The UK and Article VI

In case you missed it, the text of UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech on the 2010 NPT RevCon, Article VI obligations, nuclear energy, nonproliferation, and Iran is “here”: It covers much ground, so let me focus your attention on just a couple of highlights:

We will also host a Recognised Nuclear Weapon State Conference on nuclear disarmament issues and on confidence building measures, including the verification of disarmament.

For in the same way as we have tried to lead in challenging old orthodoxies by eliminating conventional weapons which caused harm to civilians, such as cluster munitions, I want to pledge that Britain will be at the forefront of the international campaign to prevent nuclear proliferation and to accelerate multilateral nuclear disarmament.


If no single nuclear weapon state can be expected to disarm unilaterally, neither should it, but step by step we have to transform the discussion of nuclear disarmament from one of platitudes to one of hard commitment. We have also to help create a new international system to ensure non-nuclear states acquire the new sources of energy that they want to have.


And let me be clear, we are not asking non-nuclear weapon states to refrain from proliferation while nuclear weapon states amass new weapons; we are asking them not to proliferate while nuclear weapon states take the steps to reduce their own arsenals in line with the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s requirements.

Now, you may be wondering, given the small scale of its own arsenal, what kind of steps short of complete nuclear disarmament could the UK take, if it is to be “at the forefront” of multilateral disarmament? Said Brown:

bq. Now Britain has cut the number of its nuclear warheads by 50% since 1997 and we are committed to retaining the minimum force necessary to maintain effective deterrence. For future submarines our latest assessment is that we can meet this requirement with 12 – not 16 – missile tubes as are on current submarines. In Britain our operationally available warheads now number fewer than 160 and the government keeps this number under constant review. If it is possible to reduce the number of UK warheads further, consistent with our national deterrence and with the progress of multilateral discussions, Britain will be ready to do so.

This struck “at least some observers”: as underwhelming. Indeed, there’s something of “Achilles and the tortoise”: about it. Given their overwhelmingly great share of warheads, the U.S. and Russia are the obvious candidates for further incremental arms reductions.

So might the UK (or for that matter, France) contemplate “reduction to zero”:, perhaps in the context of Brown’s Recognized NWS Conference?

In that vein, now comes a “different, more exciting version”:, courtesy of Rachel Sylvester in the _Times_ of London. She even gets somebody on the record:

Although the official line remains that Britain will retain its nuclear capability, the language in Whitehall has changed. One minister says that Trident is more useful as a “tool for global disarmament than for UK defence”. This means that even if the Government did want to abandon it eventually, it would be wrong, tactically, to announce such a plan yet. “The when and how of playing the card matters,” the minister explains. “Just dumping it gets you nothing. You do it when it will spur maximum disarmament by others.”

According to Baroness Williams of Crosby, the Liberal Democrat peer who advises the Prime Minister on nuclear proliferation, and was praised by him last week, Britain could use its nuclear weapons as a bargaining tool in the runup to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference next spring. “Trident could be a crucial factor in reaching a serious international agreement,” she told me. “But to announce it now would be to chuck your queen away when you’ve only just started the chess game.”

Chuck your queen, indeed. It would be quite a statement if Britain were to disarm before, let’s say, “India”:

Over to you, “Siddharth Varadrajan”:…

2 thoughts on “The UK and Article VI

  1. Aksel

    This is an interesting development, and one that can be very promising indeed. Many believe the UK does not sacrifice any security by disarming its nuclear arsenal. If true, then playing its Trident card right can be a tremendous boost to the non-proliferation regime.
    I think it’s key to determine if the link between UK unilateral disarmament and global disarmament really exists. I guess only a blind step of faith of the UK can illuminate on this step.

  2. kme

    The key directed graph of disarmament looks something like:

    USA <—-> Russia —-> China —-> India <—-> Pakistan

    UK, France and Israel will only come into play if things get much closer to zero.


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