Thinking beyond the bomb: how can the UK help create a nuclear weapons-free world?

One of the main problems for supporters of nuclear disarmament, in terms of their advocacy efforts, is that the experience and process of disarming will be unique for each nuclear possessor state and constitute a journey into the unknown. Thus while South Africa and former Soviet states Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus dismantled or gave up their nuclear arsenals, there is a limited amount we can learn from their experiences in terms of how existing nuclear possessors may disarm.

What’s more, nuclear disarmament can seem negative and intangible, perhaps because there is no common idea of what it would look or feel like. In order to address this it is useful to explore different approaches to abolition, for example, the debate between unilateralists and multilateralists, so we can be clearer about the causes and consequences of disarmament. This article therefore focuses on what the UK can do to help create a nuclear weapons free world (NWFW) as a vital public good.

The fall and rise of unilateralism 

Disarmament Sculpture (Twisted Revolver) covered in ice and snow, outside the visitors entrance to the United Nations Building in New York City.

Disarmament Sculpture (Twisted Revolver) covered in ice and snow, outside the visitors entrance to the United Nations Building in New York City. CC: Luke Redmond via Flickr.

Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn has long been committed to unilateral nuclear disarmament and has recently revived the debate over whether the UK should be a nuclear weapon state (NWS). Unilateralism would entail the UK eliminating its nuclear arsenal without seeking concessions from other states. From the late 1980s up to the Scottish National Party’s breakthrough in 2015, all of Britain’s main political parties rejected this stance. The parliamentary consensus has instead favoured multilateral disarmament, commonly understood to mean a step-by-step negotiating process involving the other nuclear powers with Trident as a bargaining chip. Other steps the UK has taken in order to support this approach include ratification – unlike the US – of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and support for a verified Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, albeit one which only limits future production of such materials.

This approach might appear, at first glance, to be practical, with the US and Russia taking the lead, based on the fact that they have 93% of the world’s nuclear weapons, and to align with public opinion. For example, whilst some surveys show that a majority of voters (54%) would prefer Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons and not replace them, other surveys show that a larger majority (81%) favour an international plan ‘for totally eliminating nuclear weapons according to a timeline’. Thus, as a 2007 study by the Simons Foundation found, the UK ‘boasts a high level of support for elimination of nuclear arms and nuclear testing all over the world’.

Given the significant public support for abolition and the fact that the UK, like all other NWS, has dual obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – firstly to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal and secondly to help create the conditions for a NWFW – it is apparent that the UK could be doing much more and without waiting for reconciliation between China, Russia and the US.

As the NPT makes clear, the elimination of nuclear weapons and the achievement of general and complete disarmament will be facilitated by ‘the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States’. This should lead the UK – both as an NWS and a permanent member of the UN Security Council – to consider how it may act responsibly, both enabling nuclear possessors to move towards disarmament and reducing the incentives for others to seek non-conventional deterrents.

British interpretations of multilateralism

During Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister the Foreign and Commonwealth Office produced an information paper entitled ‘Lifting the Nuclear Shadow: Creating the Conditions for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons’, wherein the government outlined how it would fulfil its commitments under the NPT. The document stated that the UK would ‘continue to work towards the total elimination of our own nuclear arsenal and all others through multilateral, mutual and verifiable agreements’. Furthermore, when ‘useful’, the government would willingly include in any negotiations ‘the small proportion of the world’s nuclear weapons that belong to the UK.’

Using such vague and misleading language to wriggle out of national responsibilities is an unedifying but unfortunately common trait of official documents, with the government having previously stated that the NPT ‘does not establish any timetable for nuclear disarmament’. Firstly, as former US Ambassador for the NPT Lewis Dunn notes, the 120-member Non-Aligned Movement ‘has long argued for negotiation of a time-bound framework for eliminating nuclear weapons’, yet this has been strenuously resisted by the UK and other nuclear powers.

Secondly, does the UK’s stance mean it concurs with NATO’s 2012 Deterrence Defence Posture Review, which declared that ‘as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance’? The question here is how soon Trident would be put on the table in a multilateral negotiating process for disarmament given that it is assigned to NATO. For example, does the UK government think that including Trident would only be ‘useful’ after Russia and the US agree bilaterally to reduce their nuclear arsenals from over 7,000 weapons each to low numbers approaching the 200-300 weapons that China, France and the UK each maintain? The need here is for more clarity from the government so the public can get a better sense of the timescale that is being proposed.

Lifting the Nuclear Shadow goes on to acknowledge that NWS have a ‘special responsibility’ to lead on eliminating nuclear weapons, but that this first requires certain ‘political and security conditions’ to be met, via ‘a co-operative project with the active engagement of the entire international community.’ If it is accepted that a more cooperative and peaceful world will benefit multilateral disarmament efforts how can we judge whether the UK has lived up to its ‘special responsibility’ in this area?

Creating the conditions for a NWFW 

A verification exercise took place at the mock-up nuclear weapon dismantlement facility in Norway in June 2009

A verification exercise took place at the mock-up nuclear weapon dismantlement facility in Norway in June 2009. CC:

A brief review of the UK’s actions in recent years shows that in several ways the UK has directly undermined efforts for disarmament to make headway. This point is most obviously illustrated by the fact that the UK is planning to spend tens of billions of pounds on replacing Trident – an immensely powerful type of nuclear weapon integrated within an aggressive military alliance that does not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons. Significantly, the UK does this whilst seeking to portray itself as the most progressive NWS and an active supporter of a NWFW in its public diplomacy.

In reality the UK has, so far, not taken any unilateral or multilateral disarmament steps. What the UK has done, since the end of the Cold War, is to make quantitative reductions to its nuclear forces whilst acquiring, as Nick Ritchie points out, a nuclear weapons system – Trident – that provides an increased capability over its predecessor – Polaris. The reductions trend continued with the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which announced that ‘the number of warheads on board each submarine would be reduced from a maximum of 48 to a maximum of 40, the number of operational missiles on the Vanguard Class submarines would be reduced to no more than eight, and the number of operational warheads reduced from fewer than 160 to no more than 120.’

These reductions, while unilateral, cannot be described as disarmament, because they have not taken place in a verifiable, irreversible and transparent manner as envisaged by the 2000 NPT Review Conference’s 13 steps. While the UK has so far not undertaken disarmament, it has begun to investigate how this might occur in future through initiatives with Norway and the US. These projects have brought together experts aiming to address the technical and procedural challenges of verifying nuclear warhead dismantlement.

Understanding how nuclear possessors think

Adopting truly progressive policies capable of fostering international cooperation would require the UK to develop an understanding of other state’s threat perceptions. For example, disarmament advocates and scholars often assert that the UK’s nuclear status legitimates nuclear possession for all, encouraging proliferation, and that this undermines the NPT.

While it is true that Russia sees the UK’s nuclear arsenal as part of NATO’s overall military capabilities, the UK’s nuclear arsenal alone cannot be considered, from a strategic point of view, a key factor in the decision-making of any state currently possessing or with the potential to acquire nuclear weapons. Rather, it is clear from the strategic studies literature that US conventional superiority – at the head of the NATO alliance – and domestic political dynamics are far more important considerations for states, including China and Russia, because nuclear weapons are ‘force equalisers’. China and Russia thus primarily see their nuclear weapons as deterrents against the West’s overwhelming conventional military superiority and policies of containment and expansion. This should lead British decision-makers to consider carefully the legal and political consequences of overseas power projection.

Take, for example, the UK’s involvement in NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia (code named Operation Allied Force), which was, according to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee ‘contrary to…the basic law of the international community – the UN Charter’. According to Russian defence analyst Nikolai Sokov, the significance for Moscow of NATO’s bombing campaign was that it showed how the US could use force without the authorisation of the UN Security Council. Such considerations, for Sokov, led Russia to ‘enhance reliance on nuclear weapons in a departure from all documents adopted in the 1990s’ in order to deter the West from conducting ‘limited conventional wars’, principally in Russia’s near abroad.

More widely, as Raju Thomas notes, NATO’s ‘unrestrained use of force’ gave ‘an additional post-hoc justification for an Indian nuclear deterrent’, in the ‘context of the new Western-dominant world order’, bringing nuclear powers China, India and Russia together in protest against the bombing. These three states shared concerns about aggressive intervention being justified on humanitarian grounds, as each had to deal with a potentially secessionist region with parallels to Kosovo. For China this was Tibet and Xinjiang, for India, Kashmir, and for Russia, Chechnya. Subsequent US- or NATO-led regime-change operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have also stoked concerns, not least in Iran, about where the West would seek to intervene next.

Profiting from proliferation 

The top leadership consult seconds before opening the last session of the 2010 review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on Nuclear Weapons (NPT). From left; NPT President Ambassador Libran N. Cabactulan and NPT Secretary-General Tom Markram.

The top leadership consult seconds before opening the last session of the 2010 review conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty on Nuclear Weapons (NPT). From left; NPT President Ambassador Libran N. Cabactulan and NPT Secretary-General Tom Markram. CC: UN Norway (New York). Image via: Flickr

Perhaps as a means of placating Indian anger and drawing it into the Western orbit, in 2008 Washington made a highly controversial deal with New Delhi, providing assistance to India’s civilian nuclear energy program, and greater help with other energy and satellite technology, despite India refusing to join the NPT. The UK followed the US in July 2010, sealing an agreement with India for the export of civil nuclear technology that continues to this day. As Nicolas Watt reported, this move raised ‘fears of leakage’ to India’s ‘military nuclear programme’, meaning the UK would be engaged in blatant proliferation which would likely lead to responses from New Delhi’s rivals in Beijing and Islamabad.

The British government has also in recent years lobbied for India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was interpreted as a way of boosting India’s standing as ‘an atomic power’ and thus provide a larger export market for Western technology. Yet, as Fredrik Dahl explains, China and other states have questioned whether India should be given exceptional access ‘into a key forum deciding rules for civilian nuclear trade’ despite being outside the NPT, under which it would have to commit to disarmament.

The UK could also support non-proliferation by carefully considering how arms transfers affect political dynamics in regions suffering from conflict. For example, arming human rights abusing regimes in the Middle East contributes to tensions and reduces the chances of establishing a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, which the government claims to support.

Overall, if progress on non-proliferation and disarmament is to be made, short-term economic and political goals must not be allowed to trump critical national and international security concerns. Advocates of multilateral disarmament therefore need to produce and enact policies that make sense across government. Moreover, without a clear understanding of the various economic, psychological and strategic factors driving proliferation and what might enable disarmament, it will be a meaningless exercise for politicians to argue that Britain favours the international elimination of nuclear weapons.

Tim Street is the Senior Programme Officer on the Sustainable Security programme at Oxford Research Group (ORG) and a PhD student at Warwick University.