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Prospects for Multilateral Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Efforts: A British viewpoint


Brian Wicker (Chairman, British CCADD)




A few points to begin with, to put this paper into context. a) I shall be talking about British views on this very large and daunting topic. This will help those from other countries to comment with views taken from other national priorities and traditions. b) It has to be said that this morning’s topic is not the subject of much public debate in Britain today. Arms control and disarmament are nowadays discussed only by experts. The situation of the early 1980s, when (for example) the students at the college of which I was Principal tended to put membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at the very top of the list of organisations they belonged to, has changed beyond recognition. Hence the politics of arms control and disarmament are very different from what they once were. c) While I shall concentrate on British views, these are inevitably shaped by external influences, above all by political attitudes in the United States. It is impossible to discuss the subject without constant reference to the current American obsession with National Missile Defence.


The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review of April/May 2000


We should begin from the recent review of the NPT. Most governments, and most commentators, were relieved that this review ended in consensus on a final document, instead of collapsing into chaos and disintegration as many had feared. This document included various commitments by all the states parties to the treaty. The principal benchmarks which the 180-plus states accepted were: a moratorium on nuclear tests pending the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); immediate commencement of negotiations for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty to be completed in 5 years; the principle that nuclear disarmament should be irreversible; entry into force of START 2 and early conclusion of START 3 while preserving and strengthening the ABM treaty as the cornerstone of strategic stability; reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in security policies, and of the operational status of nuclear weapons; the placing of all fissile material under safeguards; increased transparency concerning their nuclear weapons capabilities on the part of the nuclear weapons states; further development of verification capabilities to achieve a nuclear-weapons free world. Above all, the nuclear weapon states made a unanimous and unequivocal commitment to complete nuclear disarmament.


This is an impressive list of benchmarks. The question is, will they be met?


The British government congratulates itself, with good reason, on having done a great deal to make this list acceptable to all. Several of the items have already been implemented, or at least addressed, by Britain itself, most notably cuts in its nuclear arsenal, on transparency issues and the reduction of its state of alert. In addition, the UK acted as a broker between the ‘New Agenda Coalition’ states, who had been long pressing for a UN Resolution demanding global nuclear disarmament, and the nuclear weapons states, who had equally long been resisting it. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Britain had voted (together with the other NWS) against the Coalition’s resolution as then drafted because it included a reference to a timetable for early commencement of negotiations. By 1999 Britain had persuaded the Coalition to drop this demand. Now, in 1999, Britain’s most specific objection was that the resolution still demanded the separation of warheads from delivery vehicles: something impracticable for a missile system confined to submarines, such as the British Trident deterrent. This was a narrower reason for a negative vote. My sources tell me that Britain is working towards the crafting of language which would make it possible for Britain to vote for the New Agenda Coalition’s resolution if it comes up again at the UNGA in 2000.


Nevertheless, the question whether the whole list of commitments, or ‘bench-marks’, can and will be met remains wide open. There are enormous obstacles to be overcome. Let us take some of them one by one:


Entry into force of the CTBT


The CTBT has been signed by 155 countries and ratified by 60. For entry into force, the CTBT needs ratification by all nuclear-weapons holding states. So far India and Pakistan have not signed the treaty, nor have Israel and China ratified it. But the key ratification that will be needed before others come into line is that of the United States. Unfortunately the Republican dominated Senate has already scuppered American ratification of the treaty. Mr. Bush has said that he is against the treaty anyhow, so if he becomes President the chances of the Senate vote being reversed seem minimal. Republican objections to the CTBT include that it is unenforceable and unverifiable, but also (more importantly) that it would undermine the American nuclear deterrent. This is because, despite the extremely expensive ‘Stockpile Stewardship Programme’, and contrary to what the nuclear weapons laboratories promised when the Clinton administration accepted a moratorium on testing and signed the CTBT, explosive underground tests, including some with a nuclear yield, are once again allegedly still needed to keep the weapons stockpile safe and reliable. Furthermore, Republican senators insist that America needs ‘strong defences’ which can be shared among allies: for ‘strong alliances are the primary reason more countries have not developed nuclear weapons. This is one reason everyone in the world must have confidence in the US nuclear deterrent’. Tell that to the Russians or the Chinese!


The failure of the USA to ratify the CTBT reveals how the American attitudes directly affect the chances of meeting the commitments which states parties to the NPT review, including of course the USA itself, unanimously accepted. It is hard to see how the Republican attitudes sketched here can be squared with America’s ‘unequivocal commitment ‘ to complete nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, they surely indicate that whoever wins in November 2000, the USA has no intention whatsoever of giving up its nuclear weapons. It is beyond my competence to say how things would be affected if Mr. Gore won the election and/or if control of the Senate passed into Democratic hands after November. Doubtless others at this conference are better placed to discuss this question.


American Plans for National Missile Defence


American plans for NMD tend to ignore European scepticism, not just about the workability of NMD, or its dire effects on global security and international relations generally, but about the nature and extent of the alleged threat. On the whole, Europeans do not believe that the threats are as serious as the Americans make out. They believe that it would be lunacy for any state to attack the might of the USA with a few ballistic missiles. In any case, the most dangerous opponents, whether ‘rogue states’ or non-state actors like terrorist gangs, fanatical sects etc., are far more likely to smuggle nuclear weapons into the USA in the back of trucks. And Europeans are much more profoundly worried that NMD could cause the whole fabric of arms control and disarmament efforts to unravel. Recent American intelligence reports to the administration agree with them. According to a National Intelligence Estimate, delivered to the White House early in August, but also leaked to two newspapers, even the ‘limited’ version of the NMD plan, designed only to defeat a handful of missiles from a few rogue states, would stimulate a ten-fold increase in China’s nuclear deterrent capability by 2015, and this would inevitably trigger further increases in the Indian, and thence the Pakistani arsenals. It is welcome news, therefore, that Clinton has postponed the decision on NMD until after the election, perhaps recognising that even beginning to pour concrete for the construction of an NMD base in Alaska (the first stage of any NMD plan) would be legally doubtful under the ABM treaty, and unnecessarily provocative. But there is no reason to suppose that the plan has been dropped completely, even under a Gore administration, although Clinton’s delay means that deployment itself may not be possible before 2007. The issue is unlikely to go away.


Notwithstanding this danger, which the European allies have been highlighting for a long time, some Republicans even suggest ‘offering to build ground-based NMD sites in Europe, or offering to sell sea-based defences to allied navies’ because ‘we should pursue common measures to deal with the threat’. The idea of building ground-based NMD sites in Europe is directly relevant to British policy, since a lynchpin of the NMD programme in so far as it includes defence against Iran (which is certainly part of the plan) is that the Americans must be allowed by the British to up-grade the radars at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill, in Yorkshire. Some people in Britain claim that any such upgrading would in itself be a breach of the ABM treaty. The Foreign Office’s position is legalistically evasive on this point. If the NMD programme goes ahead with Russian agreement to amend the ABM treaty, then by definition, Foreign Office points out, since it is a treaty between America and Russia, no breach of the treaty between the states parties will ensue. On the other hand, if the Americans withdraw from the treaty as they are legally entitled to do under clause XV.2, then there would still be no breach of the treaty since in effect it would have been dissolved! But this is to evade the issue. The crux is whether the British government will have the guts, or even the desire, to say no to an American request to up-grade the Fylingdales site if and when the request comes. The Foreign Office is currently stone-walling on this point, saying that HMG cannot decide what to do until the request arrives. Some people think that the Ministry of Defence may be sympathetic to the US case. In the end the Prime Minister will have to intervene personally. If he were faced with a Democrat President made in the image and likeness of Clinton, my guess is that he would say yes in order to bolster a sympathiser. If Bush wins, he would be in a much more uncomfortable position, and would probably try diplomatically to persuade the new Administration to re-think its policy. But if diplomacy fails, my hunch is that Britain will cave in anyway, rather than displease the Americans. This will cause profound trouble with the European Nato allies, many of whom are even more deeply sceptical about NMD than the British, and have less trouble with the idea of annoying the Americans.


A Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty


The purpose of such a treaty, or ‘fissban’, were it ever to come into existence, would be to make it impossible for states to manufacture any more of the key materials necessary for nuclear weapons. It would not regulate, or destroy the stocks of these materials that already exist. (Except for China, the declared nuclear weapons states already have as much material as they can possibly use, and would therefore be happy to accept a ‘fissban’ which stopped further production by other states). There are many people who think that the treaty ought to deal with existing stocks, as well as with further production. But this is not negotiable at present since it could constrict the declared nuclear weapons states’ capacity to produce new weapons or update their present ones. For the moment, therefore, the issue is how to negotiate a treaty to prevent future production only. The forum for such a negotiation is the Conference on Disarmament (CD for short), which meets in Geneva, and contains representatives of all the key players and of all the main regions of the world. For several years, this body has been stalemated by an inability to agree even on the mandate necessary to begin ‘fissban’ negotiations. This is because the CD is also concerned with issues other than the ‘fissban’. These concerns have led to insoluble conflicts of interest. This is why the NPT Review said that it wanted negotiations on the ‘fissban’ to begin at once, with a view to completing work in five years. The idea was that the NPT Review, representing consensus among almost all of the world nations, might be able to jerk the CD into starting again with a new sense of urgency and flexibility. Unfortunately this has not yet happened. This means that the good faith of some at least of the nuclear weapons states’ ‘unequivocal commitment’ to nuclear disarmament has to be questioned.


The CD has three current preoccupations: the ‘fissban’, nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space. These three have become almost hopelessly entangled. China will only agree to talk about a ‘fissban’ if it can also talk about stopping what it calls an arms race in space. This is because China fears American ambitions to militarise outer space to its own advantage (it remembers Reagan’s ‘Star Wars Mark 1’). China itself cannot expand its nuclear deterrent sufficiently to counter this danger, especially the danger that missile defence will destabilise its stance on Taiwan, unless it is allowed to go on producing fissile materials. In this context, ‘Star Wars Mark 2’ (i.e. the current American craze for national missile defence) is regarded by China as only the thin edge of a much larger ‘Star Wars’ wedge, involving outer space. George W. Bush’s election campaign has given China good grounds for fearing this. Hence the Chinese still refuse to consider even beginning talks about talks on a ‘fissban’ unless and until negotiations begin simultaneously on the prevention of an arms race in space.


The resulting deadlock has also stopped work on any negotiations for progress towards nuclear disarmament in the CD, despite the ‘unequivocal commitment’ to it made by all the nuclear weapons states at the NPT Review. The various ‘rotating’ chairs of the CD in recent months have made valiant efforts to produce formulations for getting round some of the procedural difficulties, including suggestions for subsidiary bodies within the CD to begin exploratory talks. But the bedrock problem is one of distrust. The Chinese and the Americans do not trust each other. The problem of Taiwan is obviously connected to all this, but it is not the only problem. The underlying issue is about strategic stability in a new world in which China looms larger as the Russian threat recedes. The only forum in which a treaty on cutting off the production of fissile materials can take place is thus effectively stymied until a new President of the USA is elected, and American lines of policy become clearer. If Bush wins, my own guess is that the stalemate (and the immense, unnecessary dangers that this will create) will continue indefinitely, because Bush is determined to deploy and eventually expand, the NMD system. The Chinese see this as initiating an arms race in space because of its space-based satellite elements. Allowing the stalemate to continue will thus leave the Chinese, not to mention India and Pakistan, free to go on producing more fissile material for weapons. On the other hand, if Gore wins, there could be some progress if it became clear that he would immediately forbid any expansion of NMD beyond its projected, severely limited, initial phase, of course with Russian agreement to amend the ABM treaty.


Britain would very much like the CD to get out of its present rut, and will do a good deal behind the scenes, while there is an official recess, to try to unblock some of the procedural problems. But it seems unlikely to be able to achieve much, given the underlying distrust between the Chinese and the Americans, and their respective commitments to deploying, and to preventing the deployment, of missile defences, including theatre missile defences or TMD, involving space-based hardware. Perhaps some progress could be made through increased transparency measures, such as a commitment by the relevant nuclear weapon states to declare all pre-launch data on missile activity.




The NPT Review committed itself to the early entry into force, and the full implementation, of START 2, and the conclusion as soon as possible of START 3 while ‘preserving and strengthening the ABM treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions in offensive weapons’. This last phrase about the ABM treaty had to be carefully honed, not to say fudged, to allow for different interpretations: accommodating American wishes to amend the treaty in order to permit the deployment of NMD, and Russian insistence that the treaty remains the ‘cornerstone’ of strategic stability.


The START process is a continuing negotiation for reducing the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads held by the USSR and the USA, following the successful elimination of the intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe under the INF treaty of 1987. The START 1 treaty began as a late cold war agreement, designed to reduce the bloated arsenals that had accumulated between the two sides in the previous decades. It was signed by the US and the USSR in 1991 and entered into force in 1994. Since the end of the cold war reductions had anyway been going on for some time, eliminating large numbers of mostly ‘tactical’ weapons which both sides recognised as obsolete, dangerous or useless. Under START 1 numbers of ‘accountable’ warheads are to be cut to 6000 on each side. Meanwhile negotiations on a START 2 treaty have got under way to take this reductions process further, by making deeper cuts of weapons and delivery platforms, reducing the deployed nuclear warheads on each side to 3000 or 3500 by 2003. This treaty was signed by both sides in 1993, and subsequently ratified by the American Senate. But the Russian DUMA was reluctant to ratify it for a variety of reasons, including the expansion of NATO, hostility to the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia, the Russian decision to re-emphasise nuclear weapons (including tactical nuclear weapons) as key elements of a defence policy that could no longer rest on a once-massive conventional superiority, and the cost of developing a new single-warhead missile to replace the weapons equipped with Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) that would have to be eliminated under START 2. Nevertheless, once Putin had become President, the treaty was quickly ratified by the DUMA, albeit with some important reservations. At the same time, the DUMA ratified the CTBT, thus wrong-footing the Americans who were about to decide, in the Senate, to reject the whole test ban treaty package - although Clinton has agreed to observe the moratorium on tests which he instituted some years ago.


Meanwhile, in 1997, Clinton and Yeltsin had agreed the outlines of a START 3 treaty, supposedly to be acted upon as soon as the START 2 treaty had been ratified by both sides. This third START treaty would cut the warhead numbers to between 2000-2500 for each side. However, the Russians have said they would prefer eventual cuts to nearer 1500 (perhaps the maximum they can safely cope with under present economic restrictions), and some American experts, such as Harold Brown, have agreed with them, or would go even further, down to 1000 or less. If and when the process of formally negotiating START 3 process begins (it has not yet done so, and there is still a very long way to go before the cuts of START 2 begin to bite) the question of British and French nuclear weapons will have to be addressed, since it is clear (and the British have already agreed) that the arsenals of the smaller nuclear weapons states will have to be reduced once the bi-lateral US/Russian cuts have got down to something like the START 3 limits. Perhaps they will be included in a START 4 treaty, which would involve other nuclear weapons states.


Thus the outline of a plan for very large reductions of nuclear weapons by the two main players already exists in theory. If it were implemented (and this is a very big if, depending among other things on enough money being available to make it possible), the numbers of warheads could be down to a couple of thousand, or even less, on each side by around 2007. Given that in the depth of the cold war the total numbers had rocketed to 50,000, and that reductions are very expensive and complicated to carry out, this plan is indeed ambitious. On the other hand, by comparison with the numbers available when the two sides became roughly equal, the arsenals even after START 3 will be excessive. This is doubtless why even ‘hawks’ like Harold Brown are prepared to contemplate cuts to 1000 each or less: for they know that even with these, an opponent could easily be wiped out if ‘necessary’. The underlying problem with really deep cuts is that arguably, as the number of remaining nuclear weapons becomes really small, the more unstable the ‘balance’ becomes, because every new cut increases the potential advantage to be gained from cheating. But we are a very long way from having to cope with that problem. The question is: what are the chances of the START treaties now on offer being implemented?


We have to remember that the plan as recommended in the NPT Review’s final document is seen as a step on the way to the achievement of complete nuclear disarmament. It is not merely a plan for the marginalisation of nuclear weapons or for reducing their salience in the formulation of security policies, welcome though these would be. Since the NPT Review final document was signed, the START process has to be seen in the context of the ‘unequivocal commitment’ of the nuclear weapon states to abolish nuclear weapons. Of course, this is not a new situation: for the commitment was enshrined in Article 6 of the NPT itself. But now there is less excuse for trying to avoid the commitment by appealing to the link with ‘general and complete disarmament’. For the NPT document itself failed to make this link: it was not a utopian appeal, but arose from a demand by the New Agenda Coalition states and others for practical action in the immediate future. Without this new commitment the problems of implementing the START process would be different.


The obstacles to its implementation as thus set out are formidable. Although both sides have ratified START 2, the cuts it requires them to make have hardly begun. The problems are mostly political rather than strictly military or even strategic. Let me consider some of them as outlined by a distinguished CCADD member, Sir Michael Quinlan:


First of all, ‘the likelihood is vanishingly low that all or even most of (the nuclear weapons states) would genuinely accept and work towards complete nuclear abolition in global political conditions anything like those now prevailing’.


Secondly Russia remains deeply distrustful of her neighbours, and shares a huge boundary with China which she cannot defend with the decayed conventional forces she possesses at the present time. This means that for Russia, nuclear forces, including tactical forces, are regarded as more necessary than ever. Hence the withdrawal of the largely sham cold war policy of ‘no first use’. Furthermore, even more than for Britain, nuclear weapons are the one bargaining chip that guarantees Russia a continuing place at the top tables of the world. Without them, Russia would be no more than a ramshackle second rate power. It is inconceivable that Russia would accept the humiliation of losing this privilege.


Thirdly, it is inconceivable that France will accept, as Britain has, that she should reduce or even give up her nuclear weapons in the way that the START process implies in its later stages. Nuclear weapons are France’s guarantee of a hard-won independence from American hegemony, and are a guarantee that decades of defeat and humiliation can at last be cancelled out. (France has spent, in real terms, three or four times as much as Britain has on building its independent nuclear arsenal). Nuclear weapons ‘have become central to French national self-perception’. Doubtless this is why there has hardly ever been a French nuclear disarmament debate, let alone an anti-nuclear peace movement.


Fourthly, the USA is, in effect, the ‘prime steward of the international system’ and regards herself as such. It is therefore inconceivable that she will surrender her nuclear weaponry as long as nuclear weapons remain in anybody else’s hands. Moreover, American technological superiority at the conventional level makes nuclear disarmament by China or Russia even more unlikely to happen, for nuclear weapons are the great equaliser. And as long as the USA is nuclear, China will remain so too.


Finally, Britain is perhaps the least unlikely of the five declared nuclear powers to think the unthinkable. But even this seems unlikely given that Britain has only just finished investing in Trident.


India cannot consider nuclear disarmament unless China does; Pakistan cannot unless India does. Israel will not do so until the peace process in the Middle East is brought permanently to fruition.


If Quinlan is right, this collection of obstacles to nuclear disarmament appears to mean that there is no possibility of the nuclear states fulfilling their ‘unequivocal commitment’ as set out by them in the NPT Review. And this must also mean that the chances of the START plan for reductions succeeding must also be low. Given this sombre assessment, Quinlan not surprisingly also claims that, contrary to what the NPT Review document appears to suggest, the legal obligation to nuclear disarmament, as set out in Article 6 of the NPT and in the judgement of the International Court, is inextricably tied to ‘general and complete disarmament’. This means, if true, that there is no legal obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament this side of eternity. But Jayantha Dhanapala sees things rather differently, for he points out that the ‘unequivocal commitment’ agreed to by the nuclear weapon states at the NPT Review, ‘was not expressly conditioned upon the prior achievement of ‘‘general and complete disarmament’’ ‘. Nevertheless some progress can still be made, Quinlan thinks, on transparency, on de-targeting, lowering the state of operational readiness, exchange of information on safety, etc. But the ambitious plan implicit in the START process is apparently bound to grind to a halt well before the arsenal reductions get to the point where they bite into French, Chinese or American perceptions of national security requirements.


The Search for a ‘Third way’


But perhaps Quinlan is wrong. Some analysts see things differently. A key thesis on the other side, in the words of the Canberra Commission, can be summed up in two sentences: ‘the indefinite deployment of the weapons carries a high risk of their ultimate use through accident or inadvertence..the proposition that large numbers of nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used - accidentally or by decision - defies credibility’. Contrary to Quinlan’s claim that nuclear weapons can be safely retained indefinitely by the present nuclear weapon states, albeit at a lower level of salience than at present, and that they will thereby prevent war without presenting any undue risks, those who think like the authors of the Canberra Commission claim the opposite. So far from making major war between advanced states irrational and thus virtually inconceivable, as Quinlan thinks (thus pushing these states in the direction of solving their differences by means other than war), the ‘abolitionists’ insist that as long as nuclear weapons exist there is a strong likelihood, amounting in the end to practical certainty, that they will eventually be used in anger, with consequences which all sides admit would be catastrophic for everybody. Here is the crux of the nuclear disarmament dilemma.


Some analysts try to avoid the choice here presented by offering a ‘third way’. We may call them the ‘deep marginalisers’. They go further than Quinlan is prepared to go in reducing the ‘salience’ of nuclear weapons in the declared policies of states. Two versions of the third way may be mentioned here. The first is ‘minimum deterrence’. This has been proposed by Fred Ikle and Serge Karaganov, and recognises that total abolition is both very unlikely and possibly dangerous. A small background system of nuclear deterrence may be needed as insurance against all kinds of possible threats. But perhaps it could consist of no more than 200 nuclear weapons, presumably held by America and Russia. (The question of the arsenals of the other nuclear-capable states obviously needs thinking through; for without this, the concept seems merely to assume a bi-polar stand-off of the cold war sort). The advantages of reducing numbers to these very low levels (no lower, of course, than they were at the start of the nuclear deterrence era, but much lower than is envisaged in the current START process) is that accidents and miscalculation would be less likely; non-proliferation might be encouraged; and the disadvantages of a provocative posture which itself stimulates arms racing would be reduced. The difficulties however are massive. For one thing, the nuclear weapons states are not interested. For another, the traditional theory of deterrence says that to be effective and credible you have to be willing and able, if necessary, to carry out your threat, and the small numbers of weapons available might not be enough to cope with all possible contingencies. With small numbers, somebody might call your bluff in the belief that small scale aggression would not be met by overwhelming retaliation. And finally, the only way to target these small numbers would be to threaten an opponent’s cities, thus involving consent in advance to the commission of what the Second Vatican Council called a ‘crime against God and man which merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation’.


A more radical concept still is that of ‘virtual deterrence’. This builds on what McGeorge Bundy called ‘existential deterrence’, and recognises not only that nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented, but that they can be re-manufactured even after abolition has taken place. Thus, a few weapons would be retained, but in a disassembled state, perhaps in what Stansfield Turner has called ‘strategic escrow’, stored and monitored under international supervision. They would not be geared to plans for actual use, but would simply exist as a background warning of what could happen if a state misbehaved badly enough. In that case, they could be brought out of ‘escrow’ and re-assembled for use. According to Janathan Dean, one of the most thoughtful and respected advocates of nuclear disarmament by incremental steps, this interim phase of ‘immobilised’ nuclear storage needs to be a learning opportunity in which the nuclear weapon states can come to understand that it is to their own advantage to go the whole way to abolition. Critics point out, however, that reassembly could be even more de-stabilising in a crisis than holding the weapons ready and waiting all the time. True, virtual deterrence would eliminate the danger of accidental or inadvertent use, and promote non-proliferation. Yet the question would remain of who would store them, and where. Given the present mood in international relations, this may seem an insuperable difficulty. Perhaps even more problematic would be the degree of intrusiveness required for verification.


It seems to me that in the end there is no ‘third way’ that seems at all practicable in present or foreseeable future circumstances. We are stuck with a choice: either keep nuclear weapons pretty much as they are envisaged in the START process, except for trimming at the margins, or get rid of them entirely. Of course, nuclear elimination can only take place through incremental steps, and may take a long time. But convinced ‘possessionists’ will want to halt the process at some point along they way; whereas ‘abolitionists’ see these steps simply as necessary stages of a process governed by its final objective, namely the abolition of nuclear weapons. There may be considerable agreement between the two sides as to the nature and order of the interim steps to be taken. But the true nature of the process in each case is dictated by the final end chosen: either continued, low-salience possession indefinitely, or nuclear abolition. The choice is stark, as Quinlan and the Canberra Commission make clear. What is equally clear is that the case for each side of the debate is based almost entirely on estimates of probability; or, to put it more bluntly, guesswork. Each side argues by calculated extrapolation from past and present to the future. The abolitionist will say that it defies credibility to hold on weapons of such war-winning or victory-denying power indefinitely without succumbing to the temptation to use them, either deliberately or inadvertently, at some point in the future. The history of the nuclear age, and above all of the Cuba missile crisis of 1962, is adduced to back up this argument with a mass of evidence about the proximity of disaster. The possessionist, on the other hand, points to the harsh realities of the past and present within the international system, calculating that it is inconceivable that states will give up their own interests, including the security of their citizens, when they have so powerful and so effective a means of ensuring not only their long-term safety but also their political status, their place at the top table of the nations, their national self-esteem and, perhaps above all, their avoidance of war. He argues that only when the present framework of international relations has been radically transformed will serious reduction in nuclear stockpiles become conceivable.


As John Baylis has written, ‘the problem with this debate is that it is based on educated guesses and not on certain knowledge. It is very difficult to establish precisely which of the two arguments is true’. Michael Quinlan himself writes of ‘the impossibility of knowing and proving, especially to those who would rather not be persuaded in a particular direction, just why something that did not happen did not happen’. The fact is that both sides have extremely convincing cases to make out, and can bring to bear a heavy weight of historical and philosophical evidence. Is there any further consideration which might give a degree of certainty and proof to one side, over the claims of the other? Or do we merely make our choice, and try to defend it against all comers, because of some non-rational predisposition, or even some genetic factor, which in effect determines us to take one side or the other?


It is at this point that I personally would like to introduce into the discussion a Christian moral truth: namely that the over-riding fact is that it is never licit for human beings intentionally to kill other innocent human beings for the sake of any end, however good. It is this fact which underlies the anathema on attacking cities and their populations which the Second Vatican Council uttered in 1965, in the light not only of Dresden, Hiroshima and the other atrocities of the second world war, but also in the light of the nuclear doctrines being worked out in the early 1960s. And if this is true, then neither is it licit to adopt a policy which entails consenting in advance to, or having the conditional intention to execute, such killing on our behalf if ‘necessary’. This is the fundamental problem of nuclear weapons policies: for it is incumbent on those who support them to show, in theory but above all in practice, how they can and do completely abjure any such consent, while at the same time making plans for the effective use of nuclear weapons in order to make credible their nuclear deterrent threats. I have yet to see the outlines of such a plan, let alone the targeting instructions, that would have to be imposed by any state which was seriously determined to observe the prohibition on intentionally killing the innocent which would be involved. If there could be such a plan, let us see it, in the detail required for demonstrative proof. And let us see how we can be certain that it would be followed to the letter, come hell or high water, in the fog and fire of war. Personally, I do not believe that the trick can be done. But I remain open to conviction if and when, per impossibile, the evidence is made public.










A Theological Postscript


Discussion of this paper at the recent 2000 International CCADD conference in Washington, and in particular of its final section, leads me to want to add a theological postscript to explain my thinking in more detail.


It seems to me inescapable that the adoption of any nuclear deterrence policy involves, at some stage of the escalatory process inherent in the policy, conditionally intending, or giving consent to, the deliberate killing of the innocent. Finnis, Boyle and Grisez have argued this magisterially in their book Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (OUP, 1987), and their conclusion is endorsed in a lapidary fashion by Robert McNamara (who ought to know), as my note xxiii above shows. While some commentators (such as Sir Michael Quinlan) are clearly very worried about this finding, I have yet to see any public evidence to suggest that it can be overcome or refuted; let alone that any solution (if such exists) has actually been adopted by any state which adheres to a nuclear deterrence policy. I do not believe that the difficulty can be avoided, morally speaking, by talk of ‘double effect’ or ‘lesser of two evils’ reasoning. In this I agree with David Fisher, in his book Morality and the Bomb (London, Croom Helm, 1985), although I do not accept his conclusion that ‘if the only way to prevent a much greater harm, such as the slaughter of many innocents, is to take a life, this may be morally licit and even right’, (p. 41). But I doubt if purely moral reasoning is likely to convince people about this, in harrowing dilemmas like those of the Siamese twins Mary and Jody. Similarly with the conditional intentions implicit in nuclear weapons policies. So we need some theological underpinning.


In a nutshell, the thesis I wish to maintain is that the original adoption of nuclear weapons and the policies that go with them, was a case of people falling for (an almost irresistible) temptation. In saying this, I am not suggesting that had I been a decision-maker in 1945 I would have decided differently. As a schoolboy who was overjoyed at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki because these acts ended the war, I am sure that I would have fallen for the temptation just as easily as the soldiers and politicians of the time did. But this does not refute the argument.


The temptation facing the decision-makers, albeit not as obvious in 1945 as it later became, was to ‘become like God’ by adopting nuclear weapons as weapons of choice. For nuclear weapons are virtually infinite in destructive power, as advocates such as Sir Michael Quinlan constantly remind us. And infinite power is a divine, not a human prerogative. Falling for the nuclear temptation, then, was a re-presentation, or re-enactment of humankind’s ‘original sin’. (I am not, of course, suggesting that the nuclear fall is the only one that has mattered in the course of human history. There have been many such momentous re-enactments). For the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons was undoubtedly a knowledge of good and evil: something irresistibly desirable, and apparently beneficial, but ultimately forbidden, like the fruit of the Genesis tree. The result is that we have inherited from our eating of that fruit the almost insoluble problem of nuclear disarmament. And of course, this knowledge, like all the other cases of momentous falls, cannot be extinguished: it has to be lived through and eliminated, presumably by sorrow for the sin and a firm purpose of amendment.

To be quite clear: in saying this I am not relying on a fundamentalist, Biblical literalism. Talk of eating of the original fruit, in the garden of Eden, is only ‘a way of putting it - not very satisfactory’. But, as Eliot also said, ‘the poetry does not matter’: what matters is the ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’. (East Coker, #II) My argument, then, is that humankind’s aboriginal ‘fall’, which is poetically described in Genesis, consisted historically in the killing of Jesus Christ, the quintessentially innocent human person, at the crucifixion. This killing was the quintessence of sin; for it was the killing of God. (It is significant that in some traditions, the fall of the angels - another piece of poetry about original sin, as Milton’s work reminds us - took place, not at some moment of the primordial past, before the human world began, but precisely at the moment of the crucifixion: the killing of God). And all the subsequent ‘falls’ which human beings have chosen to undergo, including that of falling for nuclear weapons ‘knowledge’, involve participation in that original act.

This point is crucial because it makes sense of what is so absolutely forbidden in the intentional killing of the innocent, whether in war, or medicine, or any ordinary crime. The intentional killing of an innocent person is always and unavoidably a kind of sacramental re-enactment of the historical crucifixion: a re-presentation of the original fall. Just as the martyr’s death is a re-presentation of Calvary, so too in its own way is the killing of any innocent. For we all have within us, as the Quakers rightly insist, ‘that of God’. The killing of the innocent is always, in an exemplary way, an extinguishing of Christ’s presence, of God’s presence, within us. This is why it is so categorically forbidden.

The church tells us that, in order to be rescued from this fall, we have to reject Satan and all his pomps. This requires contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. How is such an attitude to be adopted in respect of the nuclear ‘fall’? Well, on the individual level we have to reject nuclear deterrence and all its works, and to try to mend our ways by working for peace through the creation of a nuclear weapons-free world. But collectively too, we have to act. I think we can see some signs of this in the international environment. For example, the inclusion of Article VI in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is a faint recognition by the international community that there is something dreadfully wrong with humankind’s conduct of affairs: something that needs to be put right. It is a pricking of the collective conscience of humanity. The nuclear disarmament article of the treaty is implicitly an admission of guilt for having fallen, but also of a determination (admittedly hardly a ‘firm purpose of amendment’, but at least a beginning) to change course. The article was of course part of a bargain, in which the non-nuclear weapon states insisted on a firm purpose of amendment by the nuclear powers as a quid pro quo for their not falling for the nuclear temptation themselves, as they - being all too human - were certainly liable to do (India, Pakistan and Israel have already done so). But there is nothing theologically peculiar about this. We are our brothers’ keepers: and in this case, the non-nuclear states taught the rest of us a good lesson, as brothers should. Now we must learn it.