The Control of Nuclear Weapons: A British View

By Alston, Robert | New Zealand International Review, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

The Control of Nuclear Weapons: A British View

Alston, Robert, New Zealand International Review

Robert Alston explains the British government's stance on nuclear arms control.

Britain tends to get a bad press in New Zealand on matters nuclear -- sometimes, it must be said, at the hands of our own compatriots. We had to agree to disagree in 1995 on the issue of French nuclear tests. That particular issue has of course been resolved with the end of the French programme, the signature by Britain, France and the United States of the Protocols to the Treaty of Rarotonga, and the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But I sense that some in New Zealand still feel that Britain -- and the other nuclear weapon states -- are a negative force in the field of nuclear arms control. I believe that the opposite is true.

Britain has a coherent and consistent policy evolved over many years. We start from the position that the overriding aim is the preservation of world security in a period of uncertainty and change. Central to this -- an aim we share with the vast majority of the international community -- is the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If the international community fails in this, the implications for world peace and security could be horrendous. There is no more important issue on the international agenda.

We acknowledge that, within that process, the states which possess nuclear weapons have a particular responsibility. We are prepared to play our part in reducing the likelihood that nuclear weapons will ever be used. In doing so, we must however have constant regard for the need to maintain the balance and stability which the policy of nuclear deterrence has brought to regions such as Europe. Nuclear weapons made a crucial contribution to the maintenance of peace in Europe during more than 40 years of Cold War. It would be a tragic irony if efforts to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons were to lead to greater rather than less risk of instability and conflict. So measures affecting existing nuclear forces are an element in the equation but not -- as is sometimes argued -- the only element.

Different perspectives

It is important for people in Britain and people in New Zealand to consider these issues together. Geographical and strategic realities mean that we come to them from very different perspectives. At the same time, our fundamental interests in world peace and security remain very similar. We are both nations highly dependent on international trade for our economic prosperity. In particular, we both have an increasing stake in the growing economies of the Asia-Pacific region. We have a long tradition of cooperation in defence and intelligence matters. That is not just part of history. It remains actual and relevant today.

How then does Britain support the global effort to check the further spread of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons technology cannot be disinvented, but its spread can be controlled. The Non-Proliferation Treaty lies at the heart of our efforts to deal with this risk. We worked very hard in 1995, with New Zealand and others, to secure the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This was a victory for good sense, which sent a clear message to the tiny -- and diminishing -- minority of countries that have not yet signed the treaty and to all potential proliferators.

Continuing backbone

Although concluded in 1968, the treaty remains the backbone of international efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. A total of 178 non-nuclear-weapons states share with the five nuclear-weapons states an interlocking set of commitments which make clear their determination that nuclear weapons will not spread. Many states which possess the technical potential to develop such weapons undertake in the treaty not to do so. In return, they are entitled to expect support in seeking to ensure that these provisions of the treaty are universally observed, and that it is as difficult as possible to fly in the face of the near-consensus which exists.

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