Nuclear weapons are attracting a higher profile in this UK election debate than they have in any nuclear weapon state in a generation. Yet the focus is dominated by symbolic prejudice (does a political leader have the necessary mettle to resist minority opinions and renew Trident?) rather than strengthening national security in the round, let alone Britain’s contribution to global peace and security. On those rare occasions when international issues are raised, it is to stoke national fears of a threat emanating from Russia (and Iran) as evidence that British nuclear deterrence remains as relevant as ever. There is little consideration of the real utility of nuclear weapons in any crisis, nor whether Britain’s investment in Trident is an effective contribution to NATO’s ability to contain any aggression and to calm down the situation.
Earlier this week attention was drawn to the failure of the election campaign to properly address another major threat to our security, climate change, when a new report suggests that unless there is decisive action in Paris near the end of this year, there is a high risk of devastating consequences well within our lifetimes. A major issue in its own right, climate change highlights the need for international collective action, with states showing a willingness to loosen their grip on national sovereignty and recognize the urgent common interest to reduce carbon emissions. The experience in the nuclear weapons field is not encouraging, and in a deeper manner will deeply harm the capacity of states to cooperate. As we can see whether we consider the climate change talks, energy insecurity, the Iran nuclear negotiations, or Middle East strategic instability, states our national strategists currently tend to view as adversaries, like Russia and China, have to be treated as partners in global governance.
States parties are meeting in New York next week for the four-week NPT Review Conference, held once every five years to consider the health of the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Britain, alongside the other four nuclear weapon states, has particularly acute responsibilities towards the rest of the international community. These involve legal obligations to engage in disarmament negotiations freely entered into in recognition of the essential need to act collectively in the interests of common global security. Yet the evidence, particularly seen in the nuclear modernisation programmes mirrored in every nuclear-armed state, backs up the strong suspicion is that there is little intention to follow through.
There are emerging several flash-points that are obstructing progress, any one of which could dash hopes of our ability to bring nuclear proliferation under control. These include that between Russia and NATO (with China in the wings), between India and Pakistan, and across the Middle East. This last is particularly pernicious and entrenched. Arab League states have traditionally played a leading role in NPT diplomacy, calling strongly for nuclear disarmament and for the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. Promises made to hold a conference on the WMD Free Zone issue have come to nothing, and some are aggrieved that the deal with Iran does not sufficiently protect their security. Arabs feel betrayed and abandoned. If key Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, choose to develop large and opaque ambiguous nuclear programme, the longer term impact on the NPT could be disastrous.
Those that make the effort to look will begin to see the diplomatic impact of this mess in the coming weeks. By 1st May, the end of the first week, there will have been numerous speeches delivered by the vast majority states expressing frustration and disillusionment with the 64 point 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan in which states made commitments to engage in disarmament, strengthen non-proliferation and promote safe nuclear power. Authoritative assessments of progress highlight these failures in detail, and the disagreements over how to call the nuclear weapon states to account. In all likelihood, if it takes as long to form a government as many are predicting, the conference will be all but over by the time a new Prime Minister enters Downing Street. Most electors may be blissfully ignorant, but impact on the global capacity to manage nuclear threats in 21st century could be long-lived.
On those rare occasions when they are engaged on the real issues surrounding Trident, Britain’s politicians on all sides focus the debate on persistent strategic threat, on cost or on morality. But we must not forget the broader international context, and the depth of accountability towards the international community we have as a state that has chosen to base our national security on the threat to incinerate millions of innocent people. Because our future security and our collective ability to tackle global problems require us to adopt a posture less isolationist and more responsible.