Skip to content
Commentary | 1 December 2010

Des Browne Sets Out a Vision for Europe’s Role

Image of Des Browne

Des Browne |Chair of the ELN, Vice Chairman of the NTI, Convener of the TLG and former UK Defence Secretary

Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Euro-Atlantic Security
Des Browne Sets Out a Vision for Europe’s Role, Hamburg, 8 November 2010

Lord Browne’s speech to the Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg acknowledges that substantial progress has been achieved in non-proliferation and disarmament but argues that there is still significant room for improvement particularly in the face of nuclear terror. Browne advocates a significant reduction of nuclear weapons in the world arguing that the P5 must take the lead in this process whilst also encouraging India, Pakistan and Israel to follow suit. It is a process in which Europe has a significant role to play, and cannot afford to stand back.



Thank you for your kind introduction and for the invitation to speak to such an expert and experienced audience today. This is one of several important engagements we have in Germany in the next 36 hours.

We will meet with many of your parliamentarians in Berlin tomorrow, as well as with government ministers, and I am pleased to say with Helmut Schmidt, Egon Bahr, Richard von Weizsacker and Hans Dietrich Genscher to discuss important matters on the nuclear agenda and ways in which we might all work together to address them.

It is a great honour to be here, and I look forward to the opportunity to discuss nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issues with you in this session.


Nuclear Dangers and the Necessity for Change
I want to begin my remarks today by taking stock of where we are. In some respects 2010 has been a good year.

The NPT Review Conference was a success, at least in so far as it avoided the collapse without agreement experienced at the 2005 Review Conference. The commitment to a special conference on a Middle-East WMD Free Zone in 2012 was also important, a point I will return to later in my remarks.

President Obama’s Prague speech in April was of course a highlight: No-one should underestimate the value of having a US President who both thinks, and is willing to say, that a world without nuclear weapons is something to strive and not just wish for.

The US-Russia New START Agreement was limited in terms of actual nuclear reductions but politically it was of enormous significance. This was the first real arms control negotiation between the Americans and the Russians for two decades. We still await ratification in the US Senate. If it doesn’t happen, and that is less likely given the mid-term election results, significant disarmament momentum will be lost.
It is not only for this reason that we should resist the temptation to be over-optimistic on progress to date.
The risks of proliferation are growing. India, Israel and Pakistan have already entered the nuclear club. If Iran gets the bomb, others are very likely to follow. The situation in North Korea is not improving and has the potential to destabilise East Asia.

We know that terrorist groups want to acquire nuclear materials, making the security of those materials an issue of truly global significance, and my colleague, Ian Kearns, will say more about the challenges in this area when he speaks to you in a few minutes time.

Despite the proliferation risks, nuclear armed states inside the NPT have not been disarming fast enough, straining the confidence of their non-nuclear partners in the credibility of the NPT grand bargain.

Without further action, there is a real danger that the world will be overwhelmed by proliferation risks and incidents of nuclear weapons use, with all their catastrophic consequences.

The strategic implications of this are profound. Nuclear deterrence is a far less persuasive strategic response to a world of potential regional nuclear arms races and nuclear terrorism than it was to the Cold War.

The circumstances of today require a shift in thinking. We must, through further multilateral agreement, reduce the role and the number of nuclear weapons in the world, deepen confidence in the non-proliferation regime, and improve the security of existing nuclear weapons and materials. We must achieve these goals while at the same time helping those countries that wish to go down the civil nuclear energy route do so safely.

The UK Role
The UK government has been active on some aspects of this agenda in the recent past.
While I was still a minister in the government myself I took, with colleagues, the decision to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent. I did so only on the understanding that we, as a government, also signed up to the task of actively pursuing a world without nuclear weapons.

My colleague at the time, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, delivered a speech in the US making our position in support of that goal very clear. I myself became the first defence minister to address the conference on disarmament on this issue in Geneva, and together we instigated cooperation with the Norwegian government on research related to verifiable dismantling of nuclear warheads. That work still continues today.
I am pleased to say the current UK government has maintained a rhetorical commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

In the recent Strategic Security and Defence Review, the government announced its intention to further reduce the size of the UK deterrent. The number of operationally available warheads is being reduced from around 160 to no more than 120. The total UK nuclear weapon stockpile is being reduced to no more than 180. The number of warheads on board each submarine is being reduced from 48 to 40.
Despite these steps, I acknowledge that this is not enough. We need to do more. Those of us with nuclear weapons need to engage in meaningful dialogue within the P-5 and between the P-5 and India, Pakistan and, if possible, Israel. We need to pursue much deeper cuts if we are to head off the growing nuclear dangers.
But a key message I want to bring to you today is that the responsibility to act rests also with all of us, as Europeans. Europe, including all of non-nuclear Europe, cannot afford to be passengers in this debate. Our interests are at stake and we need to find ways of driving and shaping developments in this area.


The European Role

I want to focus the rest of my comments today on four areas where I believe Europeans can act together to address the challenges we face.

First, in my view there is an urgent need to move forward on the debate on Theatre Nuclear Weapons in Europe and on NATO’s future nuclear posture.

I know the German government has been at the forefront of this debate and that it is now working with allied government’s in NATO to ensure a full dialogue within the alliance: it is right to do so.

I was proud to sign, with 35 other colleagues from around Europe, a recent statement calling on NATO to address the nuclear issue in the revised NATO Strategic Concept to be published in Lisbon. In particular, our statement called for the following:

• Recognition on the part of NATO countries that there is an urgent need for reducing the roles and risks of nuclear weapons in security policies globally and a clear statement that NATO itself is prepared to make significant contribution to that process;

• A change in declaratory policy. We need a clear statement to the effect that the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack. This is required not least because of recent changes in US and UK declaratory policy. It cannot make sense, when the US and UK nuclear weapons are committed to the defence of NATO, for the alliance as a whole to have a more expansive declaratory policy than the countries providing the back-bone of the NATO deterrent;

• For recognition of the view that non-strategic nuclear weapons have lost their original role of deterring massive Soviet conventional superiority in Europe. NATO should be willing in the circumstances to support a further reduction and consolidation of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe;

I know these changes go to the heart of NATO’s approach to delivering its own security, its longer-term political cohesion in changing conditions, and the stability of its relationship with Russia.

But the challenge for NATO today is to simultaneously maintain its own cohesion while moving to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime and further reduce urgent nuclear dangers. The alliance has a responsibility to show more leadership on the nuclear challenges of the 21st century. These proposals are one way it can do so and the European countries should get behind them.

Second, we need to advance the European-Russian Dialogue on Nuclear Issues.

The internal NATO debate is inextricably linked to the wider character of NATO-Russian relations.

Some NATO European states, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia and perceived Russian use of its energy resources to intimidate neighbours, have concerns over a possible future military threat from Russia.

Russia, for its part, considers itself to be encircled by hostile forces in Europe and in Asia, has concerns over the significant asymmetry between NATO and Russian conventional military forces, and has worries over US plans in relation to ballistic missile defence.

Getting deeper and wider nuclear cuts agreements between the US and the Russians, while providing re-assurance to both Russia and the European members of NATO that their own security is guaranteed, now therefore requires:

• Progress on a cooperative US-Russian approach to missile defence;

• A significant further improvement in Russia’s wider relationship with NATO;

• Some revisiting of issues relating to the conventional force balance in Europe;

Bi-lateral talks between the US and Russia will be central here but by themselves they are not enough.
Surely here, European interests are directly at stake and European states, through their impact on US and NATO positions, are in a position to influence global outcomes.

I believe senior level European-Russian dialogue, across the range of relevant issues would be valuable. It could bring forward proposals to further build confidence in the European-Russian relationship and thereby could help to improve the tone of debate between NATO members and Russia. It could also help to build political will and support inside NATO itself for a further advance in the US-Russian dialogue, and do so in a manner that helps to sustain, rather than strain, NATO cohesion.

Since US-Russian arsenals make up around 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, this focus for European engagement would direct European influence not only at a set of issues where there is an opportunity to make a difference, but also at an issue that is perhaps the central agenda item in ongoing efforts to promote multilateral nuclear disarmament globally.

For all these reasons, I welcome the apparent participation of the Russian government in Lisbon. I hope Lisbon will turn a page, both on NATO nuclear policy and on the NATO relationship with Russia.

Third, we need to systematically identify, assess and improve the disarmament and non-proliferation contribution of a wide range of European institutions

State governments in Europe, the institutions of the European Union, including the External Action Service and the Commission, and private sector players in the European nuclear industry are all relevant, though in differing ways, to the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda.

Some of these governments and institutions are well placed to promote disarmament, some are well placed to strengthen non-proliferation efforts and provide technical, human and financial support to others in support of initiatives like UN Resolution 1540, and some are in a position to shape, influence or implement legal regimes that can make illicit trading in nuclear materials more difficult, and sanctions against regime violators more effective.

As Europeans we need to ask ourselves some searching questions here. How effective is the European contribution to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation overall? Is enough being done? Are some countries and institutions showing more leadership than others? Is the EU playing a constructive role? Where is there a need and realistic opportunity for European institutions to do more?

Fourth, and finally, We Need to Promote the idea of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

The Iranian and Arab governments of the region accuse the West of double standards on Middle East proliferation. The US and major European countries are accused of allowing and even assisting Israel to have the bomb while strongly resisting any Arab or Iranian attempts to get the same capability.

Israel’s policy of “nuclear opacity,” which entails neither confirming nor denying the possession of nuclear weapons may be aimed at motivating regional restraint on the part of others but it is possible that it is now beginning to have the opposite effect. Other countries in the region are making it clear they cannot feel secure in a Middle East that is indefinitely unequal in nuclear terms.

Let me be clear. No-one, including many states in the Gulf and the wider Middle East, and including me, wants to see Iran go nuclear. I fully support international efforts to stop that happening.

But the long-term options for the Middle East may not include the nuclear status quo.

For Israel and the other states of the region the long term choice may be between living in an unstable nuclear neighbourhood or taking part in serious attempt to build nuclear free region.

To make sure it is the latter, we have to work hard to make sure momentum behind the 2012 Conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East is strong.

Some argue that the goal of a Middle East Zone is futile without a wider peace settlement in the Middle East but the world is not that simple. It may be that pursuing a common interest in a nuclear free region can help to create the wider political conditions for peace.

It may be that Europe has something unique to contribute here. Not only do Europeans have a diplomatic position that is seen as less one sided than that of the US but also, as my colleague in the ELN, Ruud Lubbers, has pointed out on numerous occasions, Europe has the experience of EURATOM.

The EURATOM model of nuclear knowledge and fuel sharing could be a useful one for the Middle East as a whole. It allows all to have access to nuclear technology but has extremely robust monitoring arrangements that can build political confidence among its members such that all can be assured none are cheating the system. Working to build a Middle East version of EURATOM could be a common interest for all in the region to share.

European leaders, including those of us in the European Leadership Network, have to put their shoulders to the wheel to make difficult conversations happen in the region to begin to advance this agenda. Where it is difficult for our governments to make these conversations happen officially, we need to stand ready to make them happen in a credible but less formal track of talks involving senior figures from outside government.

I also want to stress that this activity cannot be positioned as an excuse to consider only Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Israel also has a right to live in security and any process that seeks to advance the notion of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East must open up all other countries in the region to the level of intense scrutiny required to build confidence. Countries such as Syria and Iran are also of serious concern and the process of building a zone must be comprehensive in addressing them.



I have tried in these remarks to give some account of where we are on the nuclear issue and to explain some of the more recent British policy initiatives on this agenda. I have also tried to offer a view on what we need to focus on next to make progress, and to carve out a role for Europe in addressing it. The 21st century presents us with a new and less stable nuclear order that is more dangerous than the Cold War. Collectively, we need to address it before it overwhelms us. I look forward to discussing some of these crucial issues with you.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.