How to start an arms race

Renewing Trident will be a disaster for nuclear weapons control
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No one, it seems, will be impressed if Britain fails to renew Trident. With Tony Blair leading the arguments, backed by his cabinet and David Cameron's Tories, the accepted view in the Westminster village is that nuclear proliferation is occurring because of the interests of the states that want the bomb, not because we and the other nuclear powers have them. Blair claims we need a new Trident as an "ultimate insurance", apparently unaware that it might contribute to proliferation and could be judged as conflicting with existing treaties to limit nuclear weapons.

Outside the UK, however, most states are saying that a double standard of nuclear haves and have-nots is a recipe for nuclear confrontation and war. In a recent article, "Two sides of the same coin", published on the German foreign ministry's website, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, argued that North Korea must be prevented from consolidating its nuclear weapons programme and also that "we encourage the nuclear-weapons states, in particular Russia and the US, to exercise leadership and commit to further negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons". The reason they give for making this argument is familiar: "The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is our indispensable basis for addressing the dangers of nuclear proliferation. By signing up to the NPT, the international community struck a major bargain: non-nuclear-weapon states renounced the acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons in return for the nuclear-weapon states' com mitment to nuclear disarmament. This com mitment is unequivocal. This is a popular bargain; the Non-Proliferation Treaty has more signatories than any international treaty other than the UN Charter. This fundamental bargain must not be allowed to erode. Non-proliferation and disarmament are complementary, not separate, goals."

Although these ministers from two of our close allies made this statement a month ago, it does not seem to have been noticed by any British news organisation or politician. Their use of the word "unequivocal" is a deliberate reference to an undertaking that Blair and the other leaders of the nuclear powers gave to the world in 2000. The idea that nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament are Siamese twins has been marginalised to the fringes of British parliamentary politics and academia.

Steinmeier and Støre warn of two events approaching rapidly over the diplomatic horizon. First, the NPT comes up for review in 2007 and second, the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) agreement, which controlled strategic nuclear weapons, expires in 2009. But it seems that neither of these events is worth the attention of the British political class.

Start was the deal made between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and it remains the only treaty controlling the nuclear weapons of the major powers. There are no talks under way to replace or extend it. Without it, we are back to nuclear anarchy at the highest level. Russia, the United States and France are all developing new nuclear weapons. The UK is part of a US programme for six new types of bomb.

Next year's talks on the NPT may be of some concern to the government. Blair's white paper on nuclear weapons has a detailed explanation of Britain's commitment to their elimination under the treaty, and a checklist of achievements. One can argue about the details, but it is no neo-con tract. It represents the mainstream of British arms control and disarmament policy over 30 years. Sadly, however, neither the Prime Minister nor the political commentators saw fit to pay attention to it. Blair made no mention of the NPT at all in his 4 December Commons statement. Yet, at the very least, some ministers and officials must have worked hard for the inclusion of this forward-looking section in the white paper.

The NPT review in 2007 will lead up to a major conference in 2010. This should provide the focus of the disarmament effort. We were always told we had to have the bomb so that we would not go naked into the conference chamber. Unilateral disarmament was juxtaposed with multilateral disarmament. Now we have unilateral armament and no disarmament talks at all.

There is a way forward, however: link Trident renewal to the opening of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This is what Ronald Reagan's negotiator Max Kampelman is arguing for. The argument will be forced upon us as the Russians and Americans restart the Start agreement. The usual UK approach will be to say "wait until they have made more progress". But, as the Prime Minister is fond of telling us, we are in a new world, and we cannot afford to wait. Make the 2010 meeting a world summit.

The successes of arms control and disarmament on nuclear testing, landmines, and Cruise and SS20s, show the power of a combination of public pressure and government action. By linking the proposed Trident renewal to a negotiated ban on nuclear weapons, the government would adopt a tried-and-tested "twin-track" approach. We would have many friends and helpers. South Africa, Ireland, Brazil - indeed, more than 170 states are working for this course of action. With that momentum, the incentive to proliferating states is reduced and the effort to prevent proliferation ceases to be hypocritical.

We should not dismiss the plea from Berlin lightly. It comes from a grand coalition government of social democrats and conservatives. And if, in the end, we fail to heed their call, why should democratic Germany not have its own bomb? Older readers may recall that it was after Britain and France rejected similar calls from Germany in 1932 that the German people decided that nationalism and rearmament were the way to go. Fortunately, the Germans today offer us a lesson in maturity. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to learn it.

The new nuclear bomb scam

Billions are to be spent on a new bomb. But it won't be British. The old UK-US bombs blow up just fine. During the last Tory government, Britain used the US test site at Nevada for three explosions of a new nuclear bomb. As with all "British" weapons, this used US blueprints and parts. The Tory defence minister Archie Hamilton told John Reid that the weapon could be built with no further nuclear testing. It was for something called the tactical air-to-surface missile, which was cancelled at the end of the cold war. Aldermaston appears to have forgotten that it has this bomb ready to go. If asked, officials are likely to say that it was a tactical weapon, and we need a new strategic weapon. This is the sort of argument double-glazing salesmen use on the confused. US experience has been that warheads can be adapted to fit all manner of missiles.

The other argument prevailing in Washington is that a whole new generation of bombs must be built that we know will go off when we want them to, without our having to nuclear-test them. This argument was used at the time of the test ban treaty, and President Clinton was persuaded to choke the bomb-makers with dollars to persuade them to agree to it. In fact, few of the thousands of test explosions the US has made over the decades were to make sure that existing bombs worked. The heart of such bombs, the "pit", has an almost indefinite life. Nevertheless, the weapons designers took the money. The Los Alamos and Livermore "weapons labs" now have more funding than during the cold war, but still argue against the test ban.

As for Aldermaston, it is part-owned by Lockheed Martin, which also owns Insys, the company that tells ministers if Aldermaston is doing its job properly. And the money? Ministers refuse to tell parliament how much of it ends up in the US.

Dan Plesch is author of "The Future of Britain's WMD", published by the Foreign Policy Centre

This article first appeared in the 11 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: not too late