A Lesson in Deterrence Theory for Emily Thornberry from Dr. Strangelove

One of the great joys of the current chaotic position of the Labour party, as the retro-eighties hard left under their charismatic leader Wolfie Smith, err, I mean Jeremy Corbyn struggle to impose the direction of a Leninist vanguard on the recalcitrant reactionary bourgeoisie of the PLP, is the endless stream of comic amusement provided by the spectacle of the Corbynites repetitive collisions with reality.  The latest to make me roar with laughter was the interview with Emily Thornberry on the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 9 Feburary.

In the wake of yet another fractious meeting with the PLP, this time over the Corbynite policy of non-renewal of the submarine-launched Trident ICMB nuclear weapons system, Thornberry was exposed to further amusement at the hands of BBC interviewer Nick Robinson.  The issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, a major bugbear from the glory days of unelectable Labour in the nineteen eighties, and it was a genuine delight to see Corbyn displaying the leadership skills necessary to ensure this issue blew up in his face and divided the party even further.  The context was set by the appointment of Thornberry to replace Maria Eagle, Corbyn’s choice for shadow defence secretary last year, who at the time of her appointment pointed out her multilateralist position on Trident renewal would conflict with Corbyn’s unilateralism.  The public embarassment the exposure of this conflict generated seems to have prompted Corbyn’s appointment of Thornberry to appease his unilateralist constituency.

The parallel appointment of Ken Livingstone, hard left unilateralist eighties survivor, to participate in the relevant defence review to ditch the inconvenient current Labour policy (decided in 2007) to renew Trident demonstrates the dynamic at work once again.  The appointment and then defenestration of Eagle demonstrates Corbyn’s inability to accomodate a ‘broad church’ approach to reconciling the irreconcilables in the PLP.  The appointment of Livingstone and then the de-emphasis of his role in the defence review demonstrates the fact that obviously-predictable resistance to the installation of cherished hard-left chums to achieve cherished hard-left policy reversals has been unanticipated by the leaders of the vanguard of the proletariat.

So much for Corbyn’s tactical capacity.  Granted, reconciling the rump of ex-Blairite Labour (because that is what the PLP is, no matter how much they wish to deny it) to the Corbynite leadership was always going to be hard.  But even after the prologue of Ed Milliband’s warm-up act, the extent of Corbyn’s ineptness on that score remains genuinely surprising.

However, Thornberry’s radio interview indicates that tactical incapacity is not restricted to The Glorious Leader and remains a problem for Corbyinites in general.  Here’s Thornberry on the utility of nuclear deterrence:

‘If nuclear weapons need to be threatened then they have failed.’

No, Emily: it is the latent threat of retaliatory use of nuclear weapons that makes nuclear deterrence work.  The threat of nuclear weapons is what provides the deterrent effect of Mutually-Assured Destruction.  For somebody claiming to be concerned with an ‘evidence-based’ reassessment of ‘all the options’, the evidence (such as it is) suggests that the threat of using nuclear weapons restrained direct conflict between the superpowers during the cold war, and between nuclear powers after the Cold War.  On that basis, it can be cogently argued that the threat of nuclear weapons has succeeded.

The key point of Thornberry’s argument is to question the ability of Trident submarines to avoid detection and thereby avoid elimination in any ‘first strike’ use of nuclear weapons.  This, if true, would undermine their credibility as a deterrent.  Fortunately, the unchallengeable authority for this assumption appears to be an un-named ‘Young Turk’ who asserts that remotely-piloted underwater drones will soon be able to discover Trident submarines hidden anywhere under the oceans.  I look forward to finding out which conspiracy theory-driven corner of the internet or what drone-promoting corporation that particular analyst originates from.  Quite correctly, her interviewer characterises this as a technological smoke-screen to justify her pre-existing rejection of nuclear weapons on ethical grounds.

Thornberry goes on to say:

‘Everybody says that the whole point about nuclear weapons is that you don’t use them’

No, Emily.  The point is that the threat of nuclear retaliation (i.e. using nuclear weapons) by one side logically inhibits their use by another, thus placing a premium on not beginning an escalation that might trigger their use (i.e. by avoiding war).  An openly-declared refusal to use them renders them useless as a threat, thereby making them useless as a mechanism to prevent war. Thornberry, like most Corbynistas, would be more impressive if she could just comprehend the the rationale of policies that she so sincerely objects to, rather than vainly seeking a tactical approach to allow her to achieve an ideological objective which is self-evidently correct to the selected elite like her but painfully contentious and wrong to those in Labour who retain some connection to the real world.

This wouldn’t be a bad approach if it was successful.  Indeed, never mind the intellectual deceit involved, overcoming wider resistance to achieve otherwise unobtainable but necessary policy objectives would be a measure of the tactical political capability of the politicians involved.  But only if they could pull it off.  In the case of the Corbynites they are just too inept to manage it.

The advantage the Corbynites have is their electoral mandate in the leadership election, which gives them a genuine legitimacy.  Their attempts to reverse policy over nuclear deterrence smack of cack-handed Machiavellian plotting by contrast.  While that is the hallmark of the hard left, they would be better advised building a consensus for policy reversal on nuclear deterrence at the party conference.  Granted, this is uncharacteristic of the hard left.  But so is Corbyn’s electoral mandate, and they need to embrace the unfamiliar concept of maintaining democratic electoral support within the party to legitimate their policies.  That does assume that they have any real interest in implementing their policies, which is not a given.

The handling of the issue so far seems to indicate that the Corbynites suspect this suggestion would provoke a confrontation that they can’t win.  In which case, it might be wondered what the purpose was of a leadership which couldn’t gain a mandate from it’s own party, never mind the wider electorate, to implement it’s policies.

Frankly, I don’t think the Labour party has the residual capacity to challenge the Corbynites.  I might be pleasantly surprised if it did, but as a true Machiavellian aficionado I think the surviving social democrats in Labour have sold the pass so many times by now that their only hope is to cling to the wreckage and let the hard-left have their deathride into electoral oblivion before beginning the task of reconstruction.  If they are even capable of doing so once their main opposition has comprehensively been discredited by the external agency of the British electorate.

Now for a concluding statement from Dr Strangelove, wheelchair-bound maniacal ex-Nazi Cold warrior and our specialist expert commentator, on Thornberry’s complete misunderstanding of deterrence theory:

Our man in the White House situation room explains to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Angela Thornberry why it will be necessary for the Labour leadership cadre to go down a deep mineshaft and remain there for one hundred years.

‘Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack’.

Electing a unilateralist like Corbyn as party leader and appointing a unilateralist like Thornberry as shadow defence secretary means there is no fear of reprisal, and therefore no ‘fear to attack’.  So let’s not bother with the risible attempts to mask the unilateralism with drones or any other transparent, intelligence-insulting exercise in camoflaging the real intent of the Corbynites. There is no credibility to the strategy of nuclear deterrence under a Labour government with Corbyn and Thornberry in charge, regardless of the outcome of paper exercises like Labour’s current policy review.

That the Corbynist approach to nuclear deterrence can be effortlessly dismissed by a character from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire on the failings of deterrence theory indicates the high comic value of the current Labour leadership and their politics.  It also gives some added resonance to Thornberry’s statement that ‘… national security is an important issue and shouldn’t be played with’.

Even Dr. Strangelove might approve the irony.

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