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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 90, Cover design by Calvert's Press, Photo by Rebecca JohnsonDisarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 90, Spring 2009


Leadership, Hope and Realistic Security

Rebecca Johnson

On 17 March, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown went further than any of his predecessors in endorsing calls for a world free of nuclear weapons. The Prime Minister told an international audience in Lancaster House that to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, there were "tough responsibilities to be discharged by nuclear weapon states, for as possessor states we cannot expect to successfully exercise moral and political leadership in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons if we ourselves do not demonstrate leadership on the question of disarmament of our weapons".

Yet Brown failed to mention what kind of moral and political leadership - and, indeed, tough responsibilities for disarmament - would be demonstrated by a heavily indebted UK government signing contracts to develop and build a future generation of Trident nuclear weapons at an estimated cost of somewhere between £25bn and £76bn. The Prime Minister needs to have the courage of his moral and political convictions and pull the plug on renewing Trident before any more money is wasted. Then he would truly assume international leadership in building collective security and reducing nuclear dangers.

As NATO's 60th anniversary summit ended two weeks later, President Barack Obama took the helm and reminded crowds of people in Prague: "One nuclear weapon exploded in one city - be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague - could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences may be - for our global safety, security, society, economy, and ultimately our survival." To tumultuous applause, he promised "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons".

Explicitly acknowledging that "if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable", President Obama pledged that "the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons". President Obama's speech demonstrated his intent to address the complexities of realistic security when he stated: "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same."

This recognition that non-proliferation and disarmament become sustainable only when nuclear weapons lose (and are perceived to have lost) their military, political and security value represents a breakthrough. But then the President undermined his own position by ducking back into the fantasy comfort zone of those who want to eat, have and keep their nuclear cake: "As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."

Non-proliferation and disarmament objectives will be difficult to achieve if people and governments still believe that nuclear weapons can deter or deal with military threats to their national and regional security. Reducing the numbers of weapons is part of the necessary task of reducing nuclear dangers - the fewer weapons that are built, deployed, transported or stored, the fewer opportunities there will be for nuclear accidents, terrorism or use. Reducing reliance on nuclear weapons as a tool of policy or deterrence is the other critical part of the equation. As long as some states or alliances cling to nuclear weapons and proclaim their value for security, deterrence or power projection, others will want them.

Though the advisers to Prime Minister Brown and President Obama may still feel they have to include soundbytes about retaining nuclear weapons to guarantee security, deter adversaries and defend allies, such sentiments do not reflect the actual role of nuclear weapons in the world and merely serve to drive the wheels of proliferation.

The world no doubt welcomes with relief the commitments by President Obama and President Medvedev to negotiate much deeper cuts in the US and Russian arsenals. While the negotiators debate whether to count warheads or delivery vehicles (or both), there is growing pressure for the United States and Russia to take this opportunity to count the stored as well as deployed weapons and go below a thousand, including all types and ranges - not only the long range missile-delivered weapons defined as 'strategic'. Taking the biggest arsenals to below a thousand would make it easier to initiate the multilateral negotiations that Brown talks about and so bring the other nuclear weapon possessors into a forward-moving disarmament process.

In addition to this, it will be vital for President Obama to make good his promise in Prague and take the lead in marginalizing the role of nuclear weapons in the next US Nuclear Posture Review, scheduled for late 2009. Following from London and Prague, most NATO members would now be relieved to see the remaining US nuclear forces withdrawn from Europe, paving the way for NATO's Strategic Concept to be denuclearized and brought up to date.

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