Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

 Submission from Mr Lee Bruce and Dr Robert Crowcroft

  Mr Bruce is an expert on political negotiations, defence and military strategy having completed a research thesis at the University of Leeds on British policy in Northern Ireland. Dr Crowcroft is an expert on British political parties and transatlantic security. He recently received a doctorate from the University of Leeds on British politics and statesmanship during the Second World War. He has published articles in learned journals.


    —  The possibility of achieving international agreement as a means to successfully counter the proliferation of dangerous materials and ballistic missile technology is limited. Only export controls negotiated between a small number of countries are likely to be effective, and even then only in the short term. Wider ranging agreement is impractical and the UK Government should focus its efforts in alternative directions.

    —  Proliferation is inevitable, and consequently a much tougher foreign policy stance should be adopted by the UK and its partners. Negotiation with proliferators is unlikely to produce long-term success. Some states and certain non-state actors are committed to the overthrow of the present international system, and consequently cannot be bought off. The UK should lead the way in arguing the case for a firmer line on combating this threat. There is a serious danger that controversies over the 2003 invasion of Iraq risk obscuring the merits of that approach as a means to enhance security.

    —  The UK Government should question the precise value of arms control treaties and disarmament. Adversarial regimes are almost certain to ignore them, while benevolent states such as the UK are not aggressive anyway. The historical precedents for seeking successful dialogue on these issues are not encouraging, and it is difficult to see how this will change.

    —  Rather than attempting to establish international frameworks that are likely to be ineffective, the UK and its partners should take vigorous action against individual proliferators on a case-by-case basis. This should involve more extensive sanctions and the setting out of clear military "red lines". Given the gravity of the threat, the UK and its allies should be more willing to take military action on this issue than they seem at present.


  1.  The UK Government must adopt a hard-headed view of the feasibility of impeding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles technology. Proliferation is unfortunately inevitable and thus it must be questioned as to how useful future diplomatic initiatives to address this threat are likely to be. Furthermore it must be doubted whether certain polities and non-state actors are likely to be restrained by such initiatives.

  2.  This is not to rule out the potential value of export controls and similar measures intended to restrict the follow of certain targeted materials to "rogue" regimes and other proliferators. For instance the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative, making provision for the interdiction of WMD and delivery systems, is worthwhile, as is the April 2004 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, placing obligations on states to physically control WMD-related materials. Yet while the international mechanisms for conducting this should be strengthened, a great deal of scepticism is warranted as to the possibility of success. It is almost inevitable that given time a sufficiently determined regime will be able to acquire specific materials via illicit trade. And the feasibilities of international consensus are too remote to warrant optimism. Advanced states such as Russia, China and Pakistan, for instance, will prove particularly difficult to tie into international diplomatic efforts on a consistent basis. Moreover, none of this takes into account the fact that nations might seek to supply Islamic extremist groups with WMD capabilities. In a sense, within many countries, WMD and ballistic missiles will be pursued for reasons that cannot be easily signed away—or owned up to—in a treaty.

  3.  The idea of successfully linking UK foreign policy on proliferation to international mechanisms is therefore implausible. Diplomatic initiatives to construct anti-proliferation frameworks are likely to prove a failure in an international community of 195 states due to the sheer impossibility of a workable agreement. The practicalities of agreeing materials to be controlled, ways to monitor them and methods of punishing proliferators are too difficult for the international community to reach a consensus on. Even states such as Britain, France and Germany would have difficulty agreeing on a framework for non-proliferation, as events of recent years have demonstrated. Nation states have different interests. The notion that proliferation should be countered is not enough in itself; agreement is also necessary on precisely how to counter it. The ineffective attempts over the last five years by the European Union to deal with Iran's nuclear programme have demonstrated that if no red lines are clearly laid out the endeavour will simply lead to a weakened geopolitical position, as well as increased demands by proliferators. Diplomacy cannot be, and is not, an end in itself. Bilateral agreements, or arrangements between a small number of countries, may be useful, but larger agreements are problematic and if enforcement mechanisms are not clear the potential for disagreement means the arrangements will likely prove useless when violation occurs.


  4.  Arms control and disarmament have historically been unproductive in their objectives of preventing proliferation, in improving the stability of the international environment, and modifying the behaviour of other states. Arms treaties do not work if one of the signatories is a rogue state, ie the type of regime that anti-proliferation efforts are directed against. Entering into negotiations with such actors is likely to prove dangerous. The value of any agreements reached with regimes of this sort is questionable due to the innate character of that regime. The fact is that authoritarian states cheat. Peaceful states on the other hand do not act aggressively because of the fundamental nature of their polity, regardless of their military-industrial power. Frequently, debate over arms control becomes trapped in technical details, while the soundness of the notion itself escapes attention. In a sense, the question that must be asked is precisely what can a treaty achieve?

  5.  The basic logic of arms control is that states enter into agreement, on either a bilateral or multilateral basis, in order to co-operate, even if they are enemies, because of the awful damage to their nation and interests that might occur should conflict erupt. But is it tenable to see the above logic being applicable to cases such as Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Pakistan and potentially Saudi Arabia? Why would states such as Iran and Syria be sufficiently anxious of the "awful damage" that might occur through usage of certain weapons, particularly nuclear forces, when they are faced with powerful adversaries that, in their view, threaten their security? The imperative acting upon Iran and others is therefore to seek to develop the weapons themselves. The logical direction of current international trends is towards a more heavily nuclearised world.

  6.  We must be careful not to confuse the act of diplomacy, ie negotiating with states, for actual progress in the art of diplomacy, ie concrete achievements. The reality is that proliferators are simply not likely to respond to calls for reasonableness. The sooner the UK absorbs this and impresses it upon its allies the better.

  7.  The key issue in international relations is not armaments but the motives of those who seek to possess them. As Professor Colin Gray has noted, "arms control theory postulates a cause-and-effect nexus between armaments and conflicts that does not stand up well under either historical inquiry or theoretical challenge".[3] Lethal instruments only become so in the hands of those inclined to use them. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and similar initiatives represent an inconvenience and nothing more for those determined to acquire WMD and ballistic missile technology.

  8.  Arms control has little precedent for success. The most striking example is, of course, post-1987 US-Soviet relations—but this occurred only after the Reagan administration had "won" the Cold War and forced changes in Soviet behaviour through a strategy of pressure not accommodation; arms control agreements became something to be sought only after the political paradigm was changed. Once it had been, for some years it seemed that almost any measure of arms control seemed possible (and much good work was achieved as a result). But it is difficult to see how this could be replicated with, for instance, Iran. Beyond the Reagan-Bush era successful examples are few. Even the relative successes of the 1920s were easily reversed—and the fallacies underpinning them brutally exposed—in the 1930s. Moreover, the treaties that were made in the thirties—for instance the Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935—did nothing to prevent Europe's slide into war. As Gray argued, "Arms control glitters attractively only when its ideas are viewed in isolation as ideas. Adhering generally to pleasing concepts, spokesmen for arms control have not had to suffer a rigorous audit or to contend with fundamental theoretical challenges".[4]

  9.  Arms treaties are therefore only useful if negotiated from a position of strength and as a means to specific foreign policy goals. The initiatives taken by the Reagan administration, particularly the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as a means of managing the ongoing collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s and guiding it to a "soft-landing" are one isolated example of the utility of armament-centred diplomacy. Such treaties are dangerous, however, if negotiated from a position of weakness. For instance, the SALT process of the 1970s begun by the Nixon Administration helped the Soviet Union avoid expending resources it could not afford, thus considerably strengthening the USSR. The pre-eminent historical lesson of arms control treaties is that they allowed the lifespan of the Soviet empire to be prolonged. They also permitted the USSR to divert resources elsewhere, principally to sponsoring Communist forces across the globe. The treaties did not secure any significant change in Soviet behaviour. Moreover, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty had virtually no impact on the rise of strategic offensive weapons, while the rather more modest content of arms talks between 1983-90—relating principally to theatre deployment and command-and-control arrangements for nuclear arms rather than reductions in numbers—achieved far greater success in the way of verifiable results than earlier efforts to address the overall size of arsenals. It only became possible to properly address the number of nuclear weapons once the USSR had yielded and it broke up post-1991. In the same vein, North Korea extorted concessions from the Clinton administration and still built nuclear weaponry despite a number of "agreed frameworks"; prior to 2003, Iraq used these tactics effectively while Iran and Syria are replicating this at present. On the other hand, Libya gave up its WMD programme because of fear of US power, not because of the "awful damage" that spiralling possession of WMD could bring about.

  10.  It might be thought offensive to question the idea of arms control, but that should not deter analysis of what it can actually achieve. Would-be controllers need to bear in mind that arms control agreements have never successfully shaped the political dynamic between governments. Hoping that a nebulous agreement will reshape antagonistic relations for the better is naïve.


  11.  The UK Government should not expend diplomatic energy on arms control agreements as a strategy for countering proliferation. Such treaties will embolden recalcitrant actors and tie the hands of the UK and its partners. A tougher approach to foreign policy is more likely to achieve results than consensus-dependent international arrangements. As noted earlier, proliferation is inevitable. In this respect the effort to stop it is doomed to long-term failure. However, two points flow from this: firstly, that it can be slowed through the robust application of economic and diplomatic pressure—if this is likely to be effective—and the employment of military power where necessary. Secondly, that it should be countered through the build-up of military strength sufficient to defend the UK and its partners, deter an adversary or prevail should war come.

  12.  In this respect, the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was strategically sound, and the model could be duplicated as a basis for action elsewhere. The international community faces a series of challenges from proliferators and those attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. Efforts to counter this should not centre upon offering incentives for non-proliferation, currently being tried with no success in Iran, but instead upon the application of pressure sufficient to persuade proliferators to desist. For instance, far more aggressive pursuit than is undertaken at present of those countries' financial portfolios abroad would be one worthwhile measure. So too would stringent economic sanctions and political isolation. Military action, escalating from blockades to targeted air strikes to regime-change interventions should also be policy options clearly "on the table". Red lines must be marked out, the crossing of which entail serious consequences. Signalling weakness to proliferators, as UK Government policy has done since 2003, is a fatal error; more positive results would flow from an alternative stance.

  13.  The UK should work with its partners, particularly the US, to achieve this. The EU and its other member states should only be co-operated with on this issue where those countries take a stand sufficiently firm to be compatible with UK national interests, which, to date, they have not. French attempts to mend fences with the Saddam Hussein regime from 1991-2003, and the weak response to Iranian belligerence, are not encouraging precedents. Given the inevitability of proliferation, it is probable that the UK will face attack from WMD and ballistic missiles. The UK must not compromise its foreign policy for fear of breaking with EU partners who favour "mediation" to firm action.


  14.  The strategic errors in the case mounted by proponents of disarmament are replete. For instance, the authors of one recent publication by the International Institute for Strategic Studies asserted that it is illegitimate to use concerns over the strategic intentions of adversarial states as a reason to avoid disarmament, while arguing that "the size, roles and political-strategic significance" of US and Russian nuclear arsenals should be reduced.[5] How security is thought attainable minus the traditional constituents of power is unclear, while judgments about the intentions and capabilities of other states represent the fundamental starting-point of external policy since the time of Thucydides. Moreover, considering the success of the size of the US and Russian arsenals in preserving international peace, the value of such a reduction is debatable. The advocates of disarmament outline no alternative authority that can plausibly assume responsibility for providing states with their security, nor explain precisely why states should give up the right to take their own decisions to a nebulous body. Finally, the proponents of disarmament demand robust enforcement mechanisms but seek to deprive the UK and its partners of the means to defend global security. A world without nuclear weapons in the hands of the UK, US and other unofficial guarantors of security is an unsafe world.

  15.  In addition, there is a risk in constructing an elaborate international framework that would entail stigmatising nuclear weaponry when it might feasibly become necessary to use nuclear forces to attack Hard and Deeply Buried Targets (HDBT)—such as bunkers containing weapons, laboratories, assembly facilities and C³—resistant to conventional attack. This is a real possibility, as recognised in both the 2001 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and subsequent, if vague, comment by the UK Government. The US believes there to be 10,000 HDBTs worldwide. Conventional weapons may lack the destructive capability necessary for attacks on such locations and stigmatising nuclear weaponry without an understanding of how foreign policy would operate in practice without them is dangerous.

  16.  Disarmament advocates ignore the fact that the type of states that pose the biggest risk are not likely to be responsive to the type of solutions that they outline. The UK has less than 200 operationally available warheads and the December 2006 White Paper announced a further twenty per cent reduction. This is quite sufficient as a measure of disarmament. It may be enticing to seize the moral high ground with the argument that UK disarmament could set an example for others, but this is not borne out by the historical record or the probable reactions of others. States will make security decisions based upon their own perceived needs. Advocates of this position have yet to demonstrate that UK disarmament would influence others.


  17.  The UK Government should base a key part of its foreign policy around combating the problem of proliferation. Paradoxically, however, this must include acceptance of the fact that proliferation is inevitable and a robust foreign policy posture consequently necessary. The UK should take the lead in forging consensus for such a posture with its partners. The feasibility of constructing effective arrangements between the international community is limited and likely to prove unworkable, as well as providing proliferators with the scope to exploit divisions, avoid punishment and play for time—precisely as Iran has done since 2004. Moreover, non-adversarial actors such as Taiwan, South Korea and Japan could also enter a race for nuclear weaponry. The Government should recognise this and shift its efforts accordingly.

  18.  Moreover, the utility of arms control treaties has historically been questionable. The same is true of disarmament. The very fact that proliferators are willing to defy the international community suggests that attempts to conciliate them will fail. The current preference in European foreign policy circles for a role as "mediator" should not divert UK policy from the necessity of demanding concrete results from its diplomacy. The utility of this as a foreign policy strategy should thus be seriously questioned. A tougher approach to those proliferating WMD and missile technology could be adopted, including much firmer economic, political and military sanctions. The controversy over Iraq should not deter the UK and its allies from using decisive force where necessary to remove threats.

25 September 2008

3   Colin Gray, "Arms Control Does Not Control Arms", in Gray, Strategy and History (London, 2006), p. 121. Back

4   Gray, p. 125. Back

5   G. Perkovich and J. M. Acton, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons (London 2008), pp. 113-5. Back

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