Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 88-99)


26 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q88 Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you for coming today. I apologise for keeping you waiting for a few minutes, but we had some important business that we had to sort out before the end of the parliamentary year.

  As you know, we are just beginning an inquiry on proliferation and related issues; we had an evidence session last week. Clearly, we are particularly focused today on the nuclear issues and we are very pleased that both of you, with your extensive experience, are able to appear before us today.

  For the record, would you introduce yourselves?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I am Michael Quinlan. I was once permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, which is where I spent most of my public service career. I have continued since then in various ways to take an interest in nuclear weapon issues.

  Lord Robertson: I am Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. I was Secretary of State for Defence for this country and then Secretary-General of NATO. I was co-signatory with some other grandees—I think that was how we were referred to—of an article on the subject of proliferation. I am also co-chairman of the Institute for Public Policy Research's Commission on National Security, a body that I co-chair with Lord Ashdown. It is publishing its interim report tomorrow, which has quite a substantial section on non-proliferation and our ideas on that subject. You might wish to see a copy tomorrow when it is published. I would have brought one along with me, but I do not even have one myself.

  Q89 Chairman: We will look out for that tomorrow.

  Following on from what you have just said, Lord Robertson, there is obviously growing interest in issues related to nuclear disarmament and nuclear arms control. Why do you think that is?

  Lord Robertson: We live in a very different world from that of previous generations who dealt with this issue. The existence of non-state actors, transnational terrorism and terrorist networks has brought more clearly into focus the potential dangers involved in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There is also growing concern that that is in part to do with the existing non-proliferation regime, and that those commitments that we have signed up to over the years in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in relation to abolishing nuclear weapons as a whole have been given insufficient weight. That may well have fuelled the desire and the ambition of other countries to join the nuclear club. So it has become a very current preoccupation that we should address.

  Q90 Chairman: You referred in your introductory remarks to the fact that you were one of the authors of the article in June, which was a British response, in a sense, to an American initiative by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and others. Have you been involved since then in any concrete co-operation with the American authors of that original article, and is there a kind of international network now developing on this issue?

  Lord Robertson: It is developing and building, but I cannot say that I have been as energetic as I could have been in following through on it. I have been preoccupied with the work of the commission that I am on and the work that it is doing. However, I think that a lot of its recommendations will feed through. I know that Margaret Beckett has also been involved in leading another initiative, and a few people are trying to put flesh on the bones of that. I think that we have to do that, because we have to think through a number of the practical issues that simply cannot be wished away.

  Sir Michael will speak for himself, but at the beginning of next year he is going to publish a book that he has kindly shown to me in advance. He is the great guru of this issue. The book not only analyses all the background to the debate but puts forward a sensible and practical middle way between the total abolitionists and the absolute retainers. That is the territory into which those of us such as the American group and the British group have to fit.

  I am sorry that I am the only one here to represent that rather remarkable group of people, which includes Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd and David Owen. I know that Douglas Hurd would have been here but for his wife's death at the weekend. I cannot necessarily speak on their behalf, and I think that Malcolm Rifkind has done a little more than others.

  Q91 Chairman: Is there a comparable group of similar status in other European countries that includes people with similar experience who are saying the same kind of thing?

  Lord Robertson: I understand that there is, and that there are others involved in that. In a way, what picks us out is that we have been Cabinet Ministers—Foreign and Defence Ministers—in one of the P5 countries and current nuclear states. That has given us a certain degree of weight. Clearly, one would hope that the French will be involved in future as well.

  What we said in the article, and what the Shultz-Kissinger group says as well, is that the lead needs to come from the bigger nations. The attention has been focused on the American and the Russian arsenals. It is very important that they are reduced, because they are quite significantly greater than would be necessitated by current deterrence theory.

  Chairman: Sir Michael, do you want to add anything?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I do not think that there is a continental European gang of four in quite the same sense as the two groups that have been mentioned, but there is certainly a great deal of activity. The Norwegian Government are putting a lot of money into the study of the abolition aspiration on both sides of the Atlantic. I have attended meetings both at Stanford and on this side of the Atlantic. I am due to go to a conference in Oslo in which people like Hans Blix and Carl Bildt will be much involved. There is a pretty widespread impetus in favour of at least serious study of these things, which I personally believe is what is most needed now, rather than high speechifying. Some pretty hard study needs to be done.

  I had some small part in prompting the publication, or the launch, of a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the abolition question, which came out as a paper in its "Adelphi" series this past September.

  Q92 Mr. Horam: Sir Michael, you just said that what was necessary now was a rather more down-to-earth approach rather than high speechifying. I think Lord Robertson said something about the practical issues needing to be resolved. Will both of you comment on what are the most important practical issues to consider in the search for a third way, or whatever you like to call it?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: To clarify, in the agenda immediately ahead of us or in studying the abolition question?

  Mr. Horam: Yes.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: On the abolition question, there are two large classes of issues. There are technical issues, such as how to verify, how to define what a non-nuclear world is, what must not exist, what must not be done, how to enforce and what to do about the nuclear energy problem. The IISS study got very much into that. There is also a quite different class of issues, and in many ways a much more intractable one: how do we make the Israelis want it, the Pakistanis want it, Russia want it? What would we have to put in place in the whole world organisation to replace the role that nuclear weapons, to my mind, have played these past 60 years, in ensuring that all-out war is simply off the table? Both those classes of issues need a lot more work.

  Q93 Mr. Horam: Those are essentially political issues?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: That last group is essentially that, yes. It seems to me that those issues are, in a sense, both more important—because they are about the will to do this—and more intractable.

  Q94 Mr. Horam: More intractable or more tractable?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: More intractable.

  Q95 Sir Menzies Campbell: You described that group of people as remarkable, and I think that is a legitimate description. What is remarkable is that before, the debate was joined between unilateralists and what you might call retentionists. What we now have on both sides of the Atlantic are people who have always valued the utility of deterrence but who now as a group are ready to embrace the notion of multilateral disarmament, which has been more referred to in the abstract than given any kind of substance. That is the most remarkable feature, is it not?

  Lord Robertson: I just want a more peaceful world. You have to start off on that basis. Being in favour of nuclear disarmament is the wrong end to start off with. If all you do is replace nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrents with fighting all-out wars again, you have not exactly advanced. You need to create the conditions in which people do not feel that they have to have nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. I am much more worried about the use of chemical and biological weapons, which can be manufactured so easily and deployed so quickly, than I am about the use of nuclear weapons, but nuclear technology is not just a huge nuclear bomb or a ballistic missile. A dirty bomb would cause as much chaos.

  As Sir Michael says, we really have to look towards creating conditions in the world in which people do not feel that they need that degree of deterrence. We can then move towards having the absolute minimum that is required to maintain what is useful at the moment, and move beyond that. That requires things, both political and mechanical, to be put in place to ensure that that really happens.

  Sir Menzies Campbell: If it is any comfort to you, the Committee is taking evidence on both chemical and biological weapons.

  Q96 Chairman: We heard evidence two weeks ago, I believe, from Baroness Shirley Williams, who is on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which was set up by the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. I understand that both of you are on the advisory board of that body, but it has only had its first meeting. Do you think that it is likely to provide a separate focus, or will it very much follow the same lines, given that it includes people from the southern hemisphere and Japan as well as people from Europe and the United States?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: It is useful precisely because it brings in a wider constituency. From what I know of its composition, it seems to be more balanced than, say, the Canberra Commission of a dozen years ago, so I have high hopes for it.

   I have not yet seen anything at all of its operation. In conversation with Gareth Evans I agreed to join the advisory council, but I have not heard a squeak since then.

  Lord Robertson: I thought that I had not agreed to going on to the commission, but the press release apparently makes me a member. Such is life after politics. However, it is good and worthy, and it includes a wider view and fairly high-powered people, who will look at the issues and practicalities and go beyond simple declarations. That is where we need to go. I hope the commission will assist with looking at the practicalities of how we get from here to where we want to be.

  For example, a number of significant states have not ratified the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, yet we have jumped the fence and are starting to talk about other things. Getting India, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Indonesia, North Korea, Israel, Iran and the United States to ratify the treaty would be one very big step towards the objective of an overall regime that might encourage other countries not to go down the nuclear route.

  Q97 Mr. Purchase: I want to move to another subject, but just on that point, why would anyone any longer want to sign the treaty? If you develop a bomb outside of it, the President of the United States will make a special visit to your country and say, "Well done, chaps. Join the club." That did somewhat make a mockery of all the excellent work that has been done on the treaty over the years. That is just a comment.

  Thinking again about the Times article written by you and your colleagues, Lord Robertson, you argued, if I have it right, that the more nuclear material there is in circulation, the greater the risk that it falls into the wrong hands. With such a flash of the blindingly obvious, who could argue that that is wrong? The direction of the article is towards greater stability by reduction. When we were at the UN six weeks ago we asked about the updating and modernisation of Britain's nuclear capability and whether that affects the perceptions of other nations, and we were told bluntly that it does. However, if we were to move down your track of choice, if I may term it so, and get to that wonderful, idealistic position where nuclear weapons were virtually out of the picture, would the world be more stable than it currently is?

  Lord Robertson: In my view, not if you did it tomorrow without putting in place the proper verification and transparency regimes that are required. You have made the point that no penalty seems to be paid by countries that violate their own subscription to the non-proliferation treaty or do not behave in accordance with the International Atomic Energy Agency's rules on inspections. We have to move in lockstep with a series of other measures required to ensure that the same degree of security would be guaranteed. I will also say that statements of the blindingly obvious are not necessarily a bad thing: they are not always so obvious, and rarely blindingly so.

  Q98 Mr. Purchase: Yes, the truth of the matter is that on both sides of the argument there are some perfectly sound points to be made, and the question is how we argue and move forward on that one step at a time.

  Lord Robertson: One of the worrying things that has stuck in my mind since my period at NATO was a meeting with President Putin, who said quite candidly that after the end of the Soviet Union a lot of things happened and a lot of things got lost, and he said that they did not know where they were. He said that that represents a danger not only to them, but to the world as a whole. They think that they order their affairs very well, but when we were signing the Ottawa treaty on land mines, if I remember correctly, I was asked by a senior Russian, "Do you want us to do away with all our land mines?" I said yes, and he said, "We use land mines to protect most of our nuclear stockpile sites, so do you think that would be a good idea?" I am not saying that that was a convincing argument, but they take that seriously. There was that gap between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Putin era—a black hole that unfortunately still represents a danger to us.

  Q99 Mr. Purchase: May I press you a little further on the question of reduction? Do you think that the UK would gain from further reductions in nuclear stockpiles by the acknowledged nuclear weapons states? Would other states say, "Hip, hip, hooray. We should join you," or would they sit back, smile cynically and say, "Good-oh," or whatever other utterance came to their minds?

  Lord Robertson: In dim and distant days I was a member of CND—it was very brief, and I lived beside the nuclear base on the Clyde. When I told President Bush that that was how I came into politics there was a degree of astonishment round the table, but I had mentioned people such as Robin Cook, Joschka Fischer, José Manuel Barroso and Mr. Piqué, who was then the Spanish Foreign Minister but who had spent five years in the Spanish Communist party, so President Bush probably thought, "Well, I was hell-raising at that time, so don't let's remind ourselves of what we did 30 years ago."

  Those participating in the Ban the Bomb marches I went on had the great belief that giving up our nuclear deterrent would have a dramatic effect on the world because everyone else would say, "You are absolutely right and have done the right thing, so we will do away with our weapons as well." I grew disenchanted with that messianic sort of approach, but I think that the strategic defence review that I conducted in 1998 very considerably reduced our nuclear profile by doing away with free-fall bombs and nuclear depth charges and reducing the number of missiles on the submarines. There is still some scope for moving in that direction, especially if it is part of a graduated multilateral process that would encourage everybody to build down.

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