Policy Paper

British Perspectives on the Future of Nuclear Weapons

in Program

This study on British Perspectives on the Future of Nuclear Weapons traces the development of British nuclear pol icy from the 1940s to the present and considers the political and military concerns likely to shape the policies of the New Labour government, elected in May 1997.

From their inception, the rationales for British nuclear weapons centered on their perceived abi lity to deliver independence, deterrence and international prestige. The study analyzes how the fact and utility of these perceived or constructed roles for British nuclear weapons have been eroded over the decades. The end of the Cold War should have been an opportunity for re-assessing defense policy across the board, but neither the previous Conservative government nor the Labour Party were able to step back from the ideological trappings that had immured the nuclear debate in Britain. The paper identifies two principal reasons for this continuing failure to subject nuclear policy to a root and branch review. First, among policyshapers in the Foreign Office and Defence Ministries, there remains a deeply embedded sentiment that Britain ought to ‘punch above its weight’ internationally, and that it requires a nuclear force in order to do so. Second, nuclear disarmament positions had been scapegoated as the Labour Party sought to restructure and reposition itself toward the political center following successive electoral defeats in the 1980s.

The study raises serious questions about the purpose and relevance of Britain’s deployment of the Trident nuclear weapon system in the complex, multi-polar security environment of the twenty-first century and notes that the climate of public opinion now favors much more positive i nitiati ves on nuclear disarmament. In view of its past history and the institutional constraints, however, New Labour is likely to take an extremely cautious approach to defense issues. Prior to launching its ‘Strategic Defence Review’ in May 1997, the Labour government explicitly ruled out the unilateral withdrawal of Trident and is consequently not expected to make any dramatic departure from previous nuclear policies. It may tinker at the edges by reducing the number of warheads on Trident or cutting back on patrols. Describing Trident as ‘a Cold War weapons system in search of a post-Cold War rationale’, the report examines the principal new missions being envisaged-a sub-strategic role and deterrence of chemical and biological weapons (csw)-and concludes that they are unconvincing and riddled with contradictions. Noting that the British public now identifies environmental crises as the most serious and threatening security problems in the future, the study concludes that having achieved government, Labour needs to overcome its ‘traumatic defeat syndrome’ with regard to nuclear policy and respond to British security needs as they are now.

The post-Cold War world is at a crossroads that could lead either to a destabilization or a consolidation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime-the latter is likely to depend on irreversible progress toward nuclear disarmament. Four representati ve scenarios are outlined: nuclear stand-off; continued possession but at lower levels; reconfiguration of the doctrine of extended deterrence, accompanied by further proliferation; or irreversible progress in nuclear disarmament.

The study then identifies five main options for Labour’s long-term nuclear policy:

  1. to retain and eventually replace Trident, a decision that would have to be taken in eight to ten years;
  2. to retain Trident but not replace it;
  3. to rediversify the UK nuclear arsenal, building  up tactical nuclear systems again;
  4. to join forces with France to provide an integrated ‘Eurodeterrent’ capability; or
  5. to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons, involving Trident in five-power or multilateral negotiations when the time is right.

The fifth option is closest to the current policy espoused by Labour, which entered the 1997 election with stated support for a freeze on nuclear warhead numbers, a fissile material production ban, a multilateral no-fi rst-use agreement and strengthened security assurances. Robin Cook, Labour’s influential Foreign Secretary, went on record in 1995 advocating a nuclear weapons  register, an international regime to quantify, secure and reduce fissile material stocks, and negotiations aimed at achieving a nuclear weapon convention. Many of these options are now being actively debated in international policy circles. The study considers the options, together with other proposals, such as taking nuclear weapons off alert, which are rapidly gaining currency in US and Russian policy circles.

In addition to de-alerti ng and no-first-use, the study identifies several other issues of ‘qualitative nuclear disarmament’ where Britain could play an important  role  in  fostering constructive debate and agreement among the nuclear weapon states. These include: transparency  and confidence-buildi ng measures; commitments not to modernize or increase the size of nuclear arsenals; agreements not to station nuclear weapons outside the territory of the possessor state; and strengthening the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (A BM) Treaty by having Britain, China and France join the United  States, Russia and former Soviet states as signatories.

Noting that despite the diminished military-strategic role for Trident, the prestige  accorded  to the United Kingdom as a nuclear weapon power makes it difficult for it to give up its nuclear status, the report argues for Britons to come to terms with a different conception of their country’s place in the world. Rather than stretching military resources to ‘punch above its weight’, Britain  could gain stature through cooperation and leadership in resolving environmental and other world-threatening problems. In particular, Labour is well-placed to push for discussions among the nuclear weapon states on a range of nuclear issues, especially those relating to transparency, nuclear deployment and use postures. Although the constrai nts on other nuclear governments are such that they could have difficulty pushing for such initiatives at present, there are powerful constituencies within each that would welcome five-power talks, increasing the chances of an interested response, if Labour were to take the initiative.

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