On disarmament, it is the Arab states who have been the good international citizens
I flew in last night from Abu Dhabi, into a furore over Trident. The Tories’ Michael Fallon is playing personality politics at the expense of a rational debate over our national and global security. Having raised questions about Ed Miliband’s character by suggesting that he might wobble over a commitment to replace Trident, Mr Fallon was asked on the BBC Today programme why Britain needs continuous at-sea deterrence.
Fallon twice referred to how ridiculous a ‘part-time deterrent’ would be without explaining why, when the government itself acknowledges there is no active threat to Britain. It all points to sound-bite politics that miss the complexity of the global challenges we face. And the irresponsible hypocrisy at the heart of our defence policy is showing in the Arab Gulf states today.
In Abu Dhabi I was attending a conference with high-level officials and military responsible for Saudi and Gulf states’ defence. While the principal challenge is a battle over stability, legitimacy and governance, these leaders feel deeply threatened by the prospect of a confident Iran emboldened by possible future possession of nuclear weapons. In this globalised world the message from the UK is getting through loud and clear.
We have a cast iron alliance relationship with the United States, sharing similar interests, values and heritage, and are situated in a safe part of the world; yet we claim to need nuclear weapons for our own security, even when there are no credible scenarios explaining why. Any potential relevant threat is distant, vague and largely conceptual. Meanwhile, the Gulf states face a variety of urgent, tangible and existential threats, and are (rightly) refused a nuclear guarantee trust by the Americans. Voices are now heard from Arab officials suggesting a major change of direction.
This is all the more depressing because the Arab League has for decades played a critical leadership role in pressing the nuclear weapon states to take their disarmament commitments seriously, and have been pushing the idea of a WMD Free Zone across the Middle East. In this instance, whilst they have made our diplomatic lives difficult at times, the Arabs have been the good international citizens, faithful to the common interests outlined in the NPT, and abstaining from dual-capable nuclear programmes. They have been loyal to an internationalist agenda.
The narrative within Arab states today shows signs of deep resentment. It’s not pleasant to be taken for a ride, to be made to look stupid. There is no worse sin in the macho world of international relations than to be naïve, weak and disrespected. And we should care about this not just because resentment and injustice lies at the heart of some of the biggest threats we face today, but also because they will drive the nuclear proliferation and nuclear chaos that could present the gravest dangers we face in the future.
There is a bigger, more universal point to this latest Tory attack on Ed Miliband’s character that should worry us all. A political leadership that takes a progressive, internationalist viewpoint, attempting to understand the common interests that lie in mutual restraint and building international cooperative regimes that pull our adversaries in, inevitably takes a political risk and will be accused of naivety and dishonour. Presidents Obama and Rouhani, neither shrinking violets, need to resist domestic attempts to label them treacherous and follow through on this nuclear agreement they are negotiating that will deliver huge benefits for all of us.
Rather than trade commitments to an expensive nuclear weapons continuous posture that few politicians understand let alone can explain convincingly, to the detriment of other security capabilities and the credibility of the NATO alliance, the Labour leadership would do well to go on the offensive and highlight the manner in which the little-Englander attitude is driving nuclear proliferation elsewhere in more dangerous parts of the world.
This is a complex policy environment in which jingoism and shallow machismo eclipses a serious debate around how we can best contribute to the safer world upon which our national security depends.
Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council, and was host of the BASIC Trident CommissionLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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