Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from David Broucher

  I was asked to submit written evidence to the Inquiry. I shall confine this to one aspect of the terms of reference: the possible impact of the Government's decision to retain and renew the deterrent on the UK's non-proliferation efforts, which is my area of expertise.

Why support non-proliferation?

  The central dilemma is this: how can we continue to deny others the right to develop the same capability we claim for ourselves? Since we believe that our deterrent enhances international security, would not the same be true of nuclear weapons in the hands of others? In other words, would not international security be enhanced by nuclear proliferation?

  Plainly this makes no sense. Nuclear weapons are not a risk-free acquisition. The more countries possess them, the greater the danger that they will be used, and avoidance of their use is of paramount importance. Therefore their spread must be limited.

  But in that case should we not also be trying to reduce the number of countries that already possess the weapon, and should not that reduction include ourselves?

  The government's answer is that we live in a dangerous world, and that it would be imprudent to disarm. It is possible to support that view, while remaining troubled by the logic. The world is dangerous for other countries. Some of these choose nevertheless to live without acquiring nuclear weapons. Others may be considering whether they should follow our example. The government's reasoning on its own does not, therefore, provide an adequate answer to the dilemma. We need to delve deeper into the theoretical basis for the non-proliferation strategy.

Why should some go nuclear but not others?

  A frequent argument is that "dangerous countries" should not be allowed to acquire the weapon. Taking direct action to curb proliferation has obvious attractions, and a far-reaching counter-proliferation strategy has been evolved to deal with the threat. But the campaign to isolate and interdict such countries is only likely to succeed if we maintain a broad international consensus that nuclear weapons are "a bad thing". This in turn might best be based on some common norms of international law. If the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) did not exist, therefore, we would be compelled to invent it. In doing so, we would be unlikely to avoid the bargain on which the NPT is based: that nuclear proliferation can only be arrested if the existing nuclear weapon states commit themselves to disarm and if civil nuclear technology remains available to all.

  International law may, of course, make the task of isolating and dealing with problem countries harder, but we would be most unwise to abandon it on that account. Its main strength is not in the handling of individual cases but in the maintenance of the international consensus.

  A possible difficulty with the "dangerous country" theory is its implication that we should be less concerned about proliferation to more moderate countries. In fact the opposite is the case. A nuclear adventure by a pariah state is certainly worrying, and it needs to be contained. The larger objective is to prevent a general conclusion by major industrial states that do not yet have nuclear weapons that their security can only be maintained by acquiring them. This may seem like a distant risk, but the jury is still out on whether we will be successful in preventing it over the long term.

  Once the possession of nuclear weapons is recognised to be acceptable, there is no defensible threshold for the number or type of countries that could or should acquire them. We would therefore be most unwise to relinquish the consensus that the existence of nuclear weapons is ultimately unacceptable. Their possession by us is temporary, pending an agreement on nuclear disarmament, which in turn depends, in the view of some, on general and complete disarmament. That culmination may remain distant, but we should continue to strive to attain it. Of course, we must be genuinely committed to this end, and not just pursue it as a hypocritical cover for our activities.

  In the past it has been possible to preserve our position by arguing that certain countries acquired nuclear weapons to meet a particular security need in given historical circumstances and can now only give them up as part of an agreed disarmament process. Other countries, those that did not need to acquire the weapon before, would be wrong to do so now, because of the added costs and risks involved.

  Although some, but not all, non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) still accept this argument de facto, they are inclined to question the logic. If nuclear weapons are expensive and dangerous, why are they so entrenched in the military security postures of the countries that keep them? Can the nuclear weapons continue to be tolerated once the historical circumstances that gave rise to them have terminated? When might the promised disarmament process be expected to start? Parrying such questions becomes progressively more difficult as the "historical circumstances" retreat further into the past.

Will the UK decision encourage proliferation?

  It seems most unlikely that a would-be proliferator would be influenced definitively either way by the UK's decision. Strategic weapon policies evolve over decades for a wide variety of reasons and are not susceptible to short term change based on the calculation of one other country. Nor is the United Kingdom the adversary of choice for those currently in the proliferation stakes.

  On the other hand, the UK's decision will undoubtedly be used as a political defence by would be proliferators, and the resulting propaganda will have some influence with uncommitted countries whose support we need to retain if we are to uphold the efficacy of non-proliferation regimes.

  In the longer term the danger is that the UK's decision will be taken as one of a number of factors indicating that nuclear weapons are now a permanent feature of the international security environment. They are no longer a response to a specific security need, but an insurance policy against all comers. This will signal that efforts to eradicate nuclear weapons have effectively been shelved, which could combine with other factors that are already eroding confidence in the Non-proliferation Treaty and contribute to a seismic shift in international security postures.


  In the past it has been possible to point to the process of bilateral and multilateral nuclear disarmament and its gradual progress in limiting existing weapons and arresting the development of new ones. However, with the failure of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to enter into force, this process has stalled, and even gone into reverse. The UK has ceased, for whatever reason, to advocate multilateral nuclear disarmament with any conviction. None of the other nuclear weapon states seem to have much interest in reviving the process, so that without the UK's advocacy, it risks stagnating.

  Plainly this trend will not be easily reversed, and most of the levers are not under UK control. We may have good reasons to avoid rocking the international boat, especially in relation to our principal ally, when the potential rewards seem at best remote. Nevertheless, there are some ideas that could be pursued further against the day when other countries may again be more receptive to negotiations. In the remainder of this memorandum I will outline two of them, which the Defence Committee might be invited to endorse.


  It used to be axiomatic that any arms control agreement would need adequate verification to ensure compliance. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides assurances that declared fissile material is not being diverted from civil uses, and that no clandestine acquisition or production of fissile materials is occurring. So to an extent it verifies compliance with the NPT. Lately the concept of verification has been challenged for several reasons. Incomplete verification could provide a false sense of security, but more intrusive verification could be used for intelligence gathering. Even when evidence of misconduct is revealed, enforcement remains problematic.

  These are potent objections, but technology does not stand still, and there may be new ways in which compliance with nuclear disarmament could be verified remotely without compromising design features or spreading nuclear know-how. The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) has already done some work on this, but the results need to be placed in a political context showing how a disarmament process could actually be carried out and what its end state would be. It is obvious that nuclear disarmament will only proceed if it enhances everyone's security.


  The NPT provides a basis for countries that do not possess nuclear weapons to assure each other of their good intentions, but it says nothing about why a country might decide to renounce the nuclear option in the first place. This decision can only be based on a country's perception of its own security needs. A country may decide that it does not need to acquire nuclear weapons because it enjoys the protection of an existing nuclear power, because it does not feel threatened, or because it has made a particular risk and cost calculation.

  Further consideration could be given to ways of maximising the chances that a given country will continue to take the "right" decision. In particular, work is needed on ways of expanding the concept of "security assurances". There are both positive assurances, in which a nuclear weapon state extends an umbrella to its allies, and negative assurances, in which a nuclear weapon state assures a non-nuclear adversary that nuclear weapons would not be used in a potential conflict. There are various ways in which this latter concept could be expanded and adapted.

  I am submitting this evidence as a visiting fellow at the Mountbatten Centre for International Security (MCIS) at Southampton University. I am indebted to Professor John Simpson of MCIS for his help in preparing it.

15 January 2007

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