Why does Britain need to feel special?

The world is getting restless with some states’ attachment to nuclear weapons. So why is Britain going out of its way to deepen its nuclear relationship with the United States?

The small community of observers who watch Britain’s quiet moves to extend its nuclear lifeline with the United States have just been rewarded–the ten-year renewal and modification of the US-UK nuclear Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) to be debated in Parliament next Thursday. Critics claim the arrangement stretches and breaks Britain’s legal commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and ensures Britain remains dependent upon America for both its nuclear arsenal and foreign policy direction.

But it goes deeper than that: Britain and other governments face a choice. In an age of climate change, resource scarcity and other global inter-dependencies, the chances of successful adaptation of human societies to these stresses depends upon governments cooperating more effectively within multilateral frameworks. Privileged arrangements like the MDA that undermine this approach must be swept away.

The MDA governs cooperation in matters related to nuclear weapons between the United States and the UK. The two states share Trident missiles from a common pool, technologies associated with the design and development of nuclear warheads, and critical parts of the huge ‘boomer’ submarines that carry the missiles and warheads. For example, despite different requirements that mean the UK will have to fill four missile tubes with concrete ballast or use them for different purposes, both versions of the new follow-on submarines will have a common missile compartment with twelve missile tubes, command and control facilities and crew quarters.

The Nuclear Information Service points out that this particular update to the MDA also opens the door to far more extensive cooperation on nuclear naval propulsion technology in particular. The PWR3 nuclear reactors in UK Trident successor submarines will use next generation American naval nuclear propulsion technology. Though not governed by any particular treaty, navies tend to protect their nuclear propulsion technology as closely as states guard their nuclear weapon designs. It is a highly sensitive aspect of the cat and mouse games that makes up anti-submarine warfare. The fact that the Americans are willing to share so much of their most prized secrets is an indication of the unique relationship, and gives a clue to one of the core reasons why the British elite are so attached to the MDA arrangements.

From a technical perspective, the modification and renewal of the MDA makes every sense. Both countries deploy the same Trident missile submarine system and use identical components. Cooperation on the next generation of technology saves money, results in better systems and cements the relationship between the two countries. Anyone that believes in a strong relationship between the two countries (and that includes almost everyone in the British political elite) must surely agree that if both countries are to field nuclear weapons, it makes sense to share information and technology.

What’s more, the amendments to the MDA also introduce important new dimensions to US-UK teamwork in the field of nuclear counter-proliferation and intelligence sharing. Surely this can only be a good thing? In sum, the two countries justify cooperation in the development of technologies we would rather live without as necessity to hold the line and prevent their enemies from developing their own weapons capabilities.

But this ‘better us than them’ mentality fails to acknowledge the bigger picture.

There are 184 non-nuclear weapon state members of the NPT who have foresworn nuclear weapons in their own national security strategies on the basis that global security is secured by mutual restraint. The five recognized nuclear weapon states have also acknowledged this by promising to negotiate away their own arsenals at an early date. This is a question of legal obligation. BASIC received a formal legal opinion from Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin of Matrix Chambers back in 2004 suggesting the MDA runs counter to our NPT Article VI obligation to engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations.

But more than this, it’s a question of confidence in the future and commitment to global multilateral arrangements. These matter far more to our future than protecting military arrangements that deeply undermine the capacity for multilateralism.

Other states exercise self-restraint as non-nuclear weapon states and appear to thrive without suffering nuclear blackmail. It is not as if nuclear weapons are beyond their reach technically. One state that displays no such self-restraint is North Korea, one of the poorest countries on the planet. Claims this week from the US Commander of Forces in South Korea that North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead that can fit on top of its missiles may be premature, but no one should doubt they are well on the way to having a significant nuclear deterrent.

But most still choose not to have nuclear weapons. True, some in NATO believe they depend upon extended nuclear deterrence, but abstain from pursuing their own nuclear deterrent). States without such a relationship survive in turbulent regions, and actively choose non-nuclear security arrangements. They recognize they are safer if they and their neighbours find other ways of settling their disputes and achieving stability without nuclear deterrence.

Nevertheless, non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly restless over the continued attachment to national nuclear arsenals within a handful of states. They believe this not only threatens nuclear war, but also deeply harms long-term confidence in the NPT and other non-proliferation initiatives. Sustainable confidence requires stronger non-proliferation instruments and genuine nuclear disarmament–a movement towards universal non-discriminatory membership. Britain’s renewal of its nuclear arsenal, despite not being in direct strategic competition with any other state and being within the NATO alliance, is particularly corrosive to confidence.

So why, if we are so close to the United States, should Britain choose to spend a third its defence equipment budget over the next 15 years on Trident? This is a system with dubious military utility that essentially doubles up on the US umbrella our other allies seem content to depend upon.

It could be because Trident pulls the Americans in close and gives us a unique status in relationship to them. But this goes both ways. It also cements British dependency on the United States, and by extension commits the UK to a policy of maintaining US hegemony and exceptionalism. These are the very values that undermine the global multilateral systems we will increasingly rely upon for our real national and global security as global challenges of climate change and resource competition really bite –systems we claim to support.

We don’t like it when North Korea pursues their own nuclear weapons capability, or any suggestion that they are supplying Syria or Iran with nuclear or missile technology triggers strong reactions (and illegal ‘preventive’ military strikes from Israel). Yet the British government quietly renews the MDA with minimal fuss and no question of Parliament having a vote on the matter. Once complete, officials can get on with trading far more sophisticated and potent weapon systems the North Koreans can only dream about.

It is time we joined up our thinking: the worlds of nuclear deterrence, defence and alliance need to meet those of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and fair global governance. For too long these communities have been kept apart, and the deterrence discussion has been pre-eminent in the thinking of national leaderships because of a self-fulfilling lack of confidence in multilateral arrangements.

The annual First Committee of the UN General Assembly responsible for multilateral disarmament negotiations, in session in New York this month, is just approaching its finale–a series of resolutions on ideas to develop and strengthen multilateral regimes. It is a precursor to the month-long NPT Review Conference next May that coincides with the British General Election, the first in a generation that precedes the final decision on whether we renew our only nuclear weapons system.

With business as usual in Whitehall’s Ministry of Defence, and deeper nuclear weapon relationships developing between the British and American shipbuilders, weapons designers and navies, is there really any hope of a new dawn for the non-proliferation regime?

This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of OpenDemocracy.net.

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