January 22, 2001
When a self satisfied cabinet minister attacks the leader of the opposition for blundering into affairs that are simply not his business, then one tends to sympathise with the leader of the opposition, after all the whole gamut of government is his business – by definition. When the execrable Liberal Democrats accuse him of being "irresponsible" you know that this is not through any capability for independent thought but through the slavish use of the New Labour phrasebook. But although these particular criticisms are motivated more by a desire to stifle democratic debate, their conclusions are, accidentally, correct – British participation in the "Son of Star Wars" program is far more risk than reward and patently not in the British interest.
The leader of the opposition, William Hague's, speech is his usual competent and well measured fare but it somehow jars. The central point of the speech is that Britain should embrace the son of star wars program and avail its bases to be used for these purposes. Now there are many bad arguments that can be made against this stance. The first is that we don’t know exactly what the Americans are going to propose and exactly what they are going to ask of us. This is a stupid complaint, as the speech is quite clearly a statement of principle and not a detailed program of implementation and the plea for delay (made by the defence secretary Geoff Hoon) is purely to cover the divisions within the government.
The other argument, that it will upset the balance of nuclear power, is also wrong, if subtly so. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was never a particularly attractive doctrine. Basically the idea is that it is more moral to stop a nuclear attack through the threat of decimating a few hundred million of the enemy’s citizens in a nuclear holocaust than by some space launched intelligent rocks. While from a moral viewpoint this is the wrong reaction it is also wrong for practical reasons. Is it possible to suppress military technology? The simple fact is that no matter what solemn treaties are signed, or what the moral implications of the weaponry – if it offers an advantage military technology will be used by a party desperate enough for this advantage. Technological self-restraint will not really work in the cutthroat world of international relations.
As the couple of paragraphs above show, I have no real problem with the United States pursuing the Star Wars research. It may be impossible to stop a missile – but the history of invention shows that there are few things that are dreamt up in the minds of human beings that cannot be destroyed by other fertile minds. Are there any examples of uncrackable codes, unbreakable safes, unpickable locks or unforgettable notes? Moreover, are those examples there because they are truly unbreakable or because they are relatively new? Anyway if the science is essentially bad then it will fail anyway, if it works then someone else will make use of it. Either way stopping scientific research and application is not really something that can be done even if we wanted to.
So, why oppose it? Well its not really opposing it, just saying that it should be kept firmly over the pond. An intercepting nuclear capacity will simply make us into a prime nuclear target without the corresponding protection. The missile defence project is initially meant to defend one country, America, it is by necessity going to be a small scale set up at first only able to hold down the odd few missiles from a "rogue state." Why do we, including the leader of the opposition, imagine that it will cover more than the United States for a long time? The nuclear umbrella, out of necessity, is going to have remarkably little coverage outside 48 American States. This is not a statement of political isolationism or distaste for the project, just one of technical limitations. This is the real world, not Science Fiction. It is just not enough for any scientifically advanced project to flick a switch and a warm glow embraces the earth - blocking those nasty missiles from blowing up the world.
William Hague is an underrated politician, lets face it the man is no oil painting and he has made some pretty silly gaffs, and this underestimation tends to translate into surprising effectiveness at surprising times. This speech may prove itself politically effective. Firstly, there is the much-vaunted "special relationship" between Britain and America. Under President Clinton Tony Blair could flaunt this, and under non-President Gore he could equally be assured of special access. President Bush may be different, as Hague bought Bush stocks early, visiting him during Bush’s first term as Governor of Texas (even if the Governor did forget Mr. Hague’s name, bless him). Now Mr. Blair has to compete with a domestic rival for the smiles of this President, knowing that he has lost the inner affection already. Its not that Tony has many other places to turn for world adoration, he is not popular in Europe even if Europe was popular in the country, and most other countries regard him as an out of favour American pet. With the election coming up and the all-important turn of world statesman to perform, Mr. Blair may be limited to Sierra Leone and the KLA (the governing party in Kosovo wants little to do with him). Now Mr. Hague has ratcheted up the pressure and said that he wants Britain to help in this missile defence lark, Mr. Blair now has the American spotlight turned on him.
Now left to his own devices Mr. Blair would have known exactly what to do. He would have gone to President Bush and agreed to whatever he said before it was even spoken. Now, unfortunately, it is different. In the cabinet, Mr. Blair is opposed by his heavy drinking foreign secretary Robin Cook who has both the burden of his left wing past and his pro-European present. His left wing past tells him that being involved with anything so closely involved with America (especially with Republicans) is going to be trouble in any future leadership contest. His pro-European present says that this cooperation will drive a coach and four horses through any European Defence Initiative. So there will be a battle royale between Robin Cook and Tony Blair if Britain says yes to Son of Star Wars, which may explain the prickliness of the government when Hague mooted the plan.
What makes good politics does not make good strategic sense. The common theme of the participationists is that in the 1980s, Britain hosted the cruise missiles; but this is not the same. The American "Missile Shield" covered us from day one; the Cruise Missiles were near enough a proven technology; and we had an enemy in the Soviet Union. None of these three conditions applies today, but most especially the third. We are heightening risks without the Cold-War rewards that the stationing of Cruise brought. Mr. Hague, this is a step too far.
I have started a web log to supplement the Airstrip One column. It will act as a combination of a letters page, a corrections column, a place for short articles, diary, a book column, and anything else that pops up. To be honest I don’t know what its going to be but I felt the need to write in a way that is more in tune with the Internet, something a weekly column does not do. For the time being, it is situated at http://www.airstripone.blogspot.com/ (it will be moving to antiwar.com soon). Please pop by and tell me what you think.
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