Nuclear non-proliferation: Planning for 2020

Each December, Wilton Park, the UK Foreign Office conference centre, hosts an international conference for diplomats and experts on issues of relevance to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation negotiations. BASIC has been represented at these meetings by Paul Ingram, Executive Director,  for a decade. This year he authored the official report, which can be accessed on the Wilton Park website here:

This outlines the state of play in the world of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. We reproduce the conclusion here:


Delegations need to avoid both complacency and panic when approaching the current, and formidable, nuclear complexities. The international community needs to rebuild trust and habits of cooperation, based upon attempts to build empathy (an attempt to see things from the other’s perspective) and identify shared interests. NWS have to address more seriously the risks of nuclear use. It is unsustainable to assert that these risks are low, when many people believe they are higher today than they were five years ago.

Perhaps the nuclear policy community, focusing upon the management of nuclear weapons, is part of the problem. Talking about nuclear weapons separately from more general strategic dynamics strengthens the perception of status and unique salience. If instead of focusing upon possession of nuclear weapons as a starting point we could consider how best to manage and eliminate the nuclear threat to all members of the international community, this could help move discussion away from polarised blame towards cooperative solutions. This suggests an inclusive approach based upon individual state and global society responsibility in relation to managing such risk.

Another question arising out of the conference was how we might better secure discussions that cross the boundaries between the deterrence and disarmament communities, the subject of a subsequent blog by two of the conference’s participants. The Ban Treaty initiative is only one of several disarmament moves within the international community that tend to be criticised as naive or counter-productive by those within the deterrence community, who have far more influence over the defence policies of the nuclear armed states. But the deterrence communities are sometimes accused of taking insufficient notice of the risk and consequences of failure, and the systemic and longer-term impacts of their policies and attempts at the global level to tackle the security dilemmas that drive them. What looks deeply rational at a national level can be extremely corrosive to international cooperation and diplomacy at the global level, begging the question of how to discuss deterrence openly without damaging the non-proliferation agenda? Ultimately the deterrence and disarmament communities share an interest in sustainable security; productive dialogue between them should be feasible as well as necessary.

Perhaps the most significant of all questions in the field are two:

  • What are the dynamic risks to global security arising from or in the context of strategic deterrence, shifting global power balances and emerging technologies, and how can we best manage these collectively? and
  • What are the conditions for nuclear disarmament, and how can we all work together to bring them about?

A lack of clarity on these conditions and the way stations along the route toward a world free of nuclear weapons is a significant handicap, and feeds the view that there is a lack of political will behind disarmament or confidence that it could ever happen, which in turn weakens the non-proliferation regime. Equally, divergence around what we mean by strategic stability and how it fits with the shifting sands of global power is an important source of friction.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty will need its advocates to display a certain level of mutual restraint and realism. At the same time, nuclear deterrence advocates need to accept that the Ban Treaty negotiations will happen this year and the process (including formulation, signatures and ratification) will continue for some years to come, and to absorb that into their calculations and strategy. Continued opposition to the Ban only deepens the divisions they claim the Ban will exacerbate. Better to acknowledge the sincerity of the frustration and consider what they would deem to be more constructive parallel processes along the step- by-step agenda that will help to legitimise their position..

Equally, advocates need to acknowledge that tangible progress to disarmament requires cooperation by the NWS, so that the current Ban Treaty process is simply an instrumental early step in a necessarily long and complex path. They will also need to ensure that their actions do not upend what is left of the non-proliferation consensus or damage the future of the NPT: it was suggested that for the time being the Ban Treaty should not be used to attack or blame the NWS in NPT meetings. It was said that disarmament is unlikely to be achieved or advanced by such pressure. They should be ready to indicate a clear willingness to develop further non-proliferation steps in parallel to disarmament steps, rather than seeing disarmament as a precondition to further collaboration. Whilst they may see nuclear deterrence as in direct conflict with disarmament, they need to keep the ‘welcome mat’ out at all times for all states and to exercise some empathy for those who believe their security is dependent upon a functioning nuclear deterrent posture.

It would be a shame for the humanitarian initiative to fall away in the context of Ban Treaty negotiations, as it had value in its own right. A collective acknowledgement of inevitable risk when nuclear weapons are deployed and a focus on risk reduction could hold promise as one area of collaboration in a polarised community. Another would be for states to collectively acknowledge that they each have responsibility towards the global security agenda, and that security in its many interpretations should play a central role in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. Consideration of the security dimension need not preclude that of justice, values and aspirations.

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