We need to talk about nukes

BASIC and WMD Awareness kicked off their Talking Trident: A Conversation with the Next Generation events at the RichMix in Shoreditch, London, last week.

These events are a series of debates being held around the country to give young adults in Britain the opportunity to get their voices heard on the issue of nuclear weapons. The government is due to make a decision on renewing its nuclear system, Trident, in 2016. Here’s what happened…

The panel

The crowd

Around 50 people turned up to give their views and ask questions including: experts, students, campaigners and those with no knowledge of nuclear weapons at all. This made for a diverse and rich conversation about our security needs and whether nuclear weapons fit in.

The conversation

Panelists were asked: Are nuclear weapons cut out to meet the security challenges of the next generation? A big question to answer in one night! Here’s some of the themes they explored:

National identity and legacy

crowd shot

The crowd at RichMix think about Britain’s role in the world

The audience was urged to question what role Britain should play in the world, and what the idea of nuclear deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons says about the UK. For some nuclear weapons are tied closely to the United Kingdom’s: identity as a world power, history as an imperial power, seat on the UN Security Council, and our ‘special relationship’ with the US. Zoë Pelter reminded us that even though the UK is carrying “a big stick” it is still a set of small islands in a big world and many of these privileges experienced by the UK are not tied to our possession of nuclear weapons at all.

Zoë went on to state that retaining nuclear weapons reflects the UK’s unwillingness to move away from Cold War thinking. These weapons are a legacy of the past, and it was argued by Rebecca Sharkey that they should to be kept there. Renewing the Trident nuclear weapon system for the next 50 years leaves the cost burden and moral juggling act to the next generation. The question was posed – is this the legacy that we want to leave?

Rebecca argued that the UK should respect its legal and treaty obligations to disarm, and by doing so leave a positive legacy of a country that renounced its belief in nuclear deterrence and gave up nuclear weapons. This could have a domino effect and aid in the process of global multilateral nuclear disarmament.

However, some responded that in the UK unilateral disarmament is often negatively associated with being “soft on defence”, which makes it unappealing for the main political parties to align themselves to such a policy.

Okay, but do these weapons actually protect us?

James talking

James Arbuthnot MP suggests nuclear weapons are irrelevant

The nature of conflict and security threats have changed and therefore our responses have to change as well. James Arbuthnot suggested that nuclear weapons have been irrelevant to all of the wars in the past 30 years, and therefore we may be able to assume a continuation of this irrelevance in the future. Spending money on a nuclear weapon system that we will never use is not the best return on investment in the face of other conventional threats that we may face. Zoë added that the continued possession of nuclear weapons limits this country’s ability for maintaining strategic balance beyond our borders in the face of conventional conflict.

Meanwhile James and Paul Schulte remained unconvinced that nuclear weapons are entirely irrelevant to the future, pointing out that nuclear weapons are hard at work everyday acting as a deterrent. They accepted that nuclear deterrence may only be suitable for a narrow set of threats such as nuclear blackmail and piracy, but said these are threats nonetheless.

Shifting world order leaves us with little to be confident about and a nuclear deterrent may provide us with protection and stability that is needed.

Questions

The audience has their say

The conversation continued with an audience member’s suggestion that while we see that the nature of conflict is changing today, history has shown that things can be cyclical and world leaders irrational. But are these uncertainties are enough to leave us in need of the protection of nuclear deterrence? Other audience members argued that nuclear weapons provide a dangerous mix in a future riddled with instability and inequality.

The next generation of global threats

It was clear from the discussion that many people are concerned about our national security, but also about the future of our planet. We were warned about climate change and the devastating humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in the event of a nuclear exchange or accidental use. There was a unanimous understanding that nuclear weapons do not protect us from omnipotent global threats like climate change. Passionate members of the audience argued that spending money on nuclear weapons gets us nowhere closer to tackling these global threats.

A “glide path” towards disarmament?

There was a general agreement that we should be working towards multilateral nuclear disarmament, though some were more optimistic than others. Paul Schulte suggested we are not on a “glide path” towards disarmament (a phrase coined in the recent Trident Commission Concluding Report) and many agreed, but for different reasons: one being that we are not yet actually on a path towards disarmament and the other because an easy “glide path” towards disarmament does not exist.

So it was asked: what could be the catalyst that sets us on course for the path towards disarmament? Some argued that the UK is in the best position to initiate this path and now is the time to do so, others less optimistically suggested that the right conditions are non-existent at the moment due to the unwillingness of other nuclear armed states to even consider nuclear disarmament.

“Old or young: nuclear weapons can kill us all”

Zoë Pelter pointed out that growing up after the Cold War has meant she feels disconnected with the bomb. Younger audience members agreed and said it can be hard to understand what all the “fuss” is about. One said she felt it was easy to argue for nuclear weapons when using Cold War theories, but now it’s the future that matters. However, some said that the shadow of the Cold War remains and Russia’s intervention in Crimea demonstrates this.

The speakers

The full panel from L-R: Rebecca, James, Paul I, Paul S & Zoe

We were reminded, however, that nuclear weapons are tool that have the power to destroy us and our planet. Nuclear weapons are dangerous no matter what generation you are associated with. But, it was asked, how do we engage with a generation of young people who are generally indifferent towards nuclear weapons or puzzled by the complexity involved in this debate?

Rebecca Sharkey suggested getting involved in movements that are taking place – such as the attending ICAN’s Civil Society Forum in Vienna ahead of the Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear Weapons, hosted by the Austrian government.

Paul Schulte asked people to look critically at what is possible and to probe our government for answers. Zoë Pelter agreed we needed to make the debate more accessible to younger generations by breaking down the barriers and moving away from Western thinking that can generate a narrow view of the world.

This event highlighted what is most important: for us to continue talking about this issue and forming opinions, but to be open to adapting them as we listen and learn from each other. The debate on nuclear weapons is a complex issue that is closely linked with the future of our planet and our security. This invokes a passionate response from people on both sides of the nuclear weapons debate but we must inform each other of the opinions and arguments that are being heard in the policy and civil society spheres. We need to truly listen and understand where the other side is coming from if we’re going to find common ground to make progress.

Find out more about Talking Trident and where we’ll be next

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