One of the reasons Scottish unionists give for remaining with the UK is the UK’s great moral influence over world affairs. How does that stand up in the context of today’s most pressing issue of Syria and weapons of mass destruction?
The harsh reality is that it seems that the UK is firing diplomatic blanks. There’s a pretence of great status when the simple truth is that the US is in charge and what influence the G7 does have involves keeping the UK’s comedy act Foreign Secretary out of the equation. This is in spite of the silly notion that nukes give the UK ‘a seat at the top table’, enable the UK to ‘punch above weight’ and all the other well-worn cliches.
And what of the UK’s much-vaunted ‘moral’ opposition to Syria’s obvious use of chemical weapons?
Well, chemical weapons are not very nice, but it’s hard to see how they can be separated in moral terms from nukes. The UK government often justifies our possession of nukes on the basis that we might have to use them against a developing state. But how can killing children through nuclear contamination possibly be deemed morally superior to killing them with Sarin?
And while the Defence Secretary made the point on Sunday of saying that the Geneva protocol of 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, his emphasis on that ancient date simply seemed a sneaky way of taking our eye away from the fact that we maintained both a chemical capability and a chemical weapon research establishment until the early 1990s. Indeed the US still has a big, if diminishing, stockpile today.
The simple truth is that until 1989 the UK maintained a potent delivery capability and a well-resourced research establishment, both based upon the need to keep the capability to use chemical weapons any time it might serve our interests.
Indeed, as a private soldier once myself, I remember frequent posters being put up around the unit asking for volunteers prepared to have chemical blister agent put upon them for double pay (!). This is why we were pretty mute about the use of chemical weapons by the Iranians and Iraqis in their big 1980s war. And why we were fairly circumspect about criticising Saddam when he used chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988.
The fact is that chemical weapons are notoriously difficult to use without killing your own folk. So when we finally signed away our chemical capability (actually, as late as 1993), it had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with simple obsolescence and impracticality. Oh, yes, and our possession of nukes of course.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that our super research establishment actually invented the modern weaponisation of Sarin in the late 1950s, then sold the process to the US for mass production there. It was a standard part of NATO armaments from then on. Moreover, it seems that the UK may actually have in effect exported the Sarin capability to Syria in the first place. Sure, that was 35 years ago, but who were we exporting it to then? Why, to the present president’s Dad. We obviously know when we export arms that we have no control of future usage, right?
Nah, while it’s quite right that we work to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction and that includes chemical weapons, we simply have to recognise that poorer countries today go for cheap weapons of mass destruction and we go for expensive ones. There’s no moral distinction.
Yet how will we actually influence such world realities for the better in future? Through alliances, surely?
That’s why former UK prime minister David Cameron is desperate for a promotion to a big international job right now. It’s NATO Secretary General, the same one George Robertson left the UK Defence Secretary job for (a move which made him a truly powerful man in the first decade of this century). Perhaps this is in the end the kind of influence only the UK can have in future, because surely such influential ‘world’ appointments are only available to large nations, not ‘wee ones’ like Scotland?
Oh, but wait. Here’s Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, present NATO Secretary General. And here’s his predecessor, Denamark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen. And here’s his predecessor but one, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of The Netherlands.
Enough said. For now.