BBC Radio 4 – 27 & 29 August 2005
ZAREER MASANI [Presenter]: … One practical way of slowing down the nuclear race, says Janet Bloomfield, would be for everyone to agree not to use their own atomic weapons except in retaliation for a nuclear strike.
BLOOMFIELD [Janet Bloomfield, Oxford Research Group and former Chair of CND]: That would be very useful to actually take back some of the feeling of threat and danger in the situation. A lot of countries ask for what they call negative security assurances, which is that they, because they don’t have nuclear weapons, will not be threatened by nuclear weapons. Unfortunately we have a whole new change of posture and policy in the United States which suggests that they’re willing to use nuclear weapons against anybody they see as a danger to them pre-emptively, and that is extremely dangerous because then that opens the floodgates to other countries saying that it’s their right and their security needs to actually be able to do that. So I think a discussion of no first use and some countries already declare that. China has declared that. And India, which is not within the non-proliferation regime but I think everybody acknowledges it has nuclear weapons, has also declared that. So I think that would be very useful as an instrument.
MASANI: But China, despite its declaration of no first use, has recently been issuing nuclear threats against Taiwan, while India arguably had nothing to lose by promising no first use, because of its enormous conventional superiority over its regional rival, Pakistan. Here in Britain, the Government still insists that no first use would compromise our security. The Ministry of Defence was unable to provide a minister for interview, but they gave us this statement:
“A policy of no first use of nuclear weapons would be incompatible with our and NATO’s doctrine of deterrence, nor would it further nuclear disarmament objectives. We have made it clear, as have our NATO allies, that the circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote. Our overall strategy is to ensure uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the exact nature of our response, and thus to maintain effective deterrence.”
MASANI: The thinking here seems frozen in the Cold War logic of a Western European nuclear capability deterring a conventional military threat. And it’s not just the Americans who are the obstacle to change, says Paul Rogers from Bradford University.
ROGERS [Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford]: One has to say that there is a suspicion that some other countries hide behind this and will not say in public that they may take a similar view but prefer the United States to take the blame, if you like, for the problems with arms control. The other four regular nuclear powers, so to speak – China, Russia, France and Britain – are all busily modernising their own systems while they claim allegiance to the NPT.
MASANI: It’s half a century since the Aldermaston marches organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and two decades since the Soviet threat disappeared. But the British nuclear deterrent, the Trident submarine, remains fully operational, and Parliament will soon be discussing how to upgrade it. The Ministry of Defence told us why:
“While there is no immediate direct military threat to the UK or our NATO Allies, we live in a changing and uncertain world and new threats to our security could emerge in the future. To provide the ultimate assurance of our security, Britain continues to require a credible and effective minimum nuclear deterrent, which is currently Trident.”
MASANI: No hint here that, instead of hanging on to a nuclear deterrent against a purely hypothetical threat, we might do better to disarm. But now that the main aggressors we’re facing are terrorists, who are we deterring with Trident? Dr. Julian Lewis MP is the Conservative shadow spokesman on nuclear defence.
LEWIS: I think it likely, and I suspect that this is what the Government is thinking as well, if Trident were to be replaced – as I think it should be – it would almost certainly be by another submarine launched ballistic missile system. And what we mean by saying that Trident is an insurance policy against the future is that it is like all insurance policies. It’s precisely because you don’t know what dangers await you in the future that you need to invest in an insurance policy. And the great thing about Trident is that it doesn’t matter where in the world the threat may come from in the future. Trident would be able to reach any country which became a nuclear threat fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years down the line in a way which we cannot possibly foresee at present.
GARDEN [Rt Hon Lord Garden KCB, Liberal Democrat Defence Spokesman in the House of Lords]: I buy into the argument that with the uncertainty about the number of nuclear states in the future, we would be unwise at the moment to give up our ability to deter future attackers, given that it’s low cost, unless we got some big pay off for it. Now if the big pay off for getting rid of our nuclear capability was that the whole world disarmed, that would be a price worth paying. If it were that there was a significant arms control regime that could be triggered by our action, then again it would be a price worth paying.
MASANI: Lord Garden of the Liberal Democrats.
GARDEN: But if we just put ours on the table tomorrow and said let’s have a special meeting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty countries, we Britain hereby declare that you can have our four Trident submarines, they’d say thanks very much and they’d all go home or have a dinner and celebrate it but nothing would happen. It would not make one hap’orth of difference to the world’s security.
MASANI: There’s a tri-partisan consensus here that our nuclear deterrent is a cheap insurance policy, especially in a situation where we might not be able to count on the American umbrella. If, for example, Iran acquires nuclear missiles, London might well be within their range, while the U.S. might not. But does our insurance policy have hidden costs by actually increasing the risks around us? The proliferators we want to stop claim they’re following our own logic by seeking nuclear security: first Israel in the 1960s, then India & Pakistan in the1970s & ‘80s, and now North Korea and Iran. Could we have done better at stopping them if we’d set a virtuous example? Conservative Defence spokesman, Julian Lewis.
LEWIS: Countries take these decisions according to a hard-headed assessment of their own strategic interests. They do not take these decisions on the basis of “Well, oh, democratic Britain has got one, therefore we’re going to have one”. The only countries that would take such a decision, I think, are countries that would be thinking of attacking us.
MASANI: But there are potential nuclear powers who have foregone the option – countries like South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, countries quite as big or bigger than Britain who could have had regional super power ambitions, who have eschewed that option. Why do you think that is?
LEWIS: I think they may well have taken those decisions on the basis of what they regarded as a balance of other benefits to offset the military disadvantage of not having nuclear weapons. It may well be that their role in the world and their perception of their role in the world is less central in major military terms than that which the United Kingdom has of its own position. I believe that the United Kingdom is still an important actor on the international stage. Bear in mind that we have unilaterally given up our chemical and biological weapons and, therefore, that gives added importance to the maintenance of the nuclear deterrent in my view.
MASANI: So why give up our membership of the exclusive nuclear club if we don’t have to? After all, it’s helped keep us at the international top table for half a century. And there is another pragmatic argument against nuclear disarmament by the West, even as part of a multilateral process. If open societies like ours shut down our nuclear arsenals, how can we be sure that others do the same? Dr. Kathleen Bailey.
BAILEY [Hon Dr Kathleen C. Bailey, Senior Associate, National Institute for Public Policy]: Currently there is no way, no technology that will enable us to verify the absence of nuclear weapons, thus disarmament is not yet technically possible because we can’t trust, we need to verify. There could be threats from China, from other nations. We just don’t know what’s around the corner, so we need to maintain our own capabilities for as long as we need them.
MASANI: But if these treaties are useless, the future looks very bleak because even if North Korea and Iran signed up to anything that’s currently being discussed with them, from what you’re saying there would be no way of verifying it.
BAILEY: That’s correct, there is no way of verifying going to zero in those contexts or in our context vis-à-vis the Russians and the Chinese. It just doesn’t exist today.
MASANI: So all we can do is try and persuade these nations to sign up to agreements which we can’t really enforce or verify?
BAILEY: We need to solve the security situation so that they won’t feel that they need the weapons in the first place. If they don’t need the weapons, then they won’t care whether or not there is a verification package in force or even attempted.
MASANI: Of course, one country’s idea of security could be another’s paranoia. It’s hard to see how the West can allay the security concerns of states as unpredictable as North Korea and Iran. But even if we can’t persuade them that they don’t need nuclear weapons, we could influence how they’re deployed and controlled by helping to democratise the regimes in charge. According to Julian Lewis, what matters most is not whether you have nukes but what you do with them.
LEWIS: Some people say that it is automatically a bad thing when a country gets a lethal weapon system of this sort, but I say that it depends on what sort of a country it is. It’s worth considering how our attitude to the Soviet nuclear arsenal changed as soon as Soviet Communism fell. But however much the Soviet nuclear arsenal has gone down, there are still more than enough hydrogen bombs and other devices to wipe out our civilisation many times over. Why don’t we worry about it so much? Because we see that at least for the time being the Russians have a relatively democratic and peaceable system of government. What worried us actually was not their weapons previously, but it was their weapons in the possession of a totalitarian Communist system. Now what primarily worries us are those weapons that might leach out from the stockpile and get into the hands of terrorists or other regimes who are still totalitarian …