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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 72, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 72, August - September 2003

Opinion & Analysis

What Price British Influence?
Tony Blair And The Decision to Back Missile Defence

By Nicola Butler

"What are the foreign policy principles that should guide us? First, we should remain the closest ally of the US, and as allies influence them to continue broadening their agenda... The price of British influence is not, as some would have it, that we have, obediently, to do what the US asks... But the price of influence is that we do not leave the US to face the tricky issues alone"
Tony Blair, January 7, 2003.


On February 5, 2003, after months of refusing to answer questions on the subject, British Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon finally told parliament that the UK had agreed to the US request to upgrade the early-warning radar base at Royal Air Force (RAF) Fylingdales in Yorkshire for missile defence purposes. Less than four years earlier, his predecessor, George Robertson, had told the House of Commons: "We are not in favour of developing ballistic missile defence systems. We are in favour of the Anti-Ballistic Missile [ABM] Treaty, which was one of the pioneering forerunners of arms control legislation."1 How and why has this apparent policy shift been accomplished? And what are the implications for Britain's future role in arms control and disarmament?

The issue of missile defence, with its intimate relation to Britain's nuclear weapons policy and its overlap with active UK support for the war against Iraq, goes right to the heart of Britain's "special relationship" with the United States. This paper argues that, by agreeing to the far-reaching US request to incorporate Fylingdales into its missile defence infrastructure, the British government, to refer back to Prime Minister Tony Blair's comment at the head of this article, appears precisely to have "obediently [done] what the US asks". The price of this accommodation, the paper concludes, has been heavy indeed: the curtailment of public and parliamentary debate over national security issues of fundamental import; and the abandonment of Britain's commitment to a meaningful nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament process.

Background: the UK's Defence of the ABM Treaty

In the late 1990s, against a backdrop of renewed interest in missile defence in the United States, many inside the British government and parliament expressed reservations about the military, technical, economic and diplomatic merits of such a course of action. In particular, whilst sticking closely to the line that "it is for the United States to decide whether or not to proceed with deployment", British Ministers raised concerns both about the impact on the strategic nuclear arms control relationship between the US and Russia, and with regard to the wider potential of the plan to fuel horizontal and vertical nuclear and missile proliferation, a 'chain reaction' certain to shake faith in the international non-proliferation and disarmament regime organised around the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In May 1999, for example, Defence Secretary Robertson emphasised the UK's commitment to arms control, stating that, "the matter of ballistic missiles causes concern across the world, and that is why it is kept under constant examination... In the meantime, we must step up the discussions on arms control, so that countries will not feel the need to acquire such weapons systems."2

In the autumn of 1999, following Robertson's appointment as NATO Secretary-General, Geoff Hoon, a close ally of Tony Blair, became the new Secretary of State for Defence. Hoon was much more positive about the possible involvement of Fylingdales in missile defence, telling the UK's Channel 4 News that "the history of our close friendship" with the United States should suggest "that we are sympathetic to such requests."3 This support for missile defence was not, however, the unanimous view of Ministers. Peter Hain, a Foreign Office Minister of State at the time, told the BBC that he did "not like the idea of a Star Wars programme, limited or unlimited."4 Robin Cook, then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee: "the impact on the international arms control environment is a crucial dimension to the debate on NMD [US National Missile Defence]... it is important that NMD does not proceed in a way which undermines the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty."5

Within the government, then, it was clear enough that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was taking the lead in questioning missile defence, whilst the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was working to keep options open to support the project. Naturally enough, this evident difference of perspective led to accusations that the government as a whole was split on the issue. The Prime Minister, however, was broadly supportive of the US position, while being careful to frame the issue in a broad arms control context. In July 2000, Tony Blair told the Commons: "On the point about national missile defence, we have made it clear throughout that we understand exactly why the United States is concerned about the possibility of rogue nuclear states. We are trying to ensure that the fear that the United States has - perfectly legitimately and justifiably - is taken account of in a way that does not put at risk the substantial progress that has been made on nuclear disarmament over the past few years."6

Whilst the opposition Conservative leadership - the 'front bench' - deliberated over its policy on missile defence, opposition was expressed by backbench Members of Parliament (MPs) on all sides of the House. In August 2000, the all-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee examined the issue and recommended "that the government articulate the very strong concerns that have been expressed about NMD within the UK. We are not convinced that the US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community. We recommend that the government encourage the USA to seek other ways of reducing the threats it perceives."7 Foreign Secretary Cook essentially concurred with this view: "The government has repeatedly made clear that it values the stability which the ABM Treaty provides, and wishes to see it preserved. The US Administration is fully aware of UK views... At no point has the government given the US administration reason to assume unqualified UK cooperation with NMD deployment: nor has the US administration at any stage sought any such assurance."8

With Robin Cook and Peter Hain as Ministers, Britain's Foreign Office was able to play a proactive role in talks such as the negotiation of a verification and compliance protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, where the nuclear-weapon states made an unequivocal commitment the elimination of nuclear weapons and signed up to a programme of practical steps, including increased transparency, irreversibility, and further progress on unilateral and multilateral nuclear disarmament.9

A Special Relationship?

The British government's position appeared completely in tune with that of the White House when, in September 2000, President Bill Clinton deferred the decision on whether to proceed with NMD. Citing the views of NATO allies, Clinton noted that "they hope the United States will pursue strategic defense in a way that preserves, not abrogates, the ABM Treaty."10

Given the UK's apparent commitment to have the ABM Treaty "preserved", there was great interest in how the UK government would handle the issue under a Bush presidency. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton seemed natural allies - centre-left, social democratic politicians pursuing a new "third way" in politics, sharing a close personal rapport. A Republican president appeared to have more in common with the British Conservatives. Indeed, when it became clear that George W. Bush would become President, Conservative leader William Hague moved quickly to endorse missile defence and to pledge Conservative support for US use of Fylingdales.11 But 'New Labour', as the Blair leadership had christened the party, had also carefully kept its options open - supportive to Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, but also laying the groundwork behind the scenes for working with a possible Republican presidency.

In January 2001, Blair despatched senior advisers to Washington to ensure a successful first summit meeting with Bush, in the run up to the British general election anticipated for later that year. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour Party, languishing in opposition, had been frequently derided by US Republicans for its 'extreme' positions on foreign and defence policy, notably its strong support for nuclear disarmament. Conservative Prime Minister John Major had been wrong-footed by the change in US administration from George Bush, Sr., to Bill Clinton. In contrast, Margaret Thatcher had benefited immensely from her demonstrably special relationship with Ronald Reagan. New Labour was determined to break with the party's past approach.

The first Blair-Bush meeting in February 2001 focussed heavily on personalities. The assembled media were told how the two men shared a common taste for Colgate toothpaste, sports, having "great wives", and being dads. Blair also demonstrated how quickly he had learned to speak Bush's language on missile defence. In a joint statement at Camp David, the two leaders recognised the "common threat" from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missiles and - effectively endorsing the US administration's concept of missile defence and deterrence - agreed to "obstruct and deter these new threats with a strategy that encompasses both offensive and defensive systems, continues nuclear arms reductions where possible, and strengthens WMD and missile proliferation controls and counter-proliferation measures."12 No mention was made of non-proliferation or the arms control treaties covering nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The decision to give British backing to Bush on missile defence had essentially been taken. The only question was how to get it through parliament.

No Debates Please, We're British

With increasing disquiet being expressed on the Labour backbenches about the government's stance on missile defence, Downing Street started its campaign to steer its shift of policy through parliament in spring 2001. An Early Day Motion (EDM), tabled by Labour MP Malcolm Savidge, Convenor of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, recommending that the government "voice the grave doubts about NMD in the UK", had been signed by over 280 MPs, whilst an opinion poll on the issue found that 70% of those polled believed that US NMD plans could "start a new arms race".13

Whilst Blair, Hoon and Cook refused to answer questions in parliament on the grounds that "no firm proposal" had yet been received from Washington, the Prime Minister's official spokesperson Alistair Campbell stirred up the issue by telling lobby journalists that missile defence was "a good idea".14

Following the party's landslide victory in the 2001 General Election, Robin Cook was moved "sideways" to the position of Leader of the House of Commons, whilst Peter Hain became Minister for Europe. Cook, who later spoke of being "troubled" by how the notorious 'hanging chads' in the Florida re-count had finally swung towards Bush, was replaced as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs by former Home Secretary Jack Straw, widely regarded as a safe pair of hands for Britain's relationship with the United States.

Within weeks, an article by Straw appeared in the Labour magazine Tribune, arguing for a "Countdown to a Sensible Defence". Taking aim at party opponents of missile defence, the Foreign Secretary asked: "Who opposed MAD [mutually assured destruction]...in the Cold War and prefer it now to missile defence? The answer is, some of those who say we should have nothing to do with missile defence. It's not a very convincing position."15 The Tribune article was shortly followed by a briefing paper from Straw's Special Adviser, Dr. Michael Williams, circulated to all Labour MPs, which argued: "Missile defence is not an alternative to our wider non-proliferation effort, but part of it."16

Missile defence was set to become a major issue at the 2001 Labour Party Conference. In the event - in the course of a gathering both traumatised and curtailed as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington - the leadership ensured that any debate on NMD was quashed by ruling out of order all resolutions on the issue on the questionable procedural grounds that they were no longer "contemporary".17

In parliament, Tony Blair insisted that the UK's position was "unchanged" and that "we have had no specific proposal from the United States" regarding Fylingdales. He added, however, that "I do not agree with those who are opposed to it. During the summit with President Bush in February, we made it clear that we were prepared to look at defensive as well as offensive systems."18 This set the tone for British policy statements on the subject for most of the following 12 months.

A Public Non-Discussion

Throughout much of 2002, despite the fact that the US had by now given notice of its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, British Ministers continued to insist that no decision had been taken on Fylingdales. In parliament, Secretary of Defence Hoon declined to answer specific questions about the involvement of Fylingdales on the grounds that it would be "premature".19

During the summer of 2002, US officials visited the UK and other European capitals to "set out possible approaches to missile defence" and to "repeat US willingness to offer protection to friends and allies".20 Washington also offered greater involvement for European defence contractors in the project. This was followed in November with a "familiarisation" tour of Fylingdales by the Director of the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish.

Despite these developments, Hoon continued to insist that, "no formal request has been made to us for the use of RAF Fylingdales as part of the US programme."21 However, in October 2002 he announced: "I have asked for some detailed analytical work to be completed on the implications of missile defence and its relationship with other elements of a comprehensive strategy against the ballistic missile threat. We welcome parliamentary and public discussion of the issues involved. I therefore intend to make available in the coming months further analytical and discussion material as our work progresses, and we will be ready to discuss these issues in the House at the appropriate time."22

The outcome of this analytical work was published on December 9, in the form of an MoD "public discussion paper".23 The paper invited comments from the public, but no closing date for submissions was given.

Barely one week had gone by when, on December 17, two days before parliament was due to rise for the Christmas recess, the Secretary of State for Defence announced that a request had been received from the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, "for the upgrade of the early warning radar at RAF Fylingdales for missile defence purposes."24 Rumsfeld's letter also proposed "the early conclusion of a new bilateral Research, Development, Test and Evaluation Memorandum of Understanding, to ensure that the UK, both government and industry, have the fullest possible insight into, and opportunity for involvement in, the missile defence programme."25

The announcement coincided with a statement from President Bush that the US would "seek agreement from the United Kingdom and Denmark to upgrade early-warning radars on their territory,"26 and a briefing by the US Department of Defense on progress with missile defence. Hoon told the Commons: "The decision on Fylingdales upgrade will be an important one, and the government is keen for it to be informed by public and parliamentary discussion. We shall ensure that this House has appropriate opportunities to debate the issues in the New Year."29

The Defence Select Committee immediately swung into action, welcoming "the fact that the Secretary of State has indicated that the government's decision will be informed by a public and parliamentary discussion" and announcing that it would be continuing an inquiry on missile defence in the New Year.29 Within days of MPs returning from the Christmas recess, however, any pretence of the decision being informed by public and parliamentary discussion was swept away by a further announcement from Hoon that the government had already "come to the preliminary conclusion that the answer to the US request must be yes." Although stating that the government had "not yet replied" to the US administration, and claiming that he awaited "with interest" the views of Members of Parliament, Hoon flatly refused all requests from MPs for a debate on missile defence. 29

Why Did Britain Back Missile Defence?

The most detailed explanation of Government policy on missile defence to date has been the MoD "public discussion paper", published in December 2002. This document emphasises the "missile threat", in many cases echoing the words of the Bush administration. Referring to the need to assess the combination of "capability and intention" on the part of possible adversaries, the document states that there is a "growing threat" posed by proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.30 Although British policy had hitherto stated that there was "no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK at present",31 this was now changed to an assessment "no immediate significant threat to the UK from ballistic missiles" (emphasis added).32 This small but significant change of wording has been used by the government simultaneously to claim that there has been no change of policy and as the starting point for the MoD to paint a dramatic picture of possible future threats to the UK from ballistic missiles.

The discussion paper identifies Iraq as the "most immediate threat to global security". North Korea is described as being able to conduct a flight test of a Taepo Dong-2 missile capable of reaching the UK "within weeks" if Pyongyang's unilateral moratorium on flight-testing long-range missiles were to be lifted. Iran and Libya are also described as posing a "credible potential missile threat".

Far from presenting a balanced discussion of the issues, the MoD paper clearly comes down in favour of missile defence. Such an option, for example, is presented as being "value for money", even though the costs are currently unquantifiable. In his statement to the Commons on January 15, Hoon went further, stating that from "the UK's national perspective, this specific decision [on Fylingdales] is one that has real potential benefits at essentially no financial cost."33

The claim that the Government's decision on missile defence represents a cheap deal is unsubstantiated, if not misleading, and appears designed to deter parliamentary debate, as MPs would normally expect to be able to scrutinise government decisions that incur significant public expenditure. Whilst the US is expected to shoulder the immediate cost of upgrading Fylingdales, if the UK becomes further involved in missile defence it is likely to become a highly expensive project. Indeed the UK has already committed funds to missile defence through a number of MoD studies on the issue, and most recently through the establishment of a Missile Defence Centre to "provide an interface between the UK and the US Missile Defence Agency".34

The MoD also argues that missile defence will be good for British industry. The UK's defence industry is described as being "well placed to participate in and benefit from the enterprise, an enterprise which also has real opportunities for the creation of highly-skilled employment in this country... British companies large and small, as well as universities and research centres, have an excellent opportunity to contribute to the international effort."

It remains to be seen whether missile defence will bring significant benefits to British industry. Missile defence work is currently dominated by the big US defence contractors, which may be unwilling to share too much of the spoils. Work conducted under the 1985 US-UK Strategic Defense Initiative Memorandum of Understanding, the previous US-UK cooperation agreement on missile defence, amounted to $150 million for the whole of the period from 1985 to 199935 (the last year for which figures are currently available) - a small figure compared with the UK MoD's annual expenditure.

Turning to the larger strategic picture, while applying equally broad and sweeping strokes, the MoD states that missile defence has "changed fundamentally" since the Cold War and that the word "National" has been dropped from the US project title, allowing the system to be used to protect "friends and allies", such as Britain. Like the Bush administration, the MoD implies that missile defence is now needed in order to move beyond the strategy of mutually assured destruction and because of the "danger that [nuclear] deterrence will be less effective" against proliferators. 36

According to Hoon, missile defence is "a defensive system that threatens no one".37 This interpretation, however, ignores the fact - openly proclaimed by the Bush administration38 - that the system is intended to be used in conjunction with US offensive forces, including nuclear weapons. Indeed, such a mix of defensive and offensive utility is acknowledged in the MoD public discussion paper, which states that missile defence is required in part because "the UK needs to maintain the ability (together with her Allies) to intervene in regional crises".39

The discussion paper also sets out to rebut key criticisms of missile defence. It states that the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty - though only effective since June 2002 - has not created an "arms race", and that China has been pursuing its nuclear modernisation programme "irrespective" of US missile defence plans. While critics have argued that missile defence undermines arms control, the MoD states that missile defence is "one of a range of responses for tackling the potential threat from weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles", implying rather than detailing its compatibility with non-proliferation and arms control agreements.

These views are not widely shared on the Labour back benches. As Labour MP Harry Cohen asks: "Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that this [the decision to allow the US to use Fylingdales] is an act of proliferation, that Star Wars technology, when eventually developed, can have an offensive capacity as well as a defensive one, that it will spur Russia and China to have serviceable nuclear weapons, and that it will be another blow to arms control treaties?"40 Former Labour Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd MP points out that "China's rational response to the development of missile defence would be to increase the number of its missiles and warheads... to get through an American missile defence system", arguing that "that could have a serious knock-on effect on other regional neighbours such as India and Pakistan, and on into the Middle East."41 Former Labour Defence Minister Peter Kilfoyle MP also suggests that "slavish devotion to American policy in this area adds further to global destabilisation", citing North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT as "following on from" US "abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty".42

Critics have suggested that Fylingdales might become a target for proliferators hoping to take out the "forward eyes" of a US missile defence shield. The MoD discussion paper, however, brushes aside this horrific prospect, describing it as "highly improbable". Understandably, this confidence is not shared locally. Labour MP Lawrie Quinn, whose constituency is close to Fylingdales, describes local concerns as being "not so much about a ballistic attack on the base and the area but about a terrorist attack".43

Parliament and Process

The price of "influence" with the US can be seen in the way that missile defence was pushed past parliament. The MoD discussion paper was not so much a serious attempt to inform and foster public debate as a PR document that could have been written by the US Missile Defense Agency. As Conservative MP David Curry commented: "Would it not have been better for the Secretary of State to state clearly that, if the United States believes the system to be essential to its security and requests United Kingdom assistance, it would be politically almost inconceivable to deny the request given the importance of our relations? That would be more convincing than relying on the thin arguments in the consultation document and the serious doubts about the efficacy of the technology..."44

In short, the manner in which public discussion on the issue was handled appears to have been designed not so much to stimulate debate as to stifle it. This damning conclusion was certainly drawn by the Defence Select Committee: "We deplore the manner in which the public debate on the issue of the upgrade of facilities at RAF Fylingdales has been handled by the Ministry of Defence. It has shown no respect for either the views of those affected locally by the decision or for the arguments of those opposed to the upgrade in principle. Despite the Secretary of State's unequivocal statement that he wanted the decision to be informed by public and parliamentary discussion, he has acted in a way that has effectively curtailed such discussions."45

Classic 'curtailment' devices, used by the government to avoid scrutiny of missile defence policy, included making major policy statements just as the House was about to go into recess, dripping out information bit by bit whilst refusing to answer parliamentary questions, and refusing requests for a full debate. On January 15, 2003, for example, Malcolm Savidge asked: "Given the weight of expert criticism of missile defence, the unanimous conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the extent of anxiety in the House, and, according to repeated polls, the opposition of more than 70 percent of the British public, will we have an opportunity for a specific debate and democratic vote on the issue in the House?"46

The answer, in essence, was "no". In terms of his specific response, Hoon suggested that, instead of a full parliamentary debate, missile defence be included as part of the wider debate planned for January 22 on "Defence in the World". In the event, this debate, which of course provided no opportunity for MPs to vote on the Fylingdales decision, was inevitably dominated by another aspect of the special relationship: the growing crisis and looming conflict in Iraq.

Even staunch supporters of missile defence, such as the Conservative front bench, were critical of this approach. As Conservative spokesperson Bernard Jenkin MP stated on January 15: "Parliament seems to have been the last to know of this significant and controversial decision... The way in which the announcement has been dribbled out is all too typical of the way in which the government treats parliament... I welcome next week's opportunity for debate, but rather than a general debate, which will inevitably be taken up by other defence issues... should it not be a specific debate on missile defence? Is that not what the House of Commons is truly for?"47 Speaking for the Liberal Democrats, Paul Keetch MP declared: "The decision, whether one agrees with it or opposes it, has seemingly been made with an astonishing lack of consultation. It is a major strategic decision, and to suggest that it should be debated in an Opposition-day debate is outrageous. The government issued the public discussion paper only last month, and the request was only issued last month, yet the House of Commons has still not had a proper opportunity to discuss the matter... Many questions remain unclear..."48

A wide spectrum of opinion on the issue - inside parliament and out, for and against - would agree with Keetch: many, many questions remain unanswered by the government concerning its position on missile defence. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on missile defence has been signed with the United States, but will remain classified, making it difficult for parliament to scrutinise or ratify it in any meaningful way. As John Maples MP, a Conservative member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, observed with respect to one obvious point of uncertainty, "if we are to defend against missiles in re-entry phase, there is a need for locally based and probably ground-based interceptors. Does the Memorandum of Understanding with the United States...give us an option to use United States technology to base re-entry defence interceptors in and around the United Kingdom?"49

The MoD's December 2002 paper raises the possibility of "additional interceptor sites, perhaps in the North-East United States and in North-West Europe". Although claiming to be "candid" with parliament, all that Hoon would say on this issue was that there were a "range of options" that the United States is looking at. A question from former Labour Minister Glenda Jackson MP on whether "we [are] considering a situation in which anti-ballistic missiles will be placed in the United Kingdom?" was, likewise, left unanswered.50

The possible missile defence role of another RAF base in Yorkshire - the early-warning and radar-tracking facility at Menwith Hill - also remains unclear. Although a Foreign Office Memorandum from 2000 stated that the US would require UK government consent prior to using the base for NMD purposes,51 the MoD discussion paper is silent on this question. A question from David Curry, asking whether "subsequent developments, including any that involve Menwith Hill in my constituency, will be subject to a separate consultation and decision-making process" was, again, not answered.52

Former Conservative Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg raised the question of command and control. Command and control was highly controversial in the public debates on US cruise missile deployments at Greenham Common in the 1980s. Hogg asked if Hoon would "remind the House and put a note in the library explaining...the precise command allocations of responsibility as between the United States and the United Kingdom within the Fylingdales base". Again, Hoon effectively declined to comment, stating that the matter was the subject of "further detailed negotiations" and that the House would not be informed of "all the aspects", only the "general outline".53

Hoon has also been pressed to clarify whether Fylingdales will form part of the US development programme for its 'X-band' missile defence early-warning radar infrastructure. All that the Secretary of State was prepared to say was that "no specific decision" had been taken about deployment of X-band radar, and that it would "not necessarily have to be located on land".54 Such evasions have left the parliamentary debate floundering at sea. As Conservative MP Crispin Blunt stated: "The Secretary of State and I have different ideas of candour. I do not think that it is particularly candid to come to the House on December 17 and say, 'Surprise, surprise - we have just had a formal request from the Americans to upgrade the radars at Fylingdales', and then, eight sitting days later, come to the House and say, 'We are minded to accept it.'"55

'The Closest Ally': Foreign Policy Principle Number One?

Hoon's statements and the MoD public discussion paper set out the details of the UK government's official arguments in support of missile defence, but the underlying reason for the UK's changing position on the issue is more fundamental. As noted earlier, it was clear as early as Blair's first press conference with Bush in February 2001 that the UK was essentially endorsing US policy on missile defence at the highest level and that this would eventually lead to an agreement to incorporate Fylingdales into the international early-warning system required by Washington's plan. There is, thus, only one explanation for the shift in UK government policy on missile defence between 2000 and February 2001, and that is the change of President in the United States. On missile defence, as with many other aspects of British defence strategy such as nuclear deterrence, policy is driven not by public and parliamentary opinion in the UK, but by the perceived need for alignment with the United States.

The judgement that seems to have been made early on by Downing Street is that under Bush, the US was going to pursue missile defence regardless of what other countries thought. Britain, therefore, would have no choice but to go along with it, irrespective of public and parliamentary opinion, but might also perhaps gain some influence with the US in the process of acquiescence. A similar judgement appears to have been made about war with Iraq.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq - an act justified, as in the case of missile defence, by the need to respond to a grave and growing military threat involving the possible use of weapons of mass destruction - Tony Blair made a speech setting out Britain's primary foreign policy goals. "What are the foreign policy principles that should guide us?" he asked. His answer could not have been clearer: "First, we should remain the closest ally of the US, and as allies influence them to continue broadening their agenda. We are the ally of the US not because they are powerful, but because we share their values... it is massively in our self-interest to remain close allies."56 In his recent speech to the US Congress, Blair echoed these words, praising the leadership of President Bush but pleading for America to "listen as well as lead".57

If the UK's number one foreign policy goal is to be the closest ally of the United States, this leaves it little room for manoeuvre on arms control or on wider aspects of foreign policy. The 'strategy' contracts to one of attempting to influence American tactics and perhaps gain some small concessions, not to criticising the underlying direction of US policy.

This approach, needless to say, is highly contentious within the Labour Party, not least because of its apparent abandonment of long-held Labour policies and principles. In addition, the purported 'influence' gained for Britain often seems intangible and nebulous, woefully inadequate to the task of inducing beneficial corrections to the course of American strategy. Many Labour supporters would have preferred a similar approach to that taken by France and Germany in the last few years, balancing participation with the post-9/11 'war on terrorism' with a steadfast advocacy of non-military multilateral solutions to admittedly frightening but also decidedly complex problems. The Prime Minister frequently responds to such criticisms by insisting that he is both the 'closest ally' of Washington and, in sharp distinction to Mrs. Thatcher, a proud pro-European, and that his fundamental aspiration for British foreign policy is for it to serve as a bridge between Washington and Brussels.

Such a declaratory commitment to a balance of loyalties, however, is hard to square with the governments record on missile defence. As we have seen, ministers who were critical of US plans on this and other issues, such as Robin Cook, were conveniently moved out of the way. Policy is now firmly in the grip of trusted, conspicuously pro-American Blairites - Hoon, Straw, and the Downing Street political machine. As a result, policies that the British government once played a key role in promoting - such as strengthening the NPT, both in its non-proliferation and disarmament dimensions, supporting efforts to ensure compliance with the BWC, and championing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - have been quietly dropped from Blair's public statements on weapons of mass destruction, all of which focus as exclusively as President Bush's on the need to stop 'others' from seeking to join the WMD-club to which both London and Washington belong. WMD disarmament is not mentioned in any of Blair's foreign policy principles, let alone challenging influence with Washington for the exalted position of 'foreign policy principle number one'. As Harry Cohen pointedly observed in January this year: "If, as the Prime Minister has said, the government are passionately for non-proliferation, why were arms control treaties not even on his listen-back agenda for the United States that he announced last week?"58


Despite Labour's massive parliamentary majority, MPs have been denied a debate, let alone a meaningful vote, on missile defence and the decision to allow the US to use Fylingdales. The way in which parliament has been bypassed on missile defence is not new, but rather typical of the way in which defence matters are treated in the UK. It is problematic, however, for a government that came to power proclaiming its commitment to Freedom of Information to behave in this way.

The Government could have won a vote on missile defence, but it was unwilling even to try. Why? Because a debate on missile defence would have highlighted that, as with Iraq, Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon are in the uncomfortable position of being closer to the Conservative front bench than to most of their own party.

Of course, many Labour MPs voted to support the Government on Iraq, often citing the now infamous UK intelligence dossiers suggesting that there was a clear and imminent WMD threat from Saddam Hussein. Likewise, missile defence is not without its supporters on the backbenches. But even within the loyalist, pro-Blair wing of the party, strong doubts about the fervently uncritical nature of Blair's relationship with the Bush administration have been expressed. This pervasive unease was well captured by former Labour Minister Gerald Kaufman, speaking during a debate on the Iraq crisis on February 26: "If tonight's vote were a vote of confidence in George W. Bush - appointed by the United States Supreme Court rather than being elected by the American people - I would be the first into the 'No' lobby. Under Bush the United States is a bad world citizen - bad on global warming, bad on the International Criminal Court, and bad on steel tariffs."59 In the same debate, Labour MP Oona King spoke of being "sickened by George W. Bush". She explained: "His double standards sicken me. The fact that he surrounds himself with religious fundamentalists sickens me. The fact that he is in the pocket of the oil industry sickens me. Above all, the fact that he bankrolls Ariel Sharon to continue the slaughter of Palestinians sickens me."60 What is extraordinary about these statements from Kaufman and King is that they both voted with the Government on Iraq that night.

It is important that hard, tough questions continue to be asked on the government's stance on missile defence, as on all key aspects of UK defence policy. Information will no doubt continue to "dribble out" of the MoD as the project proceeds; the demand for adequate debate and scrutiny must not be allowed to peter out in response.

In the current heated debate on the decision to go to war with Iraq, parliamentarians should also address the underlying issue. Why is Britain's first principle of foreign policy to be the "closest ally of the US"? Is it really appropriate for a Labour government to give this level of uncritical support to Bush administration policies? What happened to Britain's pro-active policies on non-proliferation and disarmament issues in the 1997-2001 period? What are the limits, and what is the price, of British 'influence' with Washington? And is it a price we are willing to pay?

Notes and References

1. House of Commons, Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, May 10, 1999, column 10.

2. House of Commons, Official Report, Defence Oral Questions, May 10, 1999, column 13.

3. Channel 4 News, March 20, 2000.

4.'Ministers Split Over British Role in US Defense Shield', The Guardian, March 22, 2000.

5. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Eighth Report, 'Weapons of Mass Destruction', HC 407 of 1999-2000, July 25, 2000.

6. House of Commons, Official Report, 'Statement on the G8 Summit in Okinawa', July 24, 2000, columns 766-767.

7. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 'Weapons of Mass Destruction: Report, Proceedings, Evidence and Appendices', Eighth Report, HC 407 of 1999-2000, August 2, 2000.

8. 'Eighth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee Session 1999-2000, Weapons of Mass Destruction: Response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs', Cm 4884, October 2000.

9. The Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference includes a 13-point programme of "practical steps for the systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI" of the Treaty, calling for the worldwide elimination of nuclear arsenals. Point 7 of the 'Nuclear Disarmament Plan of Action', as it came to be known, calls for: "The early entry-into-force and full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III as soon as possible while preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons, in accordance with its provisions." Reporting on the outcome of the Conference, Rebecca Johnson noted: "High-level discussions within the Labour government, combined with civil society pressure and more attention in Parliament, resulted in a markedly more constructive British approach on nuclear disarmament issues. During the Conference, Britain played a vital role in bridging differences between nuclear and non-nuclear positions." See Johnson, 'The 2000 NPT Review Conference: A Delicate, Hard-Won Compromise', Disarmament Diplomacy No. 46, May 2000, pp. 2-21.

10. 'Remarks by the President on National Missile Defense', Georgetown University, Washington, September 1, 2000; White House transcript.

11.'Hague bids for US special relationship', by Nick Assinder, BBC News Online, January 12, 2001.

12. 'Joint Statement by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair', February 23, 2001, available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/02/20010226.html.

13. MORI, on behalf of a coalition of UK non-governmental organisations (NGOs); see http://www.basicint.org/pubs/Press/2001july-NMDpoll.htm.

14. 'Cook denies missile defence U-turn', BBC News, May 3, 2001.

15. 'Countdown to a Sensible Defence,' by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Tribune (http://www.tribune.atfreeweb.com), July 27, 2001, available at: http://www.acronym.org.uk/dd/dd59/59docs13.htm.

16. See http://www.basicint.org/nuclear/UK_Policy/NMD_UKgovbriefing-2001aug.htm. Emphases in the original.

17. 'MPs angry as missile motions thrown out', The Financial Times, September 29, 2001.

18. House of Commons, Official Report, October 24, 2001, Column 273.

19. House of Commons, Official Report, April 26, 2002, Column 482W.

20. House of Commons, Official Report, October 17, 2002, Column 504.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. 'Missile Defence: a Public Discussion Paper', Ministry of Defence, December 2002, http://www.mod.uk/linked_files/issues/missiledefence/missiledef.pdf.

24. 'Government receives Missile Defence request from the US', Ministry of Defence Press Notice, December 17, 2003. The author would like to thank Nigel Chamberlain of the British American Security Information Council for bringing news stories and MoD Press Releases on missile defence to her attention.

25. Ibid.

26. 'President Announces Progress in Missile Defense Capabilities', Statement by the President, December 17, 2003, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/12/20021217.html.

27. 'Government receives Missile Defence request from the US', Ministry of Defence Press Notice, December 17, 2003, Op Cit.

28. Defence Committee Press Notice, "Missile Defence", December 18, 2003.

29. "Ministry of Defence updates Parliament on Missile Defence", Ministry of Defence Press Notice, January 15, 2003.

30. Ministry of Defence, Public Discussion Paper, December 2002, Op Cit.

31. House of Commons, Official Report, January 24, 2000, column 55W.

32. Ministry of Defence, Public Discussion Paper, December 2002, Op Cit.

33. Ministry of Defence Press Notice, January 15, 2003.

34. 'Lord Bach attends launch of UK Missile Defence Centre', M2 Presswire, July 21, 2003.

35. House of Commons, Official Report, October 20, 1999, column 585.

36. Ministry of Defence, Public Discussion Paper, December 2002, Op Cit.

37. Ministry of Defence Press Notice, January 15, 2003.

38. In its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of January 2002, the Bush administration unveiled a 'New Triad', replacing the strategic offensive nuclear triad of land-, sea- and air-launched weapons. The new system, in an unclassified summary provided to Congress by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld on January 9, is composed of: 1) "Offensive strike systems (both nuclear and non-nuclear)"; 2) "Defenses (both active and passive)"; and 3) "A revitalised defense infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats." See 'Nuclear Posture Review Report: Foreword', Cover letter submitting classified report to Congress on the Nuclear Posture Review, US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, January 8, 2003, available from the Department of Defense at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2002/d20020109npr.pdf. In a special Pentagon briefing on the NPR on January 9, J.D. Crouch, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, told reporters that "placing greater emphasis...on missile defense capabilities" was a key element in transition to the New Triad. Crouch adds: "[W]e believe that developing credible non-nuclear and nuclear response options [is] necessary to supporting US commitments. ... [This involves] developing a more diverse portfolio of capabilities would help to deny a payoff from competing with the United States directly in this area. ... [W]e note not only the need for nuclear and non-nuclear options, but also defenses to discourage attack by frustrating enemy attack plans and the like." See 'Remarks by J.D. Crouch, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, The Pentagon, January 9, 2003', available from the Department of Defense at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jan2002/t01092002_t0109npr.html.

39. Ministry of Defence, Public Discussion Paper, December 2002, Op Cit.

40. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 699.

41. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 710.

42. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 709.

43. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 702.

44. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 703.

45. House of Commons Defence Committee, First Report, 'Missile Defence', HC290-I, January 29, 2003.

46. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 703.

47. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 699.

48. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 701.

49. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 705.

50. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 707.

51. 'US National Missile Defence', Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Foreign Affairs Committee, July 24, 2000, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/

52. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 703.

53. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 705.

54. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 706.

55. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 708.

56.'Britain's Place in the World', Prime Minister's speech to Foreign & Commonwealth Office Leadership Conference, January 7, 2003. This conference was an unprecedented gathering of UK Ambassadors and High Commissioners, who were recalled to London in the run up to war with Iraq.

57. 'America must listen as well as lead', Tony Blair speech to Congress, July 18, 2003, available at http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0307/doc06.htm.

58. House of Commons, Official Report, January 15, 2003, column 709.

59. House of Commons, Official Report, February 26, 2003, column 300.

60. House of Commons, Official Report, February 26, 2003, column 353.

Nicola Butler is an independent consultant working on arms control and disarmament issues in the UK, and Research Associate and Web Manager for the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy.

© 2003 The Acronym Institute.