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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 75, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 75, January/February 2004

In the News

UK White Papers on Defence and Foreign Policy

In December 2003, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) each published White Papers that go further than before in highlighting Britain's dependence on the United States in relation to defence, security and foreign policy.

The FCO Strategy White Paper, UK International Priorities,1 describes the UK's relationship with the United States as a "vital asset... essential to achieving many of our objectives, especially in ensuring our security". The Defence White Paper, Delivering Security in a Changing World,2 states that, "The most demanding expeditionary operations, involving intervention against state adversaries, can only plausibly be conducted if US forces are engaged, either leading a coalition or in NATO".

The FCO Strategy White Paper is the first such paper to be published by the Foreign Office. The Defence White Paper is the first since the MoD replaced its annual White Papers with a series of occasional policy papers in 2000. It is also the first Defence White Paper to be published since the election of President Bush and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and as such it brings much of UK Defence policy into line with the Bush Administration's thinking, with an emphasis on combating international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Introducing the Defence White Paper to Parliament, Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon, MP explained that the two White Papers should be read in "conjunction" with each other.3

Britain's International Priorities

The FCO White Paper looks at a range of international trends and drivers for change over the next ten years, including security, ideology and religion, economics, population changes, environmental change (including global warming), demand for energy, and technology. It identifies eight international strategic policy priorities:

  • a world safer from global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction
  • protection of the UK from illegal immigration, drug trafficking and other international crime
  • an international system based on the rule of law, which is better able to resolve disputes and prevent conflicts
  • an effective EU in a secure neighbourhood
  • promotion of UK economic interests in an open and expanding global economy
  • sustainable development, underpinned by democracy, good governance and human rights
  • security of UK and global energy supplies
  • security and good governance of the UK's Overseas Territories.

On weapons of mass destruction, the White Paper states that the UK will "seek to prevent their spread and deter their use, including through effective international agreements". The FCO's aims include ensuring that "multilateral arms and export control regimes evolve to reflect technological change, agree more effective verification, and negotiate stronger compliance measures for biological arms control". There is no specific mention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The FCO notes that the UK's "security and prosperity depend on the willingness of other states to cooperate in an international system based on the rule of law and shared principles. It will be in the UK interest to seek to increase the effectiveness, legitimacy and co-ordination of the UN and other international organisations." The UK aims to strengthen "the ability of the international community to agree on timely action against threats to international peace and security" and the "capacity of the UN, the EU and NATO to conduct effective stabilisation and humanitarian operations, including post-conflict reconstruction". It also aims to "adapt the UN system and other multilateral structures to respond better to the growing influence of business, NGOs and other non-state actors".

Underlining Transatlantic Dependency

In January 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair set out his vision for the UK's foreign policy goals in a speech to UK Ambassadors and High Commissioners. Blair's first priority was that "we should remain the closest ally of the US, and as allies influence them to continue broadening their agenda".4 In November 2004, President Bush rewarded Blair's loyalty during his state visit to London, affirming that, "America is fortunate to call this country our closest friend in the world".5

Both the FCO and the MoD White Papers build on Blair's vision for the transatlantic relationship and the UK's aim to influence US policy, whilst supporting the overall direction of US policy. In a written statement introducing the FCO White Paper to parliament Foreign Secretary Jack Straw states that the UK's close alliance with the US "will remain indispensable for our security".6 The reasoning for this is that the "United States, as the world's single superpower, will continue to set much of the international agenda". Indicating its willingness to work closely with US administrations of any political persuasion, the FCO notes that the US will seek to exercise "global leadership" however "US domestic politics evolve".

Although the FCO has identified an international system based on the rule of law, as one of its international strategic policy priorities, it makes an exception for the US, which it accepts will "seek international support where possible, but will be reluctant to be impeded by others in pursuing what it considers to be US national interests".

The FCO indicates its desire to influence US policy, nudging it in the direction of participation in international institutions and multilateralism. "No state - not even the US - will be able to pursue its objectives in isolation," the White Paper states. The UK will use the relationship with the US to "advance UK and wider international interests, and to enhance our influence, in part through multilateral channels, particularly the EU, NATO and the UN. We will encourage effective US leadership in strengthening international institutions."

The FCO White Paper describes the UK's relationships with the EU and the US as its "most significant partnerships with other countries". The FCO also reasserts its vision of Britain's role as a transatlantic bridge, "building a shared agenda" between the US and Europe, despite differences in approach such as "the emergence of new US strategic priorities outside Europe" and "divergence between US and European attitudes towards the use of power".

On Europe, the FCO states that, "strengthening our influence within the EU will be one of our highest priorities". The UK has a problem, however, in extending its influence in the EU. It is still unclear if and when Britain will join the European single currency, and the UK domestic debate remains sceptical about attempts to develop a European Constitution and, at best, cautious about European defence plans.

Like the FCO, the MoD also seeks influence with the US, and believes that this can be achieved through military contributions to such operations: "Where the UK chooses to be engaged, we will wish to be able to influence political and military decision making throughout the crisis, including during the post-conflict period. The significant military contribution the UK is able to make to such operations means that we secure an effective place in the political and military decision-making processes." At the same time, as noted above, the Defence White Paper appears unable to conceive of conducting significant expeditionary operations without the US. Drawing on the experience of Iraq it also highlights the implications of increasing dependence on the United States for UK military forces and equipment.

This, of course, is consistent with NATO's increasing emphasis on interoperability, underlining the need for close coordination between US and UK military forces at all levels. The MoD is expected to make further, more detailed announcements on UK military capabilities in 2004, but the White Paper indicates the general direction: "Our Armed Forces will need to be interoperable with US command and control structures, match the US operational tempo and the US operational tempo and provide those capabilities that deliver the greatest impact when operating alongside the US. Continuing exchanges with the US on issues such as rapid deployment planning, developing doctrine and concepts, and new technologies, will remain important." The key to achieving interoperability with the US and with European allies is seen as "the successful operation of NATO's new Allied Command for Transformation".

A New Strategic Context for Defence

The Defence White Paper signals a clear end to the type of UK Defence planning advanced during the Cold War. The paper states, "...It is now clear that we no longer need to retain a capability against the re-emergence of a direct conventional strategic threat to the United Kingdom or our allies. Priority must be given to meeting a wider range of expeditionary tasks, at greater range from the United Kingdom and with ever-increasing strategic, operational and tactical tempo."

The White Paper describes a strategic context in which there are "more numerous crises of a wider range and in a wider geographical area" than anticipated previously. In line with the US and NATO, the UK will therefore have "a clear focus on projecting force, further afield and even more quickly than has previously been the case". The UK will plan to support "three concurrent operations, of which one is an enduring peace support operation". According to the MoD this will require the "rebalancing" of the Armed Forces "to enable them better to meet the demands of the more likely Small and Medium Scale contingencies".

The implications for the UK's military capabilities are that the UK would have fewer traditional platforms such as ships, tanks and aircraft, and would procure more high-tech military equipment. This will be good news for British and American arms manufacturers (such as the troubled BAE) as it indicates that more equipment contracts will be on the way, but bad news for British tax payers since the MoD's record on delivering large scale procurements on time or on budget is poor.7 According to Hoon, "Technology will be a key driver for change" as the MoD seeks "force multipliers" that deliver "more rapid deployment, better intelligence and target acquisition, with ever greater accuracy".8

For the Navy, this will include the "introduction of the two new aircraft carriers and the joint strike fighter", which will "offer a step change in our ability to project air power from the sea". However there will be no role left for some of the Navy's older ships. The Army will have a reduced requirement for "heavy armoured fighting vehicles and heavy artillery" but a "greater emphasis on enabling capabilities such as logistics, engineers and intelligence". The airforce will have fewer combat aircraft but more multi-role aircraft and more accurate, long-range missiles and "smart bombs". There will also be a requirement for greater emphasis on strategic lift, in terms of both transporter aircraft and roll on/roll off ships.9

The Future of UK Nuclear Weapons

The Defence White Paper underlines a shift in emphasis since the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) of 1998, away from arms control and disarmament and towards a decision on whether to replace Trident sometime in the 2020s. Though the White Paper repeats the SDR's support for "a safer world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons",10 it also announces that decisions on "whether to replace Trident" are not needed in this parliament, but are "likely to be required in the next one".

Whilst the 1998 SDR described progress on arms controls as "an important objective of foreign and defence policy" and spelled out Britain's commitment to START, the NPT and the CTBT, the 2003 White Paper cuts this down to a single sentence simply saying that Britain will "continue to play a full role in international efforts to strengthen arms control and prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

Although the Government suggests that no decision on whether to replace Trident has yet been taken, the MoD is clearly leaning in favour of a replacement. The White Paper states that, "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". There are also indications that potential contractors such as BAE Systems, which runs the UK's nuclear submarine construction yard in Barrow-in-Furness are already lobbying for a decision on the issue.11

The Government is also currently in discussions with the US Government on the renewal of the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement,12 under which the US and the UK "exchange" information and "transfer materials and equipment" with the objective of improving each other's nuclear weapons "design, development and fabrication capability". The agreement, which is currently updated and extended every 10 years, comes up for renewal by the end of 2004, and would be essential if the UK wished to maintain the option of acquiring a US nuclear weapon system to replace Trident.

A US successor to Trident is currently the most likely option since the UK's own capability to develop a full nuclear weapon system is limited and the option of acquiring a French system would be highly controversial politically. The UK would require extensive help from the Americans to maintain Trident and to develop any successor.

Any amendments or decision to extend the 1958 Agreement must be ratified by the UK Parliament and the US Senate, although it is likely that the UK Government will attempt to avoid any parliamentary debate. Britain's MPs, however, should insist on a full and public debate and not let the Agreement's prolongation be slipped through Parliament under the shady umbrella of 'national security'. As it stands, both the extension of the 1958 Agreement and development of a nuclear replacement for Trident would contradict Britain's NPT obligations to eliminate nuclear weapons, most recently reinforced in the consensus agreement by NPT Parties in May 2000, which included "An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI".13

Future of the Transatlantic Relationship

Just as Margaret Thatcher's special relationship with Ronald Reagan dominated UK foreign policy in the 1980s, Tony Blair has put his relationship with President George W. Bush at the heart of Britain's foreign policy since 2001. The current FCO and Defence White Papers reflect this strategic choice. Whilst it is clearly advantageous to Britain to be closely aligned with a powerful state, however, increasing dependence of British foreign and defence policy on the position of the United States is not without risks.

In the past year, it has led Britain into war in Iraq - a war, which attracted unprecedented public and parliamentary opposition to the Blair government, and which is far from over, requiring a heavy and ongoing commitment of British forces and resources. It has also led to Britain quietly dropping from many of its foreign and defence policy statements arms control goals that do not meet with the approval of the Republican administration. The UK has dropped its support for "preserving" the ABM Treaty and START III negotiations. This could be justified as mere recognition of the fact that US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty has killed off not only the ABM agreement, but also START III. However, since George W. Bush became US President, the UK has also fallen silent on the subject of the CTBT, and the NPT, once described as the "cornerstone" of non-proliferation regime is rarely mentioned in public.

The relationship between Blair and Bush exacerbates concerns within the Labour Party that the Blair government is increasingly out of step with its own supporters. As a Guardian editorial put it, "Where the [defence] white paper goes wrong is in proposing to further develop "expeditionary force" capabilities interoperable with US forces, thus increasing the potential for more all-out wars of conquest like Iraq under US/NATO command."14

The UK may also have difficulty maintaining its position as a "transatlantic bridge" between the US and Europe. As noted by Guardian journalist Nick Clegg, the FCO strategy paper suggests that, "the Foreign Office is greatly unsettled by the persistent political and economic tensions between Europe and America...This strategy paper... is yet another anguished squeal of pain from a British foreign policy establishment confronted by a widening divide across the Atlantic. Disagreements on Iraq, steel tariffs, the international criminal court, the Kyoto treaty and much else besides have suddenly stretched the Atlantic divide, yanking the UK awkwardly in two opposing directions."15

The extent and effectiveness of British influence on either side is also debatable. Whilst Blair was able to encourage the Bush administration to take the Iraq issue to the UN Security Council in Autumn 2003, he was not able to alter the fundamental direction of US policy, so, despite Britain's stated support for the UN, the UK was made a leading party in the attack on Iraq without Security Council authorisation. Similarly, on the question of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Blair has been able to win some concessions for British prisoners, but he has been unable to prevent them being subjected to what, under British and European law, amount to egregious breaches of their human rights.


UK White Papers are a means of presenting Government policy statements to Parliament. Unlike the US system, where the annual Defense Authorization and Appropriations bills can be amended by Congress, UK Defence White Papers are not usually subject to amendment; however they can and should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and debate, by Select Committees, through oral and written questions to Ministers, and in parliamentary debates.

Even more importantly, a decision to replace Trident would be a major policy and financial commitment and must not be slipped through Parliament, as was the decision to allow the US to upgrade Fylingdales and integrate it more fully into missile defence plans.

Further information and debate is needed on both the decision to extend the 1958 US-UK nuclear cooperation agreement and any decision to replace Trident. In the coming months, it is important that MPs use those parliamentary opportunities available to them not just to debate the Government's current problems in Iraq, but to question and debate the future direction of the UK's foreign and defence policy as laid out in the two White Papers, along with the nature and direction of its relationship with the United States. Among the questions that need to be asked are: whether the UK should pursue a close relationship with the US even when a particular US administration's policy choices conflict with Britain's own security and political interests; whether it is wise to make the armed forces so dependent on the US; the extent to which the UK would be willing to compromise its own international policies and interests in order to conform with shifting policies and demands of various US administrations.

The war in Iraq has invigorated debate on defence and foreign policy in Britain. Likewise, MPs and Government Ministers should not shy away from asking whether the UK's interests are best served in the role of closest ally. Would it not be better, sometimes, to play the role of a sceptical friend?


1. 'UK International Priorities', Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Cm 6052, December 2003, http://www.fco.gov.uk/Files/kfile/FCOStrategyFullFinal.pdf.

2. 'Delivering Security in a Changing World', Ministry of Defence, Cm 6041-I, December, 2003, http://www.mod.uk/linked_files/publications/whitepaper2003/volume1.pdf.

3. House of Commons, Hansard, December 11, 2003, column 1209.

4. 'Britain's Place in the World', Prime Minister's speech to Foreign & Commonwealth Office Leadership Conference, January 7, 2003.

5. 'America is fortunate to call this country our closest friend in the world', President Bush State Visit to London, November 19-21, Disarmament Documentation, http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0311/doc22.htm.

6. 'FCO Strategy White Paper: UK International Priorities', Written Statement to Parliament by the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, December 2, 2003.

7. On January 23, 2003, the UK National Audit Office reported that the Ministry of Defence had overspent by a total of £3 billion last year on four prestige weapons procurements: Eurofighter/Typhoon, the Astute class nuclear submarines, Nimrod reconnaissance and attack aircraft, and Brimstone, an air-launched anti-tank weapon. See Richard Norton-Taylor and David Gow, '£3bn hole in defence budget', The Guardian, January 23, 2004.

8. House of Commons, Hansard, December 11, 2003, column 1209.

9. Ibid.

10. 'The Strategic Defence Review', Ministry of Defence, The Stationery Office, Cm 3999, July 1998.

11. House of Commons, Hansard, October 16, 2003, column 285.

12. House of Commons, Hansard, July 15, 2003, column 199W.

13. Article VI and preambular paragraphs 8-12, Paragraph 15, sub-paragraph 6, Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF.2000/28 (Vol 1, Part I and II), May 25, 2000.

14. 'We cannot have it all', The Guardian, December 12, 2003.

15. Nick Clegg, 'Breaking Point', The Guardian, December 3, 2003.

16. Jackie Ashley, 'The Democrats' dream has become Blair's nightmare', The Guardian, January 15, 2004.

Researched and compiled by Nicola Butler

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