Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-136)


26 NOVEMBER 2008

  Q120 Mr. Horam: Involving Russia in all these decisions, both at a meeting and a practical level, would carry the idea forward.

  Lord Robertson: But the idea is a Russian one. It has some, but not huge, support from President Sarkozy, and I am not sure whether he has followed that through. Any forum that involves discussion that is genuinely designed—

  Q121 Mr. Horam: You want diplomacy, and this is diplomacy in action.

  Lord Robertson: Well, yes, and I also am in favour of modernised and new institutions in the world today that actually fit both the threats and the promises of globalisation. But one has to look very carefully at what this is actually going to do, at whether it is a plan to separate the United States from Europe, to undermine the integrity of NATO. Remember that we have a relationship between NATO and Russia, which I think was abandoned too quickly after the Georgian conflict this year and should be rebuilt. There are already some institutions there, but if you have a broader forum for discussion, it may well be that you should try to test it. After all, we moved from the G8 to a brand new G20 a few weeks ago, to try to deal with the emergency in the financial world, but the plan needs to be a lot more thought through or it could be seen as something that would separate America from Europe. That would be very bad news for Europe, and very bad news for Russia as well.

  Q122 Mr. Horam: But, Lord Robertson, you said in your article in The Times: "It is indisputable that if serious progress is to be made" on nuclear disarmament "it must begin with these two countries"—Russia and the United States. They have both reduced their stockpiles under the START treaty to the extent that they have fulfilled their obligations in practice. Do you think that they can make further progress? Should that further progress be between those two countries, without involving anyone else, or should we multilateralise the process and make it wider?

  Lord Robertson: It would be very useful if those two countries would do it and found that mutually convenient. I think that the Americans went beyond START with their strategic missiles.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: There was the Moscow treaty, which is post-START. They refer to it as SORT. That 2002 treaty runs the figures down below START levels, though without verification. They operate at a single moment in time at the end of 2012 and are expressed very oddly, as a bracket, a limit of 1,700 to 2,200. A good treaty would need to move beyond that, both numerically and in measures such as verification, but I would be uneasy about trying to get the other nuclear powers into it. If it is to be a negotiation about nuclear matters, it has to be US-Russia. Bringing the British and the French into it would do nothing other than complicate matters.

  Q123 Mr. Horam: So you would carry on with what has happened historically under the strategic arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Yes.

  Q124 Mr. Horam: That treaty ends next year.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: The verification does. The SORT treaty still has time to run, but without verification.

  Q125 Mr. Horam: Do you think that this part of the jigsaw can play an important part in nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I think that a new and frankly better, more solid US-Russian treaty is perhaps the most crucial single part of the nuclear powers being seen to do their stuff in accordance with article 6.

  Lord Robertson: There are signs that the initial response by President Medvedev to the election of President Obama was peculiar: the threat to put in, as yet untested, missiles into Kaliningrad. Since the speech was made, there has been a much more cordial atmosphere, and it has been elaborated. The day before yesterday, President Medvedev said that he was looking forward to discussions. It may well be that the chemistry of the moment can produce something.

  I think that President Bush originally wanted to be quite bold in his relationship with President Putin. I had a conversation with him at one point after they had a meeting at what is called the southern White House, I think.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Crawford.

  Lord Robertson: Yes, at the ranch, dressed in cowboy boots. President Bush said that he proposed to reduce strategic missiles. The President of Russia said that he thought that ballistic missile defence was a mistake and, if that was to happen, that he would move more of the Russian stockpile. President Bush said that he just told him, "You can do that if you want. It will just waste money. I am going to do what I am going to do, because I don't see you as the enemy any more. But we have lots of other enemies out there, and we have too many nuclear missiles." That was the initial bonhomie feeling. If President Obama and those projected as his advisers on the defence and foreign policy side live up to expectations, now is the time for a bold initiative.

  Q126 Mr. Horam: One of the other bits of the jigsaw is the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, which has not been ratified by the US Senate. One of our previous witnesses suggested that an early indicator of the new President's attitude to nuclear disarmament might be an attempt by him to get the Senate to ratify the treaty. Is that a sensible thing for him to do?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I hope so. I admit to believing that the CTBT is not, in cold strategic logic, as important as people have talked it up to be for the past 30 years. As an established political fact, however, it is seen as a major symbol of seriousness. I hope that President Obama will indeed revive the ratification attempts. With a Democratic Senate, perhaps he will have a better chance of bringing it off than before. That might crucially break the logjam, because the treaty, as you will know, sir, requires all of the 44 states to ratify before it can come into force. A lot of people are hiding behind the United States. If the United States ratifies, I do not think that the likes of India and Pakistan, for example, will want to be last holdouts. That would be a useful gesture, even if it were not as strategically important as people sometimes claim it to be.

  Lord Robertson: That is why I think that our initiative, especially the one in America, is so important at this time, as it will become one of the early initiatives taken by the new Administration. I have had experience, as have others, of the separation of powers that the British donated to the United States of America and the sometimes helplessness of Presidents in the face of opposition from Congress. President-elect Obama has the remarkable coincidence of a huge majority in the Senate and in the House, along with huge good will in the country. If he has five minutes to take out of rescuing the economy, we want to make sure that he has a number of key objectives that he can do quickly to show that America is back in the world. That would be very important symbolically.

  Q127 Mr. Horam: If you had a five-minute window, as it were, this is something that you would choose to put in?

  Lord Robertson: You could focus on the elevator speech. That starts you in a good process.

  Q128 Ms Stuart: May I take you to a different part of the world—India, and the US-Indian nuclear agreement? There has been criticism about why we are allowing this deal without India signing the non-proliferation treaty. The Committee concluded that we welcome the Indo-US nuclear deal, but added: "However, the political significance of the US offering civilian nuclear cooperation to a non-signatory of the NPT has seriously undermined the NPT. We recommend that the Government work to ensure the NPT is updated to take account of the reality of India and Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons." The Foreign Secretary still hails this agreement as a great success. What would your view be? Are the British Government right to take that position, and what do you think the impact of the deal will be on the international community?

  Lord Robertson: It has not yet happened. It still has to go through that famous US Congress. There is no guarantee that—

  Sir Michael Quinlan: It has now.

  Lord Robertson: Well, it highlights some of the things that we have already been saying. In the report that comes out tomorrow, we recommend that the British Government fund and contribute to a second, less formal track of diplomatic activity, involving former senior officials and policy experts from the P5, plus India, Pakistan and Israel, if possible, to start to talk about some of these aspects. We acknowledge that that is not easy. It is a bit of an aspiration, but unless you try these things they will not be successful. That is the important process that we now have to embark on.

  Q129 Ms Stuart: Just to be clear, you would not say that it is a question of looking at the NPT itself, but a question of setting up a forum between those who say that the NPT is dead after this deal—a possible third way?

  Lord Robertson: It is not dead. There is a review conference to come up.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I am among those who regret the US-India deal. I wish the United States had found some other way of fulfilling its excellent goal of trying to reinforce the relationship with India. But that is over the dam now. What I would hope is that ways could be found—Lord Robertson has referred to suggestions to this end—of involving India, along with Pakistan and others, in the general process of strengthening the non-proliferation regime, discussing things like strengthening the nuclear energy deal, and the withdrawal question.

  I do not think that one can revise the treaty. That is a can of worms. It would simply be unfeasible or at least very perilous to try to do that. There is no way of bringing India, Pakistan and Israel into the treaties. They will not come in as non-nuclear weapons states, and they cannot be added to the list of nuclear weapons states. But I am sure that there are ways of involving them in a positive way in the future operation and strengthening of the regime.

  Lord Robertson: One of the interesting features of the declaration by India and Pakistan that they were nuclear weapons states has been the sobriety that this has brought into the relationship between India and Pakistan. If someone says the bomb comes from under the table to on top of the table, you suddenly realise what is at stake. I learned at Sir Michael's knee how nuclear deterrence, certainly in the early stages, puts conventional war beyond question. Nobody could imagine that they would win a conventional war if nuclear weapons were there in the chain. So India and Pakistan are now talking in a way that they rarely talked before. Kashmir is much less of a flashpoint. There is much less sabre rattling. Building them into some new, informal arrangement might be the way to do it. Again, it comes back to whether we are willing to make an investment in diplomacy at this dangerous time.

  Q130 Chairman: We have mentioned a number of the international agreements or treaties that have an impact on proliferation. You referred, Lord Robertson, to the UN's committee on resolution 1540. We have also touched on other issues. How effective are the other aspects—not only of the non-proliferation treaty, but of the overall nuclear weapons proliferation control regime—and what could we do to strengthen the system, in addition to trying to move towards the reductions we have discussed?

  Lord Robertson: We need to take more seriously what we have actually taken on. UN Security Council resolutions are important. Resolution 1540 is a remarkably comprehensive, voluntary agreement by all UN member states to do something about the problem. We have to continue to take that seriously, reinforcing it as one of the P5 wherever we can. The UN has a committee on the subject, and a group of experts, including one from the UK, but there is a perpetual threat—occasioned partly by financial concerns and by the usual weariness of the subject—that it will be suggested that it is time to wind up the expert group and have the committee meet less frequently. People have a tendency to move on to the next big issue, such as climate change or organised crime, but we have to be serious about what we take on, and if there are treaty commitments, we need to pursue them.

  Resolution 1540 is one of the ways in which you can get individual states, small and large, to accept that they took on an absolute obligation when that resolution was formed. Policing, pushing and invigilating the implementation of that resolution, believing in it and resourcing are some things that the British Government can do. That applies also to the other elements in the archipelago of the regime, but I use the resolution as an example of something that I detect might well wither on the vine, simply because people think, "Well, we have done as much as we can." In fact, we have done nowhere near what we could do on that.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: As Lord Robertson has implied, many instruments, not only the treaty, collectively form the regime as a whole. They include the missile technology control regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Hague Code of Conduct and the Proliferation Security Initiative. None of them is perfect, but in the round they amount to a pretty good apparatus, and the record over the years is not to be sneezed at. However, some of them could certainly be improved.

  I suspect that more could be done with the Proliferation Security Initiative, although I am not a master of the detail of that; and there is certainly scope for improving verification, with more people—preferably everyone—signing up to the Additional Protocol to improve verification, although I am afraid that that would mean that the IAEA would require more resources. More could be done to tackle the problem of withdrawal from the treaty, which can be done too cheaply and easily. There could also be further, positive and more generous measures to cope with the nuclear energy problem. There is an agenda out there that the UK Government can help in and, I think, are minded to help in.

  Q131 Chairman: Lord Robertson, using your experience in NATO, do you think that there is a role for that organisation to do more to counter proliferation and strengthen non-proliferation methods?

  Lord Robertson: Yes, there is, and that was one of the objectives of the NATO-Russia Council when it was set up in 2002. It seemed at that point to be a unique forum, with the countries round the table agreeing, moving and incrementally progressing an agenda that everyone, on the face of it, says is good. To build it on a military organisation is no bad thing. The Russian military, for example, is obviously an important component in Russian society, and the military talking to the military brought about a bond of trust that I found remarkable, despite the cold war and its legacy. They speak roughly the same language and use the same acronyms and the same basic systems; and, after 9/11, they also had a very real common enemy, so NATO was ideally suited to do a lot of the sort of discussion that could have taken place.

  Unfortunately, in the last few years, that body got a bit stuck in this process, partly because of the United States—the Department of Defence in particular—and partly because some of the other states which have never, or have not in recent years, traditionally liked Russia as a whole. The NATO-Russia Council was put into abeyance after Georgia, which seemed to me to be utterly perverse. I cannot understand the logic of having a forum in which Russia could, and should, have been engaged about what it did in Georgia. The council was never designed to be just for the good times; it was also designed to be a forum for debating and discussing some of the bad times and some of the differences of opinion, as well. The sooner it is resurrected, the better. The sooner it starts to look at that agenda, which included missile defence and non-proliferation, the better it will be and the more contribution it can make.

  Q132 Mr. Horam: The Non-Proliferation Treaty comes up for review in 2010 and work is already going on towards the conference which will then take place. If you were still in your previous position, Sir Michael, advising the Government on their approach, what would you say should be their top priority in the build-up to the review conference? What should the main objective be, from the UK policy point of view?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Leaving aside the particular problems of Iran and North Korea, there are three general weaknesses in the regime, which the review conference ought to tackle. One is verification, which I have referred to. In 1991, when Iraq's books were forcibly opened, as it were, we made the uncomfortable discovery that the verification regime had not been working. That needs to be tackled by universalising the Additional Protocol.

  I have also mentioned the second issue, which is the need to do something about the right of withdrawal. I do not think that it is politically feasible to amend the treaty and to remove the right to withdraw, but it would be good if international agreement could be reached on a package of rather disagreeable consequences, well displayed in advance, which any country seeking to withdraw without a very compelling reason must expect to undergo.

  Q133 Mr. Horam: In other words, to be a disincentive to withdrawal?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: Yes, a disincentive.

  The third priority would be to devise better, more generous arrangements to deal with the nuclear energy problem, which seems to me to be bound to become—or will in all likelihood become—more salient. At present, there is no solid arrangement for giving help with nuclear energy, without creating the threshold problem that Iran is currently exploiting. Those are my three priorities for the conference.

  Q134 Mr. Horam: You said earlier on that you thought that there was no prospect of Israel, India and Pakistan being brought into the NPT. Why do you think that is the case?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: They either come in as non-nuclear weapons states, or nuclear weapons states. They would not come in as non-nuclear weapons states and the rest, to a man—or to a country—would not let them in as nuclear weapons states. There is no likelihood that people would want to open that particular breach, so one must, therefore, live with the fact that they are outside it. But the more one can recruit them into the purposes and the operations of the treaty, the better.

  Lord Robertson: It is not an unknown phenomenon in international arrangements for people to go along with. Indeed, the Americans have done that with the comprehensive test ban treaty.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: The French were outside the NPT until 1992—for 24 years.

  Lord Robertson: So you obey the rules but you are not part of the club. You go along with that—it apparently gives you the freedom to do it. But, given the constraints that Sir Michael has stated, that would be a way in which they could come in. They are probably much more sober now, in terms of their responsibilities, than they were before.

  Q135 Ms Stuart: How are the Government doing, in terms of their overall strategy on non-proliferation, given our view that it is very much a rules-based approach? It would also be interesting to see whether you think that we do not differentiate sufficiently between the nuclear and the biological threats? What about our internal institutional arrangements—within the Foreign Office and the funding or that, and the Prime Minister's special adviser? What is your assessment of the overall UK approach to non-proliferation?

  Lord Robertson: I am not the most objective person. Since I am supposed to be here representing Malcolm Rifkind, Douglas Hurd and David Owen, I am even less capable of being objective. Sir Michael is in a much better position to answer.

  Sir Michael Quinlan: It is a long time since I was directly in the trade, you understand, Chairman. My impression is that we do better than almost any other country in getting our act together. That is an observation that runs right across the defence field, in my recollection and experience. It would be impossible to say it could not be improved, but the Foreign Office operates coherently within itself and it talks to the Ministry of Defence pretty well. I doubt that there are huge imperfections obstructing our optimising the way we work in this territory.

  Q136  Ms Stuart: Can I pursue one particular aspect? We have had witnesses who suggested that we ought to differentiate to a far greater extent between the various types of weapons of mass destruction. Some one wants to get rid of completely, whereas others one seeks to control. Is that an area where you think we could do better, by making greater differentiation, or do you think the present approach is sufficient?

  Sir Michael Quinlan: I am not sure how much better we can do in practice. I deplore the term "weapons of mass destruction", even though it has a UN history going back to 1948, because it lumps together, under a rather loose title, three things which are very different. We have a decent chance of getting biological and chemical weapons right out of the picture. As I think we have brought out, the prospect of doing the same with nuclear weapons is a much more distant one. I do not know how much effort is now going from HMG into the BW and CW territory, but as Lord Robertson implied earlier, that is something we should not forget about. There are things that can be done.

  Lord Robertson: I firmly believe we should distinguish between them. What we have talked about, by and large, is nuclear weapons. It is very different. There is a non-proliferation treaty, the P5—there are all these arrangements, whereas with chemical and biological warfare, in the kind of world we now live in, with non-state actors and rogue states, there are real perils involved. We can focus on them and there can be some remedies, but there is almost a "nobody would dare do it" feeling around that paralyses people, even though the weapons are so easy to manufacture, easily available and easily deployable, In this increasingly globalised world, they can cause such trouble.

  In research for our commission, it was interesting to see the estimate that if there were a flu epidemic now, as there was in 1918, 147 million people would die. Of those who caught SARS in the epidemic four years ago, 50% died, and the disease travelled to four continents in 24 hours. The capability for an epidemic—which might not be hostile-created—is huge and sometimes much more real than the threat from nuclear weapons, which people in all the countries that have them are very careful about.

  These other things are happening in a world where ordered society is disappearing and new threats are coming up all the time. The World Health Organisation says a new disease emerges every year. There has been a large number of new diseases in the last decade. Suddenly two weeks ago, following an unprecedented financial meltdown, we have piracy on the high seas, with huge tankers taken over. So the range of problems, difficulties and threats is enormous. What might happen if we had that flu epidemic is beyond thinking for many people, and yet we should be thinking about it.

  Chairman: On that optimistic note, I conclude today's evidence session. Lord Robertson and Sir Michael Quinlan, thank you very much for coming.

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