war on the rocks

Corbyn’s Strategic Ignorance Would Make Him a Dangerous Prime Minister

October 6, 2015

Last week, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made news by discussing with the BBC his views on nuclear weapons and their role in defending Britain. In doing so, he displayed a staggering lack of understanding of fundamental defense concepts and of the threats facing the world today. His responses on nuclear weapons alone amply demonstrated his unfitness to be prime minister. In addition, his interview betrayed a major misunderstanding of the terrorism problem.

As I have pieced together from two different BBC reports, each differently edited, a key part of the exchange went as follows:

BBC: Would you ever push the nuclear button if you were prime minister?

Corbyn: I am opposed to nuclear weapons. I am opposed to the holding and the usage of nuclear weapons. They are the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. They can only kill millions of civilians if ever used. And I am totally and morally opposed to nuclear weapons. I do not see them as defense. I do not see the use of them as a credible way to …

BBC: But yes or no, you would never push the nuclear button?

Corbyn: I am answering you perfectly clearly. It is immoral to have or use nuclear weapons. I’ve made that clear all of my life.

With these few phrases, Corbyn undercut well-established notions of deterrence. Deterrence depends on three things: a rational opponent, capability (resident at present in Britain’s Trident nuclear submarine force), and credibility. If he should ever take up residence in 10 Downing Street, it is this last part that Corbyn nullified with his BBC interview.

Corbyn failed to recognize that the only strategically sound answer to such a question is to say that of course he would use nuclear weapons if the situation demanded it. More deeply, he failed to recognize that saying he would use them would in no way tie his hands in the ghastly event that the issue arose for real. In other words, giving the strategically sound answer need not violate his morally based stand against using nuclear weapons. Many presidents, prime ministers and general secretaries have asked themselves whether they would really commit mass murder with nuclear weapons. Perhaps some of them privately vowed that they would not. But none of them ever said so in public because to do so would make the very eventuality more likely by destroying the credibility of retaliation required for deterrence to work.

But Corbyn had an implied answer to that. In effect he said that it is inconceivable that a nuclear crisis might arise, so credibility is irrelevant. Specifically, he stated that, “We are not under any threat from any nuclear power. We are not under threat from that.” Vladimir Putin must be thinking, “What am I, chopped liver?” After all, under Putin’s leadership, Russia has invaded and seized a portion of Georgia, annexed part of Ukraine, repeatedly violated the airspace of several countries around Russia’s periphery, flown nuclear-armed bombers close to British airspace, and dispatched Russian armed forces to Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad by attacking forces supported by the United States. This latter is especially troublesome given that American, NATO, and other friendly air forces are operating in the same airspace, raising the prospect of an inadvertent clash. Given that Corbyn is a Eurosceptic who also wants to take the United Kingdom out of NATO, perhaps his view on Russian aggression is that what happens to other countries need be of no concern to Britain and the devil take the hindmost. However, the bomber flights near British airspace alone should be enough to suggest to Corbyn that his country faces threats from a nuclear power. That is certainly how Putin understood those flights. But recognizing those acts as the fist-shaking that they were requires an understanding of strategy and international affairs that Corbyn has not heretofore displayed.

Furthermore, can Corbyn be confident that threats will not unexpectedly arise from other vectors in the future? He shouldn’t be. A nuclear-armed Iran could potentially become a threat to Britain, for instance. The fact that Britain’s relationship with Iran is somewhat less fraught than America’s relationship with Iran is not saying very much. And then, of course, there is the awkward fact that unexpected things have a tendency to happen in the international arena. Consider the Korean War, the overthrow of the Shah, the fall of the Berlin Wall, failures in early warning systems, and incidents at sea or in the air. Unexpected events could always lead to a threat that had been previously unimaginable.

Corbyn also ignores the fact that nuclear weapons can be useful even when they are not used as a threat themselves. One example of such utility comes from David Palkki of Texas A&M. Based on his work with captured Iraqi records, he has found that Saddam Hussein was deterred from using chemical weapons during the 1991 Gulf War. However, this deterrence did not come as result of the ambiguous threat of unbearable retaliation delivered by Secretary of State James Baker just before the beginning of the air war. Rather, Saddam was deterred even before the United States made any threats because he feared American nuclear retaliation.

But such matters are of no concern, Corbyn implied. Rather, he said that while there is no threat from nuclear-armed states, “We are under threat from instability. Yes, there is a terrorist issue around the world.” Then he went on to say that, “the nuclear weapons the United States holds, all the hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads they’ve got were of no help to them on 9/11. The issues are threats of irrational acts by individuals.”

There are two problems with this. The first has to do with nuclear weapons. Arguing against nuclear weapons by saying that they are useless against terrorists is “a bit like saying rolling pins are no good in fighting malaria, true, but not much of a point,” as one Guardian reader put it. Corbyn would only have a point here if he could rule out other threats. But he can’t. Or at least he shouldn’t. The second has to do with Corbyn’s lack of understanding of terrorism. While it is tempting to say that terrorists are irrational, it is almost never true. Most claims of irrationality boil down to differences in fundamental values or assumptions rather than an inability to calculate ends, ways, and means. In addition, while there certainly are some mentally ill terrorists who truly are irrational, research has shown that terrorists tend to be mentally ill at the same rate as the population from which they come. Corbyn’s misunderstanding of the terrorism problem suggests that he would embark on a raft of ineffective and dangerous counterterrorism initiatives were he to become prime minister.

In short, Corbyn’s lack of understanding of undergraduate level topics in international security is truly alarming. For the sake of Britain and the world, we must hope that he never becomes prime minister.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


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