Attempts by John Bolton, the new US ambassador to the UN, to strip nuclear disarmament out of the draft document for this month’s UN summit, comes as no surprise. It’s just the latest in a series of efforts by the US to change the international framework on non-proliferation. These are part of the US’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, manifested not only in the illegal war on Iraq but in contempt for international law and multilateral treaty frameworks. For decades, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation have been linked through the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Nuclear weapons states have agreed to get rid of their arsenals, while in return non-nuclear weapons states have committed not to develop nuclear weapons. In recent years the US has sought to sideline or overturn the disarmament requirement, focusing on preventing more countries acquiring nuclear weapons. The US seeks to reinterpret the NPT as legitimising the possession of weapons by existing nuclear states, while using it as the justification for confrontation with states accused of proliferation.
It is not widely understood how strongly other nations feel, both about the need for nuclear disarmament and the hypocrisy of the nuclear states and their attitude of do-what-we-say-not-as-we-do. Many believe this is the type of approach that will lead other countries to proliferate. In Britain pressure for nuclear disarmament is often portrayed as an eccentric activity confined to campaigning organisations; but elsewhere in the world it is viewed not only as a treaty obligation that must be fulfilled but also, literally, as a matter of life and death.
This is ever more apparent as the US embraces the notion of “useable” nuclear weapons and the development of new weapons for use, even against non-nuclear weapons states. These are frightening developments that increase desires internationally for nuclear disarmament.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty originated in enormous international pressure from the non-nuclear weapons states. It was made stronger in 2000 through efforts by states pressing for movement after 30 years of hollow promises. The world court in 1996 called for nuclear disarmament obligations to be met, as did the UN high level panel.
Britain’s attitude towards nuclear disarmament is shameful and flies in the face of demand for treaty compliance. It has made no progress on disarmament – despite government claims that getting rid of old systems and replacing them with more powerful ones is somehow a form of disarmament.
The Trident system will reach the end of its lifespan in the 2020s and a decision on replacement will have to be taken in this parliament. Reports suggest that a decision to replace it has already been taken, although the government denies this. No parliamentary debate has yet taken place. But what is the likely outcome? In April the prime minister stated: “We’ve got to retain our nuclear deterrent …” This suggests that a Trident replacement is a foregone conclusion.
But his answer raises questions. Who exactly are we deterring? Of all the threats Britain faces, how many would be addressed by spending more than £15bn on a supposed nuclear deterrent? So should we assume that Tony Blair is living in a past of predictable super-power relationships and has not realised how the world has changed? No, this is clearly not the case.
A look at replacement options reveals his appeal to the familiar deterrent rhetoric as disingenuous in the extreme. The delivery system is likely to be a multi-role submarine which can carry both conventional and nuclear missiles. The warheads may well be a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield, or so-called bunker-busters, designed to hit deeply buried facilities.
The consequences of either of these weapons would be catastrophic. Far from wanting to maintain an unusable so-called deterrent, the government is going down the US path – developing new nuclear weapons for potential use.
Britain’s empty phrases in support of the NPT mean nothing when massive building work progresses apace at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, preparing for these new developments. But there is another option for a British government committed to international law and compliance with its treaty obligations, as desired by the vast majority of the international community. There is the option not to replace Trident.
· Kate Hudson is the chair of CND, which is hosting a conference, Preventing Trident Replacement, in London tomorrow; details from 0207 700 2393 or www.cnduk.org