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Nuclear Weapons Represent a Dead End in Strategic Thinking

13/02/2014 17:26 GMT | Updated 15/04/2014 10:59 BST

Confidence in the government's strategic capacities seems to be plummeting. Last month the Defence Committee published a withering report on the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR); apart from a cost cutting objective they found nothing strategic about it. In fact the Committee went so far as to suggest that the MoD should provide them with an update on the skills training in strategy provided to senior officials! Pretty damning stuff.

This week a top level cross party panel, convening in Westminster for the launch of a new report into Britain's nuclear weapons strategy, shared some similar conclusions. Chaired by former foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett MP, panel members included James Arbuthnot MP, Tory chair of the Defence Committee, the former Labour Chief Whip Nick Brown MP and Sir Nick Harvey MP, former Lib Dem Defence Minister. Although drawn from a range of political backgrounds, the strong commonality of view from the panellists was striking.

First in the spotlight - highlighted by the Chair in her opening remarks - was the disconnect between the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the SDSR. They were published almost simultaneously in the autumn of 2010 - and the timing reveals the problem. The NSS was widely regarded as being pretty effective at identifying Britain's contemporary security challenges: cyber warfare, terrorism, pandemics and extreme weather emergencies. And it downgraded state-on-state nuclear attack to a level two threat.

The SDSR, on the other hand, made no concomitant reassessment of the role of Britain's nuclear weapons system Trident, and continued to apportion the same level of resources to it, apparently without question. In a reduced MoD budget this meant that, perversely, other areas faced major cuts even though their salience wasn't actually reduced. So as we approach the 2016 'Main Gate' decision in parliament on whether to fund Trident replacement, there has been no strategic assessment of Trident and its role in the twenty first century.

Another disconnect also came under scrutiny - between successive UK governments' commitment to multilateral disarmament, enshrined in its ratification of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the current government's failure to participate in a new multilateral global initiative. The panel was united in its condemnation of the government's refusal to attend an international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, taking place this week in Mexico and attended by some 140+ states. India and Pakistan are attending, but the five original nuclear weapons states appear to be boycotting the event. Nick Harvey and James Arbuthnot, both former Defence Ministers, were absolutely clear that Britain should be attending, with Harvey calling Britain's absence 'a disgrace'.

With the overwhelming majority of states participating, including a number of its NATO partners, Britain cannot afford to be outside this process. Rising economic powers are at the forefront and if Britain wants to remain relevant to major world developments, then it should take heed of the concerns of other states and get involved. There is less and less tolerance internationally of the small group of wealthy nations that insist on retaining the power to destroy the world several times over.

Vast changes are taking place globally - new powers are rising and others are waning. Unanticipated political changes have restructured continents. Old certainties - and the dogmas that underpinned them - are no longer appropriate. But the thinking of our government has not caught up. Its lack of strategic perspective shows a floundering and fading power that is not stepping up to the challenges of the times.

A layer of our political elite still thinks that Britain's power and status can be secured by Cold War weapons. But others already understand that the challenges lie in climate change, hunger, injustice - and the asymmetrical warfare in varying forms that those problems will increasingly bring if unresolved. This is where the thinking of our political class needs to be. Keeping its collective head in the political and strategic sand is just not an option.