran deal - and while the existing US stockpile has been marginally reduced (and at the same rate as it had been diminishing already), $1tn has been committed to a significant upgrade. Now, one of the legacies of the Bush administration was to begin the process of eroding the distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. The idea was that as the nuclear weapons system was upgraded, the arsenal should be diversified to endow the US with the capacity to inflict varying grades of nuclear-armed destruction on rivals, which would increase the chances that weapons with a thermonuclear payload could be used. And the fact is that the development of new variations and destabilising types of nuclear weapon have continued to be developed under the Obama administration. And Obama's final gesture as President was to throw money at everything the Pentagon wanted in nuclear terms.
So what we're talking about here is a system that is designed for first use, and increasingly liable to be re-calibrated so that it can potentially be used in more 'conventional' warfare. There is, of course, some hypocrisy in all this, and everyone can see it. Part of the global stratification of the states system, its constituents 'formally equal' and all that, takes place on the axis of entitlement to nuclear weapons. Those states which are allowed to be thermonuclear states, also happen to be the ones entitled to sanction, diplomatically belabour and sabre-rattle against those which are not. Of course, the right to this kind of violence is still to some extent organised and structured by a colonial world order that no longer obtains. The predominant states in the thermonuclear caste are the legatees of colonial power.
But the world moves, over the longue duree, away from those antiquated forms of sovereignty. Empire progressively adopts a different format, though clearly not the 'decentred' kind imagined by Hardt/Negri. The technological monopolies shaping and distributing access to this form of death-dealing potency are breaking down. The forward-thinking elements of the US and British military establishments are beginning to regard nuclear weapons as a dangerous and expensive anachronism. Therefore, while Corbyn's principled opposition to nuclear genocide is certainly out of kilter with the parliamentary mainstream, and so at odds with the practical history of the Labour Party's governing practice, it might just be that the "yes" men and women are political dinosaurs. It might just be that they are busting every sinew to support a defence capacity, an industry and a global production system that increasingly its supposed beneficiaries are not sure they want.