Refusal to use nuclear weapons is not the same as disarming

  • By Rob Johnson



Corbyn’s refusal to use nuclear weapons as PM, wouldn’t defeat their value as deterrents.

British politics recently seems to consist of nothing more than a futile game of deceiving voters, on issues which we could instead be choosing evidence based progress. We aren’t just talking about the Tory ideology, which necessitates skewing every given subject in a way which belies evidence and promotes the interests of the wealthy.

We should also point the finger toward Blair, who could have begun the building of an evidence based leftist politics, and instead pursued a quasi-centrist policy which played into the hands of a Tory party who could have otherwise been on their knees for decades, perhaps indefinitely. His cautious game-playing perhaps built one extra term of power, but it arguably allowed every subject since to be debated on ideological, Tory terms. He got carried away with this tactical genius instead of looking at the long game.

This overall subject is an article for another day, but it deserves pointing out that this ideological skewing of debate has happened almost unnoticed on Corbyn’s recent comments, namely his statement that he would never use nuclear weapons.

Expert Generals and cabinet ministers alike have piped up on news channels, 24/7, to say that this would endanger Britain by defeating the object of having a deterrent. Unfortunately those defending Corbyn have done little to challenge this assumption. Instead CND members have backed him by reminding us of the risks of nuclear war, whilst his allies have defended his honesty, and his more critical allies have simply glossed over the subject.

No-one has actually challenged the assumption: does a refusal to use nukes by a world leader actually ruin their deterrent value?

We’ve all heard the argument that it does. If you are not willing to use it, so the argument goes, then it isn’t a deterrent, as a deterrent requires someone to use it. A weapon with no aggressor to use it is neutralised and not really a weapon. This isn’t quite accurate, as it’s not representative of how nuclear deterrents work. Indeed this perspective-based argument so far has been reminiscent of how the Tories skewed the issue of national debt during the election.

They – along with the Lib Dems, actually – argued national debt was ‘like credit card debt’ and used this to scare people off any idea of further levels of borrowing. No mention of Keynesian economics, or the evidence we have about getting out of recessions, but instead a really bad analogy that governments – who can set interest rates, affect inflation and the value of debt in all kinds of ways – are nothing more than consumers with a big credit card account. It was really simplistic, and arguably very wrong.

Similarly, they are now essentially arguing that nuclear weapons are nothing but guns. If a potential burglar knows you would not ever use the gun you keep in the cupboard, they might not be put off burgling you, whereas they wouldn’t touch you if you appeared serious in your will to use it. Yet nuclear weapons have changed the situation of national security beyond all recognition of regular weaponry. The analogy doesn’t fit at all.

A nuclear weapon means you have one button that you can press, which dispatches a bomb capable of killing millions of people immediately. It is called a unique deterrent – by all the countries that have it – because it is nothing like the next biggest weapon of war: an army of equipped soldiers. Starting a war using the latter has always been a big decision, but nuclear war is in a whole different universe of decision making. You would immediately kill millions, and set a reaction to potentially decimate billions, perhaps every human on earth.

As a result, the deterrent of nuclear war is far different – and way more effective – than anything that human beings have ever encountered before. It’s of a different type.

But it is ‘having’ and not ‘using’ a nuclear warhead that is the deterrent. As a world leader you might feel safer if a potential opponent has one which he is not keen to use – and indeed has said he would never use – but it wouldn’t defeat the deterrent. In fact so long as governments have nuclear warheads, what they each say about their own changes very little.

This flies in the face of the macho culture of world leaders, where men wrestle bears and women enforce poverty as necessary, but there is no reason to suggest that anything other than having a deterrent is effective at creating or dissolving a deterrent. You could paint it with flowers, call it Paulie, or say you would rather eat your own eyes with a cocktail stick than utilise it, but so long as you have it armed and ready, you have a nuclear deterrent.

No general or world leader is going to dismiss a nuclear-capable nation as anything but a threat, regardless of their words.

Only if Corbyn has the backing of his party, and parliament, to rid Britain of nuclear weapons, would it defeat the object of having it, as this means Britain is actively disabling its nuclear capabilities.
Unless we’ve suddenly woken up in a world where politicians are well-known to be acting under a perfect truth serum, and are fully aware of how they would feel in any given future situation, then having a leader who says he will never use nukes actually doesn’t change anything for Britain’s global neighbours.

Even then, in this unlikely and fantastical world of honest and capable politicians, our nuclear-owning opponents would still be aware that coups can happen, governments can change, parties can revolt, and leaders can die or fall ill. No general or leader worth their salt would consider Britain’s nuclear threat neutralised unless it no longer exists.

We should, however, be concerned that we have a head of the UK armed forces who thinks otherwise. Either he is woefully uninformed on matters of game theory and global defence, and thus a genuine danger to Britain’s national security, else he is giving purposefully political statements which he knows to be questionable simply to affect the opinions of the public. Both of these should genuinely worry us.


Rob Johnson, philosopher of science, ethicist and author of Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong (DLB, 2013).