1.We are living through a time of worldwide disruption and change, and the global balance of power is shifting and fragmenting. The challenges to the rules based international order that we identified in our report UK foreign policy in a shifting world order are equally visible in global nuclear diplomacy. Arms control agreements are collapsing, the nuclear non-proliferation regime is under pressure, and the risk of the use of nuclear weapons is a factor in international relations in a way not seen since the end of the Cold War.
2.The 191 countries that have ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (commonly known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, hereafter the NPT) agreed in its preamble that a nuclear war would visit “devastation … upon all mankind”. The preamble set out the “need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war and to take measures to safeguard the security of peoples”.
3.The NPT entered into force in 1970, with the objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and associated weapons technology, promoting co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and furthering the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. In the 49 years since, international security conditions have changed dramatically, from the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War, through the more benign conditions of the 1990s to the late 2000s. These benign conditions no longer exist.
4.Many of our witnesses said that greater global tensions—recently between the US and Russia and between India and Pakistan—and a more multipolar world with multiple centres of power, including China, are increasing the risk of nuclear weapons being used. Dr Nick Ritchie, Lecturer (International Security), University of York, said that an increase in nuclear risk was “undoubtedly a symptom of changes in hostile relations between nuclear armed adversaries”. Witnesses said that new technological capabilities and “a potential new arms race” heightened these tensions and the risk of misperception.
5.Lord Browne of Ladyton, former Secretary of State for Defence, and Vice-Chair, Nuclear Threat Initiative, said that “adversarial geopolitics” was a “pathway to a nuclear mistake”. He underscored the importance of nuclear diplomacy for the UK: “we live in a part of the world where 95% of the weapons in the world are present and a significant number of them deployed”.
6.We heard of challenges to arms control. Dr William Perry, former US Secretary of Defense, said these agreements had decreased “the likelihood of a nuclear war” during the Cold War. A number of key bilateral agreements—such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the US and Russia, which together hold some 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenals—were under threat. Izumi Nakamitsu, Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, United Nations (UN), told us this was “definitely affecting the work at the multilateral level.” Sir Simon Gass KCMG CVO, former Political Director and former UK Ambassador to Iran, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), said “the atmosphere around non-proliferation today is more dangerous than it has been for some considerable period”. There were “new threats and challenges to the non-proliferation regime”, including the unresolved North Korean programme, and questions over the health of the Iran nuclear deal following the US’s unilateral withdrawal.
7.Witnesses also identified increasing tension between the five recognised Nuclear Weapon States and the Non-Nuclear Weapon States—particularly concerning the slow pace of disarmament under the NPT, resulting in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (the Ban Treaty)—as well as ongoing challenges posed by nuclear possessor states outside the NPT. Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), described an “unravelling of the legal structure around nuclear weapons”.
8.The state of the global non-proliferation regime is a microcosm of the broader rules-based international order, which we identified in our 2018 report to be “under serious threat from multiple directions”. Ms Nakamitsu told us that “disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation” were “a critical part of the international peace and security discourse”. Dr Brad Roberts, former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, said there was “no better example of the erosion of the rules-based international order” than what was “happening in the realm of disarmament diplomacy”. He said that “The rules and institutions of non-proliferation and disarmament remain, but their legitimacy is [subject to] growing debate. The commitment of leading powers to preserve and extend the regimes is in growing doubt. The effectiveness of the regime is in growing doubt.”
9.From April–May 2020, States Parties to the NPT will hold a review of progress in achieving the treaty’s goals. This Review Conference (RevCon) has a difficult backdrop. It will be an opportunity to recognise the treaty’s successes—a near-universal membership, and its role in preventing the widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons—and to consider its challenges. It will also be an opportunity for all States Parties to consider actions to maintain and uphold the NPT as a central plank of nuclear arms control.
10.As one of the five NPT-recognised Nuclear Weapon States, the UK has a significant role to play in international nuclear diplomacy. In this report we consider the actions the UK should take to reduce nuclear risk, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons both within and between countries, support nuclear arms control agreements, and to advance multilateral nuclear disarmament.
11.In Chapter 2 we consider the causes of nuclear risk. In Chapter 3 we consider the NPT and the wider non-proliferation regime, and assess progress against the three pillars of the NPT: non-proliferation, peaceful uses and disarmament. We also consider challenges to progress on the disarmament pillar.
12.In Chapter 4 we consider particular challenges to non-proliferation and arms control, including Iran, North Korea, the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive-Test-Ban Treaty, the paralysis of the Conference on Disarmament, the fraying of arms control agreements between the US and Russia, and the challenge of trying to develop arms control in the context of a multipolar and technologically advanced world. In Chapter 5 we consider prospects for the 2020 Review Conference of the NPT, and consider the actions that the UK, as a member of the P5 and a “responsible Nuclear Weapon State”, should take.
13.We took evidence on this inquiry from December 2018 to March 2019. Five committee members visited the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston as part of the inquiry. We thank our Specialist Adviser, Dr Heather Williams, Lecturer, King’s College London, and all our witnesses.
1 International Relations Committee, (5th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 250) This is an area of international affairs which is not likely to be affected by Brexit, as international security is not an EU competence. Written evidence from Dr Ben Kienzle () Mr Koenders said that, “Brexit or not” the UK was “a key element in co-operation in Europe on security”. The Minister was confident that after Brexit, on “the big issues of international security, we will be able to maintain the kind of responsible co-operation that we want to maintain and which the world needs to see”.
2 UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Text of the Treaty’: [accessed 14 March 2019]
3 UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): [accessed 14 March 2019]
5 (Izumi Nakamitsu)
6 The Euro-Atlantic area.
8 ‘Nuclear Weapon State’ is the term used to refer to nuclear-armed states recognised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ‘nuclear possessor state’ in this diagram refers to nuclear-armed states that are not party to the NPT, and ‘NATO nuclear sharing country’ refers to those countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Turkey) that host US nuclear weapons on their territory.
9 Written evidence from Dr William Perry ()
12 (Andrea Berger)
13 India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
15 International Relations Committee, (5th Report, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 250)
17 Written evidence from Dr Brad Roberts ()
18 (Sir Alan Duncan MP)