Jeremy Corbyn has recently been re-elected to leader of the labour party in the UK with an even stronger mandate than before of 62% of the vote, as many of you will know. This opens up the possibility of a future prime minister of the UK who has said that he will never authorize use of nuclear weapons to kill civilians. So is he right to say this? Well yes I’d say he is right. For my whole life ever since I understood what it meant, since the 1960s, I’ve been against the bomb and in favour of unilateral disarmament by the UK. The situation is more complex for the US and if I was in the US I don't know what I'd say. But the UK can disarm without upsetting any global balances, and this will make both Europe and the world a safer place to live. So why would anyone say that?
Jeremy Corbyn at the Stop Trident rally in Trafalgar square on Saturday 27th February 2016, photograph by Gary Knight
Here he is addressing the crowd in the anti-Trident rally in 2016 this year.
M.A.D. IS MAD
Personally, I find the whole idea of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) just nonsense myself, always have right through the cold war, and I think Jeremy Corbyn was right to say that he would never use the UK nuclear weapons under any circumstances. If someone did drop a nuclear bomb on your country, what good does it do to anyone to launch nuclear weapons to kill millions of their citizens at that point? I think the only ethical response is not to launch in response.
So if you think that way what are they for in the first place? I don't think they have reduced war casualties as we have continued to have many major wars all the way through to the present.
I think it is largely some kind of psychological thing not based on an ethical logic, this idea of balancing numbers of nuclear weapons. However the argument does affect people even so, so that's why I'd be a bit conflicted about what to say as a US citizen. It would be tougher to argue for unilateral disarmament for the US because of this emotional argument that seems for some reason to convince people, even though I don't see how nuclear weapons protect the US either.
UK IN A PERFECT POSITION TO LEAD WITH A UNILATERAL ACTION
But with the UK I think we have a perfect opportunity to show through unilateral action that complete disarmament is possible and safe. After all most countries in Europe don't have nuclear weapons and don't feel they need to have them either.
I think we’d make quite an impression there, as only the third country to successfully test a nuclear weapon. We have had the bomb since our first successful nuclear weapons test Operation Hurricane in 1952 (first Russian test RDS-1 in 1949 and first US test Trinity in 1945).
For such a long standing nuclear weapons state to give up the bomb would send a huge signal to other countries I think.
WE DON’T NEED NUCLEAR WEAPONS
No country in just about the entire southern hemisphere has nuclear weapons now. That's one effect of South Africa disarming preemptively in 1989. It lead directly to the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty. So one nation disarming can have a big knock on effect. South Africa’s actions haven’t had much effect on Europe for sure. But they had a huge effect on Africa and the Southern Hemisphere.
Signatories of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty - states that have ratified in green, and signed but not ratified in yellow. South Africa’s decision to give up the bomb didn’t have much effect on Europe but it lead to this nuclear free zone in Africa.
In this picture all the blue areas, including just about the entire southern hemisphere, are Nuclear-weapon-free zones
I believe that we in the UK could start to have a similar effect in the Northern Hemisphere by unilaterally disarming. Though of course we have much further to go by way of reducing numbers of nuclear weapons than the Southern Hemisphere.
This is not going to solve all the problems overnight. But the UK disarming won't make the situation in troubled places such as N. Korea any worse - our nuclear weapons are doing nothing there.
HOW DO NUCLEAR WEAPONS DEFEND AGAINST NORTH KOREA ANYWAY?
I don't think nuclear weapons defend anyone against anyone else with nuclear weapons - the only way forward is to make them unthinkable to the extent that nobody even sees any point in having them. The example of North Korea I think gives a particularly clear example here.
If N. Korea was to drop a nuclear weapon on S. Korea or Japan - would the US respond by dropping a nuclear weapon on N. Korea? I don't see it myself. How would that help in that situation?
After using a nuclear bomb, N. Korea would then have everyone against it, world wide, including, surely, China. How could China support N. Korea in such an action?
Since they depend so much on China, I can't imagine their regime would last for long if they were the only country to have dropped a nuclear weapon since Hiroshima and Nagasake, and nobody else responded in kind.
While if the US then bombed N. Korea then they would be seen as just as bad as N. Korea in that respect. I think surely that would lead to a lot of condemnation of the US (especially from China of course) and people wanting to dissociate with them, and it would mean the US was the direct cause of appalling suffering.
The only way I can see this situation resolved is through pressure on N. Korea to disarm. So then, if other countries outside N. Korea get rid of nuclear weapons, then that gives more moral pressure on N. Korea. Ultimately we need China on our side to do something about N. Korea, as it has a lot of influence in N. Korea. If I understand it right, N. Korea can probably go it alone with only support from China and China sees it as a buffer against the West.
WE MUST DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE PERCEPTION OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS AS A STATUS SYMBOL AND A CRITERION FOR MEMBERSHIP IN AN EXCLUSIVE CLUB
With the UK, one of the main arguments the pro Trident MPs had in the Trident debate was that we will be able to keep our position of power in the security council as a nation with nuclear weapons.
That's all wrong, it shouldn't be like that. States shouldn't be rewarded with more power and influence if they have the bomb - that is sending a message to others that the way to gain status is to develop nuclear weapons. We must do something about this perception, to make progress, otherwise we’ll continue to get states trying to get the bomb as a status symbol and to gain power and influence.
I think in the UK, we'd have more status as a country that has the capability to make nuclear weapons easily and has given it up. Maybe it would take a while. Maybe we would not have that status with everyone, especially the US, and maybe not so much to start with. But one of the things we can do by giving up the nuclear weapons is to make a start on a shift of attitudes where nuclear weapons are no longer a status symbol and considered essential for security.
That has to start somewhere, people's attitudes to this have to change somehow for disarmament to become a reality. I think the UK as such a prominent country in the history of development of nuclear weapons is ideally positioned to start this process.
COST OF TRIDENT
Nuclear weapons are also fabulously expensive. Trident will cost an estimated £205 bn according to campaigners (the UK government has refused to answer questions about how much it will cost, although asked numerous times during the commons debate, effectively giving the project a blank cheque).
That’s about $266 billion.
What could we do instead with $266 billion! As someone who often writes about asteroid defense - we could start by funding the Sentinel space telescope to protect Earth against asteroids by discovering nearly all of them down to 20 meters in diameter in less than a decade. The telescope is designed and could be launched in the near future if they could find the funding of 450 million dollars. If we can find impactors many years in advance, just the tiniest of nudges of centimeters per second or less can deflect them enough so that years later they will miss Earth.
It would sit inside of Earth close to Venus's orbit giving it a good field of view of NEOs close to the sun. It looks away from the sun to avoid being blinded by it - and it can then see faint NEOs that are in between the Earth and the Sun which is the hardest place to spot them from our current Earth based surveys. It would help fix that blind spot for asteroids that come from the direction of the sun. It looks in the infrared because the asteroids are far more obvious in that part of the spectrum.
It would find nearly all potential impactors down to 40 meters diameter. And recently announced, that it should be able to spot them down to 20 meters diameter.
This would hardly make a dent on the cost of Trident, only 0.17% of its cost. I find this ironic that the UK finds the huge sums for Trident with no problem, yet no country world wide thinks that asteroid defense is enough of a priority to pay 0.17% of that price on it. ETs might be astonished at how much we spend on defending against each other and so little on protecting Earth from hazards from space.
Of course there are many other worthwhile things we can do with the funds we spend on nuclear weapons.
UNILATERAL DISARMAMENT DOES NOT MAKE THE UK DEPENDENT ON THE US - IT MAKES US STRONGER
It only makes the UK dependent on the US if you think that nuclear weapons make us safer. If you think they put us in more danger than a UK without bombs, and eventually a Europe that's nuclear free then it makes us less dependent on the US - saying to them "We don't need nuclear weapons".
Also, the UK's conventional forces will be stronger as a result.
That was one of the more telling points on the disarmament side in the Trident debate here. See Costs and purpose of Trident questioned among UK military community
One of the more outspoken is Major General Patrick Cordingley, who led British forces in the first Gulf War. He said:
"Strategic nuclear weapons have no military use. It would seem the government wishes to replace Trident simply to remain a nuclear power alongside the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council. This is misguided and flies in the face of public opinion; we have more to offer than nuclear bombs."
I'm actually personally a pacifist, I wouldn't serve in the military myself (perhaps I might serve in an ambulance corps as many Quakers did in the last world war). However I don't say that everyone has to be pacifist. I wouldn't argue that the UK or any other country should give up its military, In the modern world, countries need armies. Even Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand etc, all Buddhist countries, they have armies too. But I do think we should give up nuclear weapons.
I don't think nuclear weapons did anything to stop Russia in the Ukraine or did anything to help the situation in Bosnia or does anything to help the current situation in Syria. Rather see it the other way around that nuclear weapons make everyone tenser and make us unsafe if anything. It's enough for Russia and the US to have them, how does it help for UK and France to be involved as well? How does it help to say "look, we can bomb you too!"
If you think that M.A.D. makes sense and that we can never achieve nuclear disarmament that's about the only basis for having nuclear weapons in Europe.
If you think that M.A.D. is just MAD, as I do, and that the way forward is to first work towards more local nuclear free zones like the ones in Africa and Australia / New Zealand and Southern America - to have a nuclear free zone in Europe and eventually the whole world - with the southern hemisphere as an example, then unilateral disarmament is a step towards making the whole world safer.
The US say we have to keep our nuclear weapons in the UK, and those who support Trident in the UK say we have to do multilateral disarmament but they don't offer any path towards a nuclear free Europe. That’s what we need, I think Europe as a nuclear free zone is a safer Europe.
What they offer in the place of this is just a vague “some time in the future it will be useful for the UK to have the nuclear bomb to encourage multilateral disarmament”.
It’s a total myth, this idea that the nuclear bomb is the only thing that is stopping Russia from taking over Europe. If you think it through, is it at all credible that Russia would drop nuclear weapons on a Western / Central European declared nuclear free zone, or threaten to do so in order to take it over? Even during the cold war I don’t think that was a possible outcome, if we had declared a Western Europe nuclear free zone at the time.
Unilateral disarmament is saying "It's time to move on" it's sending a powerful message that we have to move quickly towards a nuclear free world.
THE END GOAL - TOTAL DISARMAMENT
The end aim of nuclear disarmament talks is to reach a situation of total disarmament world wide and that probably has to involve a multilateral approach.
However, meanwhile if we can reduce the number of states that have nuclear weapons, the fewer the safer the world becomes. If we can somehow raise the status and influence of those that disarm, that's a great help also. And the fewer states that are involved in multilateral disarmament the simpler the discussions become also.
WE MAY GET A FUTURE UK WITH A LEADER WHO HAS SAID HE WILL NEVER USE THE BOMB
Jeremy Corbyn is one of the few politicians who not only is in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament for the UK, but s not at all afraid to say that he would never use our nuclear weapons as prime minister. Even if we can't achieve disarmament yet in the UK, I think we will be safer in the UK with a prime minister who says he will never use them and that this will make the world just a bit safer too. Hopefully also that will get people thinking it over and perhaps asking more questions, asking “What’s the point in them?”
If Jeremy Corbyn does win the next election here, and I think he has a decent chance myself, then that would be the first time the UK has had a prime minister who has said he or she won't use the nuclear bomb on ethical grounds. I think that's a good start even if he doesn't get the support he needs to go so far as to disarm and get rid of Trident (as it would be a free vote in his party).
When asked the same question, Theresa May said she would drop the bomb, making her the first to actually answer the question in the affirmative. (Previous prime ministers just refused to answer the question). Theresa May does not hesitate to say she would kill 100,000 with nuclear strike
So we'll have quite a polarity there in the next election, whenever it is, if it continues with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as the two leaders vying for our votes, one saying she would use the bomb and the other saying that he never would use it.
The SNP - Scottish Nationalist Party - is also in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
See their list of points here: Trident – what you need to know
“5. Possession of nuclear weapons is the exception, not the rule
“It is the norm in the world today to be nuclear-free. Of all the countries in the world, just nine possessed nuclear weapons at the start of 2015.”
Here is Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (which got nearly a clean sweep of MPs in Scotland in the last electoin) putting this point in the anti-Trident rally in 2016
PLAYING A SMALL PART ON A LARGER STAGE
Also just to say that of course both the US and Russia have cut their nuclear arsenals hugely since the cold war. I’m not at all suggesting that it is all up to the UK. We’d just be playing our small (but I think significant) part on a larger stage.
ONCE YOU’VE GOT THE ICBMS WHAT DO YOU DO WITH THEM?
It seems such a great shame to me - so much technology and ingenuity put into designing and building the ICBMS and then after the decision to disarm, they just destroy them.
There’s the possibility of converting some of the tech to peaceful purposes however. Russia has turned some of its ICBMs into rockets to launch satellites - the Dnepr (rocket). ICBM based rockets have the advantage that they are designed with solid fuel, to be launched at any time on a moments notice, without need to fuel them first.
ICBM based missiles fitted with conventional explosives would be ideal for a last minute asteroid defense, especially against smaller asteroids or even against larger ones if they could be fitted with nuclear warheads. In a more peaceful world, that would probably be the only use of nuclear weapons, but it would be a bit tricky to reconcile with the outer space treaty and the nuclear test ban treaty, or to deploy them in such a way that there is no concern about them being used with hostile intent as weapons. There is also the problem that such asteroids are so rare that the system might be on stand by for the next several thousand years without needing to be used.
Russia have been promoting this idea recently. See Russia Wants to Turn Old Missiles Into an Asteroid Defense System
There’s also the idea of using ICBMs to deliver essential supplies to disaster zones quickly. Not that you’d build an ICBM if that was what your aim was. But now that we have so many of them, not able to do anything except deliver a nuclear weapon - they could be converted to humanitarian use for the rare situations where a disaster strikes and it is hard to get aid to the site of the disaster quickly even by helicopter - and perhaps an ICBM could do it much more quickly.
Perhaps the sea launched missiles for Trident could be used in these ways too, if we do go ahead and renew it and then find they are not useful for anything else.
This was originally published in Quora as my answer to Is Corbyn right about the Bomb?