The case for one-sided nuclear disarmament

Fear of the ‘unilateralist’ label obscures the fact that there is now an overwhelming case to be made that the complete renunciation of nuclear weapons is in the British national interest. 

Hugh Beach
12 June 2013

Trident submarine. Wikimedia Commons/US Navy. Public domain.

It is a commonplace assumption in the dominant political discourse in the United Kingdom that any significant reductions in the potency of the British Trident force, let alone its abolition, could only be countenanced on a multilateral basis. The label ‘unilateralist’ is still regarded as the kiss of political death for Labour politicians and played on by the pro-Trident lobby when they run out of convincing arguments for keeping and replacing these nuclear weapons.

Contrary to the assumptions implied in this unilateral versus multilateral discourse, all reductions undertaken by British governments have been ‘one-sided’ in the sense that no quid pro quo was being looked for from any other nuclear-weapon state. These include reductions in missiles and warheads deployed on Trident as well as the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons in the 1990s. 

It is time to take the argument a step further and to examine why ‘one-sided nuclear disarmament’ is treated by politicians as beyond the pale, especially in view of the security and economic challenges associated with replacing Trident.  Fear of the ‘unilateralist’ label is obscuring the fact that there is now an overwhelming case to be made that the complete renunciation of nuclear weapons is in the British national interest.

An obvious starting point is to ask what value other nations, and particularly those in possession of nuclear weapons or on the threshold, place on British nuclear weapons. On 13 March 2013, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) hosted a panel discussion at which several eminent former British statesmen assessed the potential foreign policy implications of our Trident replacement decision.[1]

The panellists were asked to what extent Britain’s role in the world is determined by its nuclear weapons capability and how the UK’s international status would be affected by a change to the proposed Trident ‘like-for-like’ replacement. Lord Hannay, a former ambassador to the UN and currently Joint Convenor of the All-Party Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, noted that the Trident replacement has no bearing on Britain’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) membership, which derived from the Allied victory in the Second World War. For the same reason there is no equivalence between nuclear weapons possession and permanent UNSC membership. At the time that the UN Charter was agreed in June 1945, and the five permanent members were chosen, not even the United States was recognised as a nuclear weapons possessor.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, also former ambassador to the UN and currently Chairman to the United Nations Association UK Board of Directors, explained that a range of factors contribute to the UK’s image and influence in the world. Amongst these, nuclear weapons capability is one of the least relevant. Ultimately, the most important criterion for influence is a country’s economic strength. The UK’s global influence comes from its: 1) association of relationships; 2) ability to manage those interests and relationships around the world; 3) capacity to solve problems in the international community in the various committees and councils; and 4) input into development and security in the developing world.

Sir Richard Mottram, former Permanent Under-Secretary of Defence and currently Chairman of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory[2] agreed that for most countries, Britain’s conventional forces and its capacity to contribute to them on a day-to-day basis, have most salience. He differed from the diplomats, however, in suggesting that for the US, France and perhaps one or two of Britain’s other NATO allies, Britain’s nuclear weapons ‘do buy a certain form of influence’. This nuanced statement is worth discussing further.

The US may be more reluctant to get involved in the UK’s decision-making on Trident than assumed by many on both sides of the argument. One of the IISS panellists suggested that the Americans are interested in the UK debate on Trident because they respect the quality of British contributions in various fields, but ‘they are beginning to despise our quantity’. 

He argued that Britain was very close to reaching the point at which the reduced quantity of military assets in the conventional sphere makes it impossible to retain respect. The International Herald Tribune in its issue of 12 April 2013 carried a report from Brussels by Steven Erlanger entitled ‘NATO faces turning point as members spend less’ which included the following: 'As for Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is insisting on keeping a nuclear deterrent on a new generation of submarines even as US officials are pushing London to consider abandoning the idea. As one US official said privately, "They can't afford Trident, and they need to confront the choice: either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner”.

If this truly reflects a view developing within the American administration it abolishes one of the few remaining arguments for retaining and renewing Trident, namely that the Americans want us to. And it demolishes a further argument, sometimes advanced, that the Americans would stop sharing intelligence with us if we ceased to be a nuclear-weapon state.

The apparent French support for Britain to retain nuclear weapons is wholly self-serving; they fear any large reduction or renunciation of nuclear forces by Britain would weaken their own case for continued possession. It is clear, from the discussion as a whole, that any contribution to Britain’s global status and influence from the possession of nuclear weapons is regarded as low at best.

It is often argued by supporters of British Trident that the reduction in Britain’s nuclear capability since the end of the Cold War has met with no response from the rest of the world and that further nuclear disarmament or even renunciation by Britain would be most unlikely to affect decisions taken by India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea of any other would-be proliferator. This seems entirely plausible. If so, however, then it obviously follows that nuclear weapons in British hands have no value whatever as a bargaining counter or quid pro quo in any future disarmament negotiations. Why then insist that further British nuclear disarmament (or renunciation) can only be countenanced as part of a multilateral process?

In response to a parliamentary question earlier this year, Alastair Burt MP, on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave the following written answer (Hansard 18 January 2013):

‘In order for the UK to offer to include its small number of nuclear weapons  in multilateral disarmament negotiations  there would first need to be further reductions in the much larger nuclear weapons stockpiles held by other states and greater assurances that no new major threats will emerge that could threaten the UK or its vital interests’.

There is no logic in this. Only the United States and Russia have ‘much larger’ deployed stockpiles than the UK.[3] The size, or indeed the existence of the British arsenal is in no way determined by or related to the shape and size of these stockpiles. Both countries are our ‘strategic allies’ and our holdings are in any case barely one twentieth of theirs. The possible emergence of ‘new major threats’ has no relevance to the unilateral versus multilateral juxtaposition.

While recognising that many-sided disarmament offers an attractive way for politicians to stay on the fence, this makes no actual military or political sense – except perhaps as a tactic for postponing any decision to forgo nuclear weapons into the indefinite future. Such a tactic is far from being cost free, financially and militarily, since the country is faced with having to decide by 2016 whether to spend billions of pounds on acquiring the next generation of Trident.  Rather than stay trapped in misleading – and irrelevant – 1980s rhetoric about ‘unilateral’ versus ‘multilateral’ disarmament, it would be more sensible and straightforward to determine our own national interest when taking decisions on the size and indeed the future necessity (if any) of British nuclear forces.

[1] IISS Panel Discussion Report: The foreign policy implications of the Trident replacement debate, 13 March 2013, IISS, London. URL: 

[2] A Trading Fund of the Ministry of Defence whose purpose is to maximise the impact of science and technology for the defence and security of the UK.

[3] According to SIPRI Yearbook 2013, the nuclear arsenals (stored as well as deployed warheads) are approximated as US: 7,700; Russia:8,500; France: 300; China: 250; UK: 225; India: 90-110; Pakistan: 100-120; Israel: 80; North Korea: 6-8.

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