The dominant mode of thought which has historically influenced the way in which states view security claim that at the basis of politics lies a drive for power which is rooted in human nature making conflicts inevitable. History is marked by recurring patterns of conflict and repeated use of tactics such as deterrence and power balancing against enemies. States compelled by threat of extinction will prioritise their own security, ensuring the security and survival of the state is from which all other spheres of life can occur, such as welfare, education, human rights etc. This has historically been the justification with regards to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In this view the five nuclear weapon states as recognised by the Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT) have managed to avoid war directly with one another, not least in part due to the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (under the aptly named acronym MAD). There are even arguments for a nuclear armed Iran, as this would restore a power balance to the Middle-East against a nuclear armed Israel, in a similar way that deterrence applies between two of the non-NPT nuclear states of Pakistan and India. And it is this justification of power balancing which continually undermines the NPT, the Nash Equilibrium outcome shows us that whilst neither side is motivated towards nuclear conflict, nor is it motivated to disarm, and this is why the renewal of Trident is even on the table, when the UK should be focusing on meeting its disarmament commitments.
There is no way of telling if nuclear superpowers have genuinely avoided war thanks to nuclear weapons, what we do know is that war, whilst on the decline in the post WW2 years, has not been eliminated thanks to nuclear weapons, the Cold War years which were marked by proxy wars between nuclear superpowers US and former USSR are testament to that. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is just one way in which states have used military force to maintain power balancing, states have always used military force as a deterrent, and it’s important to see nuclear weapons and military might as two sides of the same coin – nuclear weapons are but an extension of that same train of thought and fit well within this paradigm.
But is this really where the threat to our security lies? Well first, we have to unpick what we mean when we talk about security. Arguments supporting the renewal of Trident focus on a view of a powerful state being best placed to provide security to its citizens. The consequence of this is that to ensure security a state must put its own population in a hostage situation to an adversary’s nuclear weapons.
One alternative critical focus on security focuses on individuals within states, and suggests this focus on states as a cause of insecurities, not least because focusing on states security obscures the insecurities of individuals within states. As renowned Critical Security Studies scholar Ken Booth points out the primary threats faced by individuals come not from foreign armies, but from economic collapse, political oppression, scarcity, overpopulation, ethnic rivalry, environmental degradation, terrorism, crime and disease. None of these problems and causes of insecurities can be solved by spending billions upgrading never-to-be-used nuclear weapons systems. Alongside high military spending comes the militarisation of societies which bring with them a whole host of insecurities, research of the highly militarised societies of Israel show a link between the militarisation and the prevalence of domestic violence. Feminist International Relations scholar Cynthia Cockburn describes this phenomenon as a “continuum of violence” and that “the violence of militarisation and war, profoundly gendered, spills back into everyday life and increases the quotient of violence in it”.
Opposition to nuclear weapons and the renewal of Trident therefore must be seen in the context of opposition to increased militarisation. To dedicate billions of pounds to perpetuate this state of existence as hostages to nuclear annihilation by other nuclear states is not only difficult to comprehend, it detracts us from asking deeper questions about our highly militarised societies in which prioritising the need to prepare us for violence between states become a self-fulfilling prophecy in creating violence within our societies.
Nadia Mitchell served in the British Army and is a Veteran For Peace.