Houses of Parliament

Parliamentary Briefing: House of Lords Debate on ‘Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’

This parliamentary briefing was issued in advance of the Debate on the report from the International Relations Committee ‘Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’, Tuesday, 16th of July 2019. This is an opportunity to consider the ways in which the UK can reduce nuclear risks globally, and engage in meaningful multilateral disarmament processes ahead of the 2020 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Rising Nuclear Risks, Disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The House of Lords International Relations Select Committee’s report Rising nuclear risks, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty concludes that the risk of nuclear weapons use has increased. Consequently, the UK ought to do its utmost to reduce nuclear risks, strengthen the rules-based international order and non-proliferation regime, and make meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament. Taking forward the recommendations of the Committee’s report, there are a number of steps the UK can take.

Strengthen Nuclear Declaratory Policy

The UK should tighten its declaratory policy and in particular, as a first step offer clearer and unconditional Negative Security Assurances: guarantees to non-nuclear armed states that they would not suffer the threat of nuclear attack by the UK. This is an obvious area for the UK leadership, and this was reflected in the Committee’s report:

The Government should consider clarifying its nuclear posture at the 2020 NPT Review Conference and encouraging other members of the P5 to take similar steps. This could include providing clearer negative security assurances, considering declarations of sole purpose and a no first use commitment, and further work on dealerting. The objective should be to reduce the possibility of misperceptions and misunderstanding during a crisis.[1]

These considerations are important steps in creating strategic stability and the environment for further confidence and disarmament. The government response emphasises its attachment to ambiguity in its posture:

In order to avoid simplifying the calculations of our potential adversaries, we remain deliberately ambiguous about when, how and at what scale we would contemplate use of our nuclear weapons… the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent is a political, not a warfighting tool.[2]

This is problematic in several ways:

1. There are no legitimate circumstances where the UK implies a nuclear threat against a state that does not have nuclear weapons; such behaviour legitimises unequal threats and drives proliferation;

2. Ambiguity in nuclear doctrine is a spectrum, not a binary choice. Too much ambiguity drives uncertainty and over-reaction;

3. Reluctance to specify when the UK would choose to use nuclear weapons is sensible, but this does not prevent the UK ruling out the circumstances when it would not contemplate use (such as against states without nuclear weapons or when there is no massive threat to UK vital interests). Clarity from nuclear-armed states about when they would or would not contemplate use would help develop confidence that they would exercise restraint within the international community.

Rather than respond with a defence of an ambiguous posture, the UK would do better to outline the limits of its ambiguity, and to offer constructive assurances to all states that it would only contemplate nuclear use in a very small set of circumstances connected to nuclear threats against the UK or its close allies. The Committee’s recommendation that the Government consider more seriously clearer negative security assurances, declarations of sole purpose and a no first use commitment, and further work on de-alerting should be taken seriously.

Engage in Multilateral Disarmament Processes

The report gave a number of recommendations for the UK to engage in multilateral disarmament processes and support arms control ahead of the 2020 NPT Review Conference, noting ‘the Review Conference will be likely to be tested by the collapse of important non-proliferation and arms control agreements, and the perception of wider threats to the rules-based international order’.[3] It also noted that divisions between Nuclear and the Non-Nuclear Weapon States have increased and that the UK should ‘take a less aggressive tone about [the Ban] Treaty’ and seek to engage across political divides with states on nuclear disarmament.[4]

In showing strong leadership here, the UK should engage with the new Stepping Stones Initiative (SSI) launched by the Swedish Government at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee. On the 11th of June, the SSI was supported by 16 Non-Nuclear Weapon States spanning a range of perspectives, from Ban Treaty supporters to NATO Allies that rely on or host nuclear weapons. The SSI encourages states to implement previous disarmament commitments, by finding smaller incremental steps which can be achieved in the current international climate that would remove blockages. It is focused on four main areas:
1. Decreasing the salience of nuclear weapons;
2. Rebuilding habits of cooperation;
3. Reducing nuclear risks;
4. Increasing transparency and control of nuclear weapons and fissile materials.5

The next ministerial meeting in Berlin in February 2020 will aim to find common ground ahead of the NPT Review Conference. The UK’s engagement with the Stepping Stones Initiative would signal positive intent towards disarmament and provide a new pathway for the UK to work internationally on these four areas with a range of states.

‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’

The UK should consider and publicly advocate for a political declaration from the Nuclear Weapon States that rejects nuclear warfighting. This is an obvious place for UK leadership, as was reflected in the Committee’s report:

The importance of the principle that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” has not diminished. The Government should publicly endorse the principle and encourage all nuclear possessor states to do the same.[6]

This statement first articulated by Reagan and Gorbachev near the end of the Cold War paved the way for arms control and deep cuts in the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals. The development of doctrines that promote nuclear warfighting and the collapse of the INF Treaty is a retrograde step. While not explicitly endorsing the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration in its response, the UK Government states: ‘The UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent is a political, not a warfighting tool’.

The Committee’s recommendation that the Government publicly endorse the principle should be given serious consideration. If the Government has reservations of the specific wording, the UK should promote an alternative political declaration around the principle that nuclear weapons are ‘not warfighting tools’, and engage in international diplomacy to make such a statement a reality.
Promote Minimum Credible Deterrence among other Nuclear-Armed States
As part of the UK’s ongoing commitment to develop and promote more responsible behaviours around nuclear weapons, the UK should advocate that other states adopt its model of ‘minimum credible deterrence’. This would involve other states moving towards a single delivery system and the minimum number of warheads required to fulfil their mission, to deter attack as a ‘political and not a warfighting tool’.

The elimination of nuclear weapons will almost unavoidably be preceded by a period in which the nuclear-armed states gradually minimise their arsenals. This is a process that will need to be managed such that their security concerns are taken into account and not significantly diminished. Having already taken steps down this path, the UK is uniquely placed to work with other states to follow its model.

Accompanying this, the UK should issue a strong and expanded political declaration that nuclear modernisation programmes must not allow for the introduction of new capabilities, as indicated in the Government’s response:

Maintaining and renewing elements of a state’s nuclear deterrent capability to ensure its continued safety and reliability … should be distinguished from those which aim to develop new and novel systems that impact current stability or breach arms control treaty restrictions.[7]

Uncertainty about new and unknown systems and capabilities is fomenting distrust among both Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapon States and a key driver of the new arms race. Such a declaration, which the UK should invite other states to join, would establish a clear standard of acceptable behaviour for the nuclear-armed states, and elevate trust and assurance around modernisation programmes internationally.

[1] Rising nuclear risks, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations Paragraph 428
[2] House of Lords, Select Committee on International relations: Rising Nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Government Response, UK Foreign Office, p. 4
[3] Rising Nuclear risk, Paragraph 397
[4] Rising Nuclear risk, Paragraph 263
[5] Paul Ingram and Maxwell Downman, “Stepping Stones to Disarmament: Making progress in a polarised international climate”, BASIC, April 2019.
[6] Rising Nuclear risk, Paragraph 88
[7] Government Response, p. 8.

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