States pursue nuclear weapons for prestige as well as security.
But we know that nuclear weapons do not have a clear record in providing both deterrence and honour.
Nuclear states can still be attacked (Argentina invading British soil in the Falklands, Hezbollah kidnapping Israeli soldiers and rocketing its towns, the Sino-Soviet border war of 1969).
And they can still be insulted or threatened. On many occasions, apparently over 2o times, Russian warplanes have prowled or entered British airspace in the past few years. Mossad used forged British passports as it assassinated a Hamas military leader. The Indian premier a few years ago described Britain as ‘Third Rate’. Most countries in the world would be affronted by these moves.
But would not having nuclear weapons make this worse, however? Proponents of Trident could argue that it may not deter or deflect every piece of aggression or insult, but it limits it (eg peripheral hostilities like border wars) and confines insults to symbolic gestures.
There’s no easy way to test this. But if India, Israel and Russia in recent years have disrespected the UK, we have to ask whether nuclear weapons in themselves really do purchase prestige to a sufficient extent to justify the steep price of replacing them.
One way to understand the ‘prestige’ issue is to abandon any notion that nuclear weapons intrinsically generate respect. Rather, we have to look at the broader context.
There are other non-nuclear states that do not receive as many or as glaring ‘slights’ or insults that the UK currently does. For example, Australia, Austria, Malaysia or Brazil.
One difference is that those states are not ‘in the market’ for global prestige and extra-regional ‘status’ in the way Britain is. The UK strives for a world-wide significance and ‘specialness’, and it is this ambitious reach for the respect of others which can paradoxically invite disrespect. By making speeches in India on Kashmir, by involving itself in the cause of NATO enlargement and backing America’s expanding interests in Russia and India’s neighborhood, Britain has made itself a ‘busybody’ power, and in the eyes of those insulting it, a ‘satellite’ power. The sense that a country from far away is presuming to adjudicate one’s own affairs is likely to generate hostility, even if that country has a nuclear deterrent.
NB A final thought: how do we ‘measure’ respect meaningfully? This is where political scientists can probably help. How significant, for example, is membership of the G8, which contains a number of non-nuclear states, and excludes some nuclear ones.