A few days before Britain's general election on May 5, an international conference will confront one of the most pressing issues facing the planet. Its outcome will help determine the future security of states around the world, including Britain. It is a safe bet it won't get a mention during the election campaign.
The issue is nuclear weapons. On May 2, representatives of 189 countries will gather in New York to discuss how to stop them from spreading further. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference comes at time when Iran is widely suspected of trying to acquire nuclear weapons, North Korea says it has nuclear weapons, Western governments are warning about the threat of nuclear terrorism and the U.S. administration is toying with the idea of building a new generation of "usable" mininukes.
Britain too has a particular responsibility. Last year the government renewed, with no debate, the U.S.-U.K. mutual defense agreement first negotiated in 1958 and regarded in Whitehall as a cornerstone of the countries' special relationship. Bush said the agreement helped Britain maintain a "credible nuclear force," giving weight to the argument put forth by the British American Security Information Council, an independent think tank, that it is an "open-ended arrangement for two named states to 'disseminate' information, technology and materials in their pursuit of more sophisticated nuclear weaponry." Yet the purpose of the NPT, it points out, is "the prevention of the wider dissemination of nuclear weapons." It also commits its signatories to work in good faith toward nuclear disarmament.
Yet what is happening? The U.S. is developing new nuclear warheads that don't need testing and can be stored much longer than existing ones. The Bush administration is not discouraging U.S. nuclear scientists from asking Congress for money to develop a relatively low-yield bomb designed to attack underground bunkers -- hiding places, in its view, for terrorists or the arsenals of "rogue states."
Sophisticated equipment, including what is said to be the world's most powerful laser, is being installed at the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston as part of a 2 billion-pound scheme that will enable Britain, with U.S. help, to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads, though the Ministry of Defense says there are no existing plans to do so. The technology will enable Britain to get around obligations imposed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The government turns on its head the logic of the NPT. Britain cannot disarm, it suggests, precisely because such weapons will inevitably spread. As the Ministry of Defense put it in its December 2003 defense white paper, the "continuing risk from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the certainty that a number of other countries will retain substantial nuclear arsenals, mean that our minimum nuclear deterrent capability, currently represented by Trident, is likely to remain a necessary element of our security."
A decision on whether, or how, to replace Trident will have to be taken up in the next Parliament. Sir Alan West, the first sea lord, recently told the Commons defense committee: "There has got to be a decision made, an absolutely political decision: Do we want to keep nuclear weapons?"
Both the U.S. and Britain are muddying the waters in ways that will scarcely make nonnuclear states feel more secure. The U.S. has weakened the concept of "negative security assurances" -- whereby nuclear states would not threaten or attack nonnuclear states with such weapons -- by suggesting that it might use them in response to a biological or chemical attack, or even in other circumstances.
Britain's defense secretary, Geoff Hoon, told M.P.'s earlier this month that the government "would be prepared to use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances of self-defense." He continued: "A policy of no first use of nuclear weapons would be incompatible with our and NATO's doctrine of deterrence, nor would it further nuclear disarmament objectives ... Our overall strategy is to ensure uncertainty in the mind of any aggressor about the exact nature of our response, and thus to maintain effective deterrence."
Does that really amount to effective deterrence? Whitehall officials sometimes give the impression that the main reason no British government would give up nuclear weapons is because it would leave France as the only European nuclear power. In other words, it is simply a matter of prestige and national pride.
The Bush administration has suggested that the "13 steps" agreed to at the last NPT review conference in 2000 simply constitute a "historical document." The steps include a commitment to arms control, lowering the nuclear threshold and reaffirming "the ultimate objective of complete nuclear disarmament."
While freeing the U.S. from any commitment, Bush wants other countries to make ever more binding ones. The NPT does not stop states from using enriched uranium to produce nuclear energy, as opposed to weapons. He does not want them to have any enriched uranium. Without irony, Bush stated last month: "We cannot allow rogue states ... to undermine the NPT's fundamental role in strengthening international security." His target was, of course, Iran.
Iran, meanwhile, accuses the U.S. and others of hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to the nuclear arsenal of Israel, which, unlike Iran, has not signed the NPT.
The lesson nonnuclear states seem to be learning is that nuclear weapons earn you respect and deter foreign countries from attacking you. That is a very dangerous message, one that can't be allowed to go unanswered.