Why Respect For Human Rights Obliges Liberals To Support The Nuclear Deterrent


In this article, Harry Samuels argues that it is not just convenient for liberals to accept nuclear weapons, but they are obliged to embrace them if Britain is to live up to its internationalist values.

“We’ve got to have [the atomic bomb] over here whatever it costs … We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” – Former Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, in 1946

One of the most frequently occurring debates within the Liberal Democrats concerns nuclear weaponry, and whether our party should endorse Trident, whether in itself or its renewal. As a pure people, conference debates amongst the Liberal Democrats often revert to questions of “what is liberal”, with often wildly different interpretations circling. This, clearly, is unhelpful.

But with all the sound and fury so often being kicked up by the unilateralists and abolitionists, I would like to offer up a defence of the nuclear deterrent, along different lines to those usually heard. Relying on uncontroversial, universal liberal principles, by the end, I hope to have demonstrated not only that it is consistent with liberalism to participate in international affairs, but that it is our duty as liberals to do so, and further, building on that foundation, to argue that the maintenance of our nuclear arsenal gives us the best platform for doing so.

The idea of liberal internationalism is not a new one. It has precedent in the Oxford Manifesto of 1947, a joint declaration of common liberal values by 19 countries, calling for the “respect for the right of every nation to enjoy the essential human liberties”. Indeed, reflecting this, the Liberal Democrat constitution states that “our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries”. It is clear that liberalism doesn’t end because of an arbitrary border, and that concern for rights, freedoms and justice is something that a liberal ought to feel for all people. We must seek to play a full and active part in international organisations seeking the institution and preservation of justice and liberty across the world, and that put simply, liberal beliefs commit one to a belief in taking part in international affairs.

But if we know that, for example, human rights abuses are taking place overseas, is it not our responsibility to go beyond simply being members of international organisations? Diplomatic routes are uncontroversial, and there are very few who would argue against Britain using its diplomatic leverage to try to remedy some human rights abuse. Military routes are considerably more divisive, particularly post-Iraq. Some would argue that these are never acceptable. I disagree. But it is not my desire to plumb the depths of moral philosophy here, and so I will revert to the general acceptance of diplomacy – it seems very clear that there is consensus amongst liberals that a political view which values the rights of all humans doesn’t merely allow for a country exercising diplomatic clout in order to try to prevent human rights abuses, it obligates it to do so.

Two premises have been established as uncontroversial, then: first, that anyone who calls themselves a liberal is committed to some desire to protect the rights and liberties of all people no matter their nationality; second, that as a consequence of that desire, they are committed to the belief that a country should pursue at least diplomatic routes to try to prevent or stop the abuse of those rights and liberties. You may be asking where nuclear weaponry fits into this all – but this is the crux of my argument.

Arguments about the nuclear deterrent are obsessed with the deterrence aspect. One side tends to argue that there will “never” be a situation in which the British government would launch its nuclear weapons. They believe that because of our alliance with the USA, we would be under their protection should anything happen, and that subsequently our spending on Trident and the like is pointless and should be re-routed.

The other side counters by pointing to the threats in the world – Iran, North Korea, Russia, sometimes China – and states that it would be foolish to disarm now when the world is in so much disarray, and with dangerous countries seemingly becoming bolder and more dangerous.

For what it’s worth, I fall into the latter camp. But the argument about deterrence and its effectiveness, or the likelihood of pressing the nuclear button, or the cost of the deterrent are all irrelevant to my main argument in favour of maintaining a British nuclear arsenal.

If the two premises above are uncontroversial, and Britain should use its diplomatic channels to prevent human rights abuses, Britain has to ensure that its diplomatic standing is as strong as it can be. In order to do that, it doesn’t just have to be able to command the fear of enemies, but also has to be able to command the respect of allies in building coalitions to tackle the problems of the world.

Deterrence aside, our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal demonstrated both at its inception and demonstrates now to the world our strong and deeply-held commitment to playing a central role in global affairs. In the context of defence cuts and the fiasco of leaving the EU, to suddenly decide to abolish our nuclear deterrent would send a crystal clear message to the rest of the world, particularly our allies, that we were no longer interested in being major players in international politics. That would cause our diplomatic standing to suffer immeasurably, and would affect negatively our ability to build coalitions and take diplomatic action against some of the ills of the world, and that should alarm any liberal.

In sum, my view is simple. Liberals are committed to protecting human rights everywhere. Needlessly harming Britain’s ability to do that by abolishing this major symbol of our participation at the top level of international affairs would violate that commitment, and therefore not be consistent with our beliefs. It seems to me, then, to be the case that liberalism doesn’t just allow one to be in favour of maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but, in fact, almost puts an obligation on us to do so.


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