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Commentary | 21 May 2024

What is the future for UK defence, diplomacy, and disarmament?

As the UK expects to head to a general election this year, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seems intent on making defence policy an election issue by pledging last month to boost defence spending and warning this week that leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, would make the country less safe in the face of threats from an “axis of authoritarian partners”. Starmer, in return, has matched Sunak’s commitment to raising defence spending and has given a ‘cast iron’ guarantee to the UK’s nuclear deterrent, saying his commitment to the UK’s nuclear weapons is “unshakeable” and “absolute”. As discussion regarding the future for defence, diplomacy, and disarmament in the UK will likely intensify in the next 12 months following the UK and US elections, a new survey of defence and foreign affairs opinion makers commissioned by the independent charity the Nuclear Education Trust (NET) and authored by Dr Tim Street has been published today.

The survey sought expert and civil society views on a series of statements in the UK Government’s Integrated Review Refresh of 2023. As the next UK Government faces choices on defence and foreign affairs policy,

it explores the fundamental, strategic, and existential question in the current context of military conflict and rising geo-political tension: how can the UK help get the world back on a path to nuclear disarmament rather than rearmament? The forty-two responses reflect a range of opinions and include Parliamentarians (across all six main political parties); respected think tanks (for example, RUSI and Scientists for Global Responsibility); academics (from universities including Bradford, King’s College London, Glasgow and York); and civil society organisations (such as British Pugwash and ICAN).

As expected, there were several areas of agreement and some of disagreement. Both cautious and critical voices acknowledged that key arms control agreements have been formally suspended, not complied with, or killed off in recent years. These include New START, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Trea­ty and the Open Skies Treaty. In this context, managing the UK’s power relations with Russia and China is challenging, although most agreed they should be treated separately and that the UK should seek to improve relations with both when the time is right.

However, a common view amongst respondents was that as long as Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, the possible use of nuclear weapons by President Putin will remain, and fears of a new Cold War will grow. For many, the potential for progress on arms control and disarmament is thus low given the tension and distrust between the major powers. All of the five main nuclear weapons states are now moving in the direction of modernising – and most are increasing – their nuclear arsenals. In this context, it is not surprising, although extremely alarming, that the Doomsday Clock is at its closest point to midnight for 50 years.

Several respondents noted that, as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the UK is committed to reducing both the number of its nuclear weapons, and their role in its security policies, pursuant to disarmament. Yet the story the UK has had to tell in recent years is one of nuclear modernisation. Another area of fairly broad agreement amongst respondents was that the Integrated Review Refresh overestimates the UK’s ability to influence world events, and that the UK would be better off focusing on security issues closer to home. For example, scepticism was raised among respondents concerning the need for and merits of the AUKUS deal. This was because it was felt that the deal would degrade non-proliferation norms, militarise the Indo-Pacific region, encourage US power projection, and antagonise China.

The Government’s decision to increase the UK’s nuclear warhead cap—and reduce transparency over nuclear weapons policy—also raised particular concern among many respondents. In addition, several respondents highlighted that the UK’s nuclear weapons system is under extreme pressure, with the Trident replacement programme experiencing significant cost overruns and delays. However, supporters of the UK’s nuclear force argued that, at a minimum level, it contributes to maintaining global order at a time of instability, and that it would be more expensive to eliminate than retain.

Informed by the report, NET has come to three conclusions. First, in the current challenging context, it might seem counterintuitive to raise the issue of nuclear disarmament. But if not now, when? Quite simply, if we don’t start in earnest a debate about how to get back on a path towards nuclear disarmament, it may be too late.

Second, for too long, any debate about nuclear weapons has been binary—too polarised—for or against, multilateral vs. unilateral. In the words of Lord Browne, this is ‘very stale’. The question before us now is not so much whether you are for or against nuclear weapons, but whether or not you are concerned about where nuclear rearmament is taking us and want to do something about that. Unfortunately, those who are concerned about where the world is heading—whether from a cautious or critical standpoint—have largely been absent from what little mainstream political, public, and media debate there is. This should change.

To help the world avoid conflicts involving the major powers escalating up to nuclear war, the UK must act as a nation amongst nations, not beholden only to the US, but building wider partnerships — in Europe and beyond. Steve Barwick

Third, despite the dire predicament of global conflict – or indeed because of it – there is no shortage of suggestions for what the next steps back on the path to nuclear disarmament could be. Central to these proposals is the notion that to help the world avoid conflicts involving the major powers escalating up to nuclear war, the UK must act as a nation amongst nations, not beholden only to the US, but building wider partnerships — in Europe and beyond. Here are ten of the report’s fifty proposals for consideration by the UK government and the main political parties:

  • Improve the democracy, transparency, and accountability of UK international policy-making, including via more Parliamentary debates and public engagement.
  • Encourage the Defence Select Committee to hold inquiries into the rising costs and risks involving the UK’s nuclear weapons programme.
  • Invest more resources in UK diplomatic capabilities, including conflict prevention and resolution.
  • Seek to create a truly multipolar world order based on international law, human security, and a strengthened United Nations.
  • Convene a summit of European states to explore options for regional security systems compatible with a European nuclear weapons-free zone.
  • Ensure there are regular P5 meetings to discuss nuclear risk reduction measures and provide information to the public on these meetings.
  • Invest political capital in reviving multilateral nuclear arms control and disarmament processes.
  • Advocate for all nuclear weapons states to commit to a No First Use nuclear weapons policy.
  • Reverse the nuclear warhead cap increase and return to the previous goal of reducing the UK’s total number of warheads to 180.
  • Prepare plans for how the UK can diverge from Washington on international policy, especially if a future US President pursues a more aggressive and unilateralist approach.

We will all have views on which next steps are the best ones to take. However, as this report makes clear, doing nothing is not an option. A dark, dystopian future is not inevitable: taking steps towards nuclear disarmament, and away from rearmament, is both possible as well as necessary.

“The Future for UK Defence, Diplomacy and Disarmament: 50 proposals for a more peaceful world” is available here.

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 policy challenges of our time.

Image: Flickr, Number 10