Select Committee on Defence Eighth Report

3  The Strategic Nuclear Deterrent and the UK's international influence

57. Before any decisions on the future of the deterrent are made, it will be important to consider whether the possession of nuclear weapons enhances the UK's international influence and status and whether this contributes to the justification for retention of a strategic nuclear capability.

58. It has often been suggested that possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent is fundamental to the UK's international status, and that such a capability provides the UK with greater authority in international political organisations and structures, and enhanced status within Europe and in the world. It is said that it helped to maintain a political balance in Europe, that it acted as a safeguard against US disengagement from Europe, and that it provided a balance against global insecurity.[47]

59. Dr Lee Willett, of the Royal United Services Institute, argued that eliminating the strategic nuclear deterrent would leave France as the only nuclear power in Europe and that, consequently, the UK could lose world status and influence, especially with the United States. We were also told that abandonment of the strategic nuclear deterrent would indicate that the UK intended to take on a different role in international affairs and occupy a different place in the world order.[48]

60. In the course of our inquiry, several witnesses questioned the assumption that possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent enhances the UK's international influence. Sir Michael Quinlan, a former Permanent Under Secretary at the MoD, told us that he did not find the so-called 'seat at the top table' argument either persuasive or attractive. Although "our possession of nuclear weapons in a very general way gives us slightly greater confidence in the way we act around the world", he believed that the UK's permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council was not dependent upon, nor functionally linked to, the possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent capability. Sir Michael further suggested that:

    it is rather a pity that we have the confluence between permanent membership of the Security Council and nuclear weapons status, because that does not seem to me logical, necessary or indeed politically desirable.[49]

61. Other witnesses agreed with this contention. Dr Dominick Jenkins of Greenpeace told us that the UK would not lose its seat on the UN Security Council if it chose to give up its strategic nuclear deterrent.[50] Similarly, Malcolm Savidge of the Oxford Research Group, testified that the UK's membership of the Security Council "is based on our position in World War II" and that it was entirely "coincidental" that the Permanent Five became the established nuclear powers. We heard that, in discussions on the reform of the UN, there was no suggestion that India (a state which possesses nuclear weapons) would be favoured for permanent membership of the Security Council before Japan and Germany (neither of which possess nuclear weapons).[51] Malcolm Savidge also argued that the UK gained no additional status or influence within the G8 or the EU because of its possession of nuclear weapons.[52]

62. Others suggested that any attempt to link permanent membership of the UN Security Council to possession of nuclear weapons was potentially very dangerous. David Broucher, a former UK Permanent Representative at the UN Conference on Disarmament, told us that there was a widespread belief in the developing world that the UK possessed nuclear weapons in order to guarantee its seat on the Security Council. This erroneous perception, he said, risked fuelling further nuclear proliferation as developing nations sought to enhance their own international influence. For this reason, Mr Broucher claimed that the so-called 'seat at the top table' argument in favour of nuclear weapons was 'pernicious', reasoning that:

    is it not better for us to establish that the reason we have a seat at the top table is because we are a powerful industrial nation with a great trading history and a great diplomatic history and we are a member of more international organisations than anyone else…I do not think you need to be waving the big stick in order to justify your seat at the top table.[53]

63. Professor Colin Gray, of the University of Reading, disagreed with this contention and suggested that "it is an historical fact that members of the Security Council have been nuclear armed". He argued that "the notion that we can change that unilaterally… flies in the face of historical experience", and "to try and rewrite that would be very difficult and not very persuasive". Ultimately, in his view:

    the diplomatic cost to Britain of abandoning her nuclear weapons would be very considerable and the case for Britain maintaining her position [in the world] would become very much more difficult if she does abandon her nuclear weapons.[54]

64. Other witnesses took the opposing view, that far from enhancing its international influence, possession of nuclear weapons undermined the UK's prestige. Abandonment of the nuclear deterrent, they argued, would allow the UK to assume a leading role in international arms control agreements and thereby bolster the UK's long-term interests and status. Dan Plesch, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, argued that "this country would be looked on much more favourably if it did not have nuclear weapons" and "would be regarded as being much more modern".[55] Dr Kate Hudson, Director of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, told us that:

    there is an overwhelming demand from the vast majority of countries in the world for the nuclear weapons states to pursue their disarmament obligations, and the status and prestige which would associate with taking a step in that direction would be quite extraordinarily large.[56]

65. It is clear that there is a difference of views and no clear consensus that international influence is, of itself, a reason to retain the strategic nuclear deterrent. We recommend that the MoD make clear whether the Government believes the possession of a nuclear deterrent is an important contributor to the UK's international influence.

47   Ev 67 Back

48   Q 40 [Dr Willett], Ev 67 Back

49   Q 40 [Sir Michael Quinlan] Back

50   Q 200 Back

51   Q 202 Back

52   Ibid. Back

53   Q 103 Back

54   Q 104 Back

55   Q 40 [Mr Plesch] Back

56   Q 40 [Dr Hudson] Back

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