THE CASE FOR NUCLEAR DETERRENCE – 8 March 2005
Dr Julian Lewis: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who, as he says, has had a lifelong commitment to the cause of the abolition of nuclear weapons. I have had almost as long a commitment to the cause of nuclear deterrence and this country's retention of nuclear weapons. We have debated the subject many times. Although it was styled as a debate on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, when I saw that he was fortunate enough to have obtained this debate – on which I congratulate him – I knew that I could rely on him to go into the broader issues of whether Britain, in particular, should continue to possess nuclear weapons. I hope to follow his example of not out-speaking my allotted time, so I shall straight away address some of his points.
The hon. Gentleman asked us to think about Hiroshima and all the lives that were lost, but one point that is often overlooked is that Hiroshima was probably the first ever example in the atomic age of a nuclear-free zone. The Western Allies faced the question of what they were going to do to end the war: the bloody campaign was scheduled to continue, and a full-scale invasion of Japan would have cost many more lives than the bombing of Hiroshima did. When that was being considered, what would the Allies have had to think about if the Japanese held atomic weapons of their own? I am not saying that I would have wanted the Japanese to hold atomic weapons, but the fact is that when one side has atomic or other nuclear weapons, it completely alters the situation if its actual or potential adversary possesses them too.
The hon. Gentleman referred to wars such as in Afghanistan, and others that are undoubtedly below the nuclear threshold. I can recall debating these matters with the CND 20 years ago, and in those days the argument was: "What on earth does Britain want nuclear weapons for? They didn't do us any good in the Falklands". My response now is what it was then: just because a given antidote to a particular deadly disease does not work against all sorts of other diseases, that is no good reason to throw it away. Nuclear weapons are not a deterrent to all forms of aggression, but the nuclear deterrent undoubtedly works against certain forms of aggression that exist when one country has weapons of mass destruction and another does not.
Let us consider the question of our treaty commitments under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is often said by unilateral nuclear disarmers to commit us to a nuclear-free world and to the abolition of our nuclear weapons. Well, yes it does, but only in a way that encompasses such ideal goals as the abolition of all weapons worldwide, and of war in particular. If there were a practical policy to which we could all sign up, and if we could all march up to the lectern and raise our hands and vote one thing out of existence, I am sure that we would all agree that war was top of the list. We would love to vote conflict out of existence, we would love to vote nuclear war out of existence and we would love to vote conventional war out of existence. However, if we cannot do it all at once, we have to ask ourselves whether we are making the world a safer or a more dangerous place by voting one of those elements out of existence before the others. The case of those of us who have argued for 20 years or more in favour of the nuclear deterrent, is that in a world in which wars continue to happen, the abolition of nuclear weapons in the hands of the democracies and in those of worldwide society, would make the world a safer place for conventional warfare.
Let us return to the example of Hiroshima. Did the fact that nuclear weapons did not exist until 1945 make the world a safer place? Possibly, the 50 million people who were killed on both sides, including victims of the Holocaust and other innocent civilians, would, if they but had a voice, disagree with the proposition. In reality, nuclear weapons can sometimes make the world more dangerous, and sometimes they can make it safer. Who would really argue now that in the situation that we faced for half a century – confrontation between the totalitarian Soviet bloc and the Western Democracies – the prescription of the CND should have been followed: that the West and NATO should have abandoned the nuclear deterrent and left the Soviet Union with a monopoly of nuclear weapons? I remember the great debates about the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles, when it was said that we were five minutes from Armageddon, four minutes from Armageddon, a minute-and-a-half from it or whatever time the nuclear clock was supposed to be ticking off; I remember all those apocalyptic statements. However, in the end, what got rid of the nuclear weapons was multilateral negotiations, compounded by a change in the political system in the Soviet Union.
They say that all simple speeches should have a single main point, and I have come to the single main point of this one. That is that it is not the weapon systems per se that matter, it is the nature of the political systems of the countries which possess them.
Look what happened when we came to the end of the Cold War. Did the Russians suddenly abolish all the nuclear weapons that we had been so fearful about for so many years? Of course they did not. But we suddenly stopped being anything like as fearful of them as we had been for such a long time. That was because Russia took great strides towards democracy. The only reason why subsequently – so long as Russia remains, as we hope that it will, on the democratic road – we are fearful of the Russian nuclear arsenal is the danger that those weapons could somehow leach out from Russian control into that of other societies and groups with no commitment to democratic principles. Then we would be concerned once again.
Therefore, the real answer to the question is not to ask, in some false egalitarian way, how we can lecture the dictatorships of the world that they should not have nuclear weapons when we keep our own. The answer is simple. I certainly do not have a problem with it. It is that they are dictatorships and we are a democracy. Nuclear weapons are good in the hands of democracies faced with dictatorships in the world; they are bad in the hands of dictatorships, as are other potential means of waging war. I have no difficulty at all in saying that Britain giving up nuclear weapons would not make a scrap of difference to whether a dictatorship continued to possess them. In those debates for so many years, I challenged again and again those who said that we should give up our nuclear weapons with the simple question: "Who are you saying would follow our example? Name a specific country". Nobody ever did.
Tony Lloyd: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman very carefully. Would he accept that, according to his logic – ignoring the issue of dictatorship and non-dictatorship because we are clear that North Korea is a dictatorship – it is highly unlikely that North Korea will invade the United States but it is not improbable that there could be circumstances in which the United States used military power against the North Koreans? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his logic, alas, is that North Korea secures its future by developing a nuclear weapon? Would he advise the North Korean regime to pursue the nuclear option?
Dr Lewis: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is falling into precisely the trap that, as I was saying, people who subscribe to his point of view continually fail to avoid. I do not need to advise North Korea. North Korea will do what it considers to be in its best interests. If it genuinely believes that it is at risk from being invaded by the United States, and if it has nuclear weapons, which apparently it has, nothing on earth – certainly no advice from the likes of me or, dare I say it, from him – will persuade it to abandon them.
I return briefly to what the Non-Proliferation Treaty actually says. Article VI states:
"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date" –
most people would say that we have done that. I do not believe that most people would say that we, at any rate, are involved in a nuclear arms race, given the reductions that have been made. The Article continues:
"and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control".
The Article therefore commits us to a disarmed world in the same breath as it commits us to a nuclear-disarmed world. I long for the day when we have worldwide disarmament of every sort, because that will imply that there has been a revolution in the minds of man and that we no longer want to kill each other when we have the chance. Unfortunately, as we know from our own history and from present-day conflicts, the minds of men have not undergone that revolution. Until they do, people who do not want to be killed will have to defend themselves and deter attack.
Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman is describing an appalling prospect for the human race. Does he believe, however, that some people learn to live in peace and harmony with each other, that not everyone around the world kills each other, and that most countries have survived perfectly well without nuclear weapons?
Dr Lewis: Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that most people subscribe to those views. Unfortunately, we have a perfect analogy in crime, particularly murder, in our own society. Most people in civilised societies do not approve of crime, and certainly do not approve of murder. However, the reality is that if enough people in domestic society are willing to commit murder, then domestic society must be able to prevent it, deter it, and if necessary, punish it. The same applies in international society.
In conclusion, Iran and Iraq were mentioned. It is too early to say what the final outcome will be of the war in Iraq, which I supported before, during and after it was carried out, but the signs are that, for all the criticisms that were made of President Bush and for all the dire predictions of the impossibility of bringing any form of democracy to the Middle East, the effect of those elections in Iraq is already beginning to resonate throughout the other countries of the Middle East.
Progress of a sort has recently been made in the Lebanon, which I doubt we would have seen had it not been for recent events, particularly the successful elections, in Iraq. I believe that there is hope for the world of surviving the nuclear threat. That hope does not depend on making the mistakes that were made way back in the 1930s when people wrongly believed that aerial bombardment would destroy civilisation, and were therefore determined to limit the weapons and, in a sense, abolish the war. They limited the weapons, but they did not abolish the war. Instead, they brought it about. The way to limit the threat of nuclear weapons is to promote the spread of democracy. If democracy spreads, the nuclear problem will take care of itself.