Meaningful Multilateralism: A Discussion with Parliamentarians 18th July 2017

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The BASIC/UNA-UK report Meaningful Multilateralism: 30 Nuclear Disarmament Proposals for the Next UK Government, was discussed in Parliament at a roundtable hosted by BASIC on Tuesday 18th June. Former Defence and Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Shadow Defence Secretary, Clive Lewis MP and former UK Ambassador to the UN, Lord Hannay explored the need for a reinvigorated British contribution to global multilateral disarmament, and practical steps Parliament could take to drive this.

The Report

Meaningful Multilateralism attempts to reframe the British debate on disarmament. Despite cross-party rhetorical consensus on the position that we ought to move towards a world free from nuclear weapons, there has been little consensus on the approach and recently little progress or energy applied. Too often the UK debate has focused solely on the renewal of Trident to the detriment of discussion on other forms of UK leadership. Yet Britain has historically taken important steps towards reducing its nuclear posture under several governments. The report offers 30 ideas through:

 - diplomatic leadership within the international community;

 - technical leadership, in developing essential verification and compliance technologies; and

 - leadership by example, taking independent steps to make the UK a more responsible nuclear-armed power.

The Event

The panelists noted the urgency for action on multilateral disarmament, particularly as nuclear risks have increased.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind discussed UK disarmament historically noting that Major’s Conservative government was able to dispense with tactical nuclear weapons deployed in the UK and decrease the UK’s arsenal because of the improved security conditions, rather than a decision to take risks with UK national security. Looking for opportunities for future leadership, he stressed the need to improve security conditions in Europe. The alleged Russian violation of the INF, the continued storage of tactical nuclear weapons, and lack of discussion on strategic stability between President Trump and Putin all endanger future progress on nuclear disarmament. These need addressing urgently.

Clive Lewis MP discussed the disconnect between the Trident debate and wider UK diplomatic action, arguing that the UK needs a global, not just national, perspective on disarmament. As an MP sceptical of the lines of argument usually deployed in the debate on Trident, he welcomed the idea of discussing future UK action to create the conditions for multilateral disarmament. He also expressed a desire to see a change in the Russian nuclear posture, but noted the risk of despondency.  Lewis highlighted in particular three of BASIC’s proposals for the UK to lead by example in creating the conditions:

 - declaring that the sole purpose of UK nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear threats or use;

 - suggesting a discussion within the P5 to adopt adopt a mutual no first use posture; and

 - giving clear negative security assurances that the UK will never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.

Lord Hannay focused on the need to build on the Iran nuclear deal (JCPoA), noting with regret that the UK had supported it ‘perhaps less boldly than hoped.’ Its monitoring and verification mechanisms could be expanded and globalised, and other states encouraged to join a more universal approach. This could also help break the deadlock on the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty at the UN and breath new life into the NPT process. He said that we need to think innovatively to build isolated examples of progress into the broader multilateral framework.

The subsequent discussion focused on two issues. First, the extent to which unilateral UK action can trigger multilateral action. A number of parliamentarians agreed that some of the most significant steps in disarmament had been unilateral (not formally connected with similar moves by other states) and that this strengthens multilateralism. Others, however, expressed a binary difference between unilateral and multilateral disarmament, echoing Sir Malcolm’s remarks that British unilateral disarmament had not occurred to prompt multilateral disarmament but because the weapon systems were no longer needed.

Second, parliamentarians noted with concern the Government’s recent rhetoric on nuclear weapons. In a parliamentary debate last year, Prime Minister May indicated that she would ‘authorise a nuclear strike that could kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children’, and during the general election campaign Defence Secretary Fallon stated that he was ready to fire the UK’s nuclear weapons as a first strike. Such statements were said to break with the UK’s rhetorical restraint that has historically accompanied the UK’s strategic ambiguity.

Next Steps?

At a time when trust and confidence in the existing non-proliferation regime is fraying, the need for parliamentarians to think innovatively about the UK’s contribution to disarmament is greater than ever. There was general consensus that the UK should reassert leadership on disarmament. One person commented that Meaningful Multilateralism ‘could provide [Parliament] with a 21st century discussion on nuclear weapons and strategic security.’ It was clear, however, that the old framing of the debate between unilateralists and multilateralists remained salient in the approaches people have, emphasising the need for ‘a new language on nuclear disarmament.’

The debate may be moving in this direction. The discussion showed a growing appreciation of the way in which independent UK action can positively affect multilateralism: from Clive Lewis’ proposals that the UK should clarify and further limit its nuclear posture and Lord Hannay’s proposal to globalise the Iran Deal to break current multilateral deadlock, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s position that UK progress on disarmament is contingent on international conditions and that the UK bears responsibility for creating these conditions. For example, the debate on irresponsible nuclear signalling opens the opportunity to discuss changes to the UK’s declaratory policy.

In the coming months, the UK will need to consider how the recently agreed Nuclear Ban Treaty could affect its position for the 2018 NPT PrepCom, how to reinstall trust in the step-by-step approach, and how to improve relations with Russia. All of these tasks confront parliamentarians with difficult choices and while all policy changes inherently involve risks, as Clive Lewis said: ‘the risk of doing nothing also brings danger.’

About the author(s)...
  • Maxwell Downman, Impact and Fundraising Officer is tracking political and nuclear developments in Washington, specifically the current Nuclear Posture Review and its implications for Europe .
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