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The Symbolic Power of Unilateral Disarmament

[ 3 ] December 16, 2010 |

Now this is very interesting:

US concern about the future of Trident had first surfaced a few weeks earlier, before Brown’s speech to the UN, when British media carried unattributed political briefings which suggested the Labour government intended to defer crucial Trident replacement decisions.

The nuclear-armed French, like the Americans, initially believed this news was significant, with one French official telling the US: “The UK is starting to seem really convinced that disarmament is possible, since it may abandon its Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile programme.”

The French were so upset they protested to US diplomats that Labour ministers were acting like “demagogues”. Brown’s stance that¬†nuclear weapons in general were immoral was, by implication,¬†threatening “an essential part of French strategic identity”, they complained. British civil servants said the hints of disarmament were confined to the Cabinet Office.

The context is a Wikileaks cable indicating that the Labour government was serious about maintaining the UK’s nuclear deterrent, public statements notwithstanding. The French reaction is very interesting indeed; the French appear to have understood a decision to reduce or eliminate the UK’s nuclear force as a danger to France’s own nuclear capabilities. Presumably, the threat would come from activists and political actors within France, who would leverage British de-nuclearization in arguments against the maintenance of France’s own deterrent.

This suggests that France and the UK, even prior to their recent defense agreement, understood their nuclear deterrents to be symbiotic rather than competitive, even in a symbolic sense. The British and French nuclear arsenals have never threatened each other in anything other than a symbolic sense; the sole possession of nuclear weapons could conceivably suggest military and political leadership of Europe. I had long believed that the persistence of the French nuclear arsenal was the most important reason that Britain would not de-nuclearize, but I had assumed that this was because giving up Britain’s nukes might be perceived as a concession of French military and political predominance. What I didn’t expect was that the French would put direct (if discreet) diplomatic pressure on the United Kingdom out of fear that they might lose the rationale for their own arsenal.

This suggests that British nuclear disarmament might indeed send a powerful diplomatic message. Of course, France and the UK are the most similar of the nuclear powers, and it would be a reach to suggest that India, China, etc. would feel the same pressure to disarm as France. Nevertheless, that the French take the symbolic power of the message so seriously is very interesting indeed.

Comments (3)

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  1. Passing By says:

    The UK’s and France’s nuclear arsenals are obsolete accidents of history, likely to keep on fading away as time rolls on. The bits of the French establoishment that have a vested interest (material or emotional) in the force de frappe know that; and are therefore keen to avoid opening the issue.

    Here’s the simplest way to see it. Work down the list of nuclear states, declared and undeclared. Ask whether power X would undertake a nuclear weapons program today, if it did not already have one?

    China anticipates a century of competition with other nuclear powers — USA, India and Russia; so Yes. USA, India and Russia all look towards China; so Yes. Pakistan looks towards India. Israel looks around in any direction. And so on.

    In contrast, the major EU countries have no such incentive. Thus, nobody expects Italy to build a nuclear arsenal. But Italy has a similar population, economic and technological base, political institutions, geographic position, geo-political alignment, etc. to the UK and France. What reasons could they have that Italy does not?

    Expect these expensive anachronisms to come under increasingly severe scrutiny as time makes their utter pointlessness ever clearer.

  2. wengler says:

    The thing that interests me about this is that France is 80 percent or so powered by nuclear energy. Although their primary reason for having nuclear weapons seems to have disappeared, their reliance on nuclear power cannot be understated. Any movement to end nuclear weapons would likely also go after nuclear power. Also the UK hosts the US military while France does not.

    If the US military wasn’t in South Korea and Japan it is likely they would develop nuclear weapons, as well as Taiwan if the US ended its security agreement with them.

    • Glowbot says:

      Any movement to end nuclear weapons would likely also go after nuclear power.

      This seems questionable. Nuclear power is primarily an economic/environmental issue while nuclear weapons are a defense/foreign policy issue. Both warheads and reactors grant some degree of prestige, though, in Europe, reactors mean little because most of the continent has some nuclear power capability. I suppose the removal of a nuclear arsenal would remove the plutonium production justification for keeping current reactors online, but, again, I think that’s a pretty small part of the motivation behind the French nuclear industry.

      Its also worth noting that South Africa, the only country to give up functioning nuclear weapons, still has a nuclear power industry.

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