How to Start an Arms Race: Tony Blair Says We Must Have New Weapons of Mass Destruction. but Renewing Trident Could Frustrate the Treaties That Control Nuclear Weapons and Which Exist to Encourage Disarmament

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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 Store, 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' commitment to nuclear disarmament. This commitment 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."

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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 Store 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.

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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. …