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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 10, November 1996

The need for disarmament, the need for debate
by Ian Black

Significant news about international attempts to control nuclear weapons has not been in short supply for the past two years: the permanent extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were both truly landmark events - for all their inadequacies. But arms control issues are not popular or accessible subjects. Even the most serious of British newspapers - a dwindling band now being battered by a period of extreme trivialisation - struggle to devote more than passing attention to them.

Yet to be fair to the hard-nosed creatures who set our news agenda there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the public, and it is striking that both the NPT and the CTBT - the imperfect result of long and complex negotiating processes - were achieved with barely any public discussion about the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era. And little debate - the odd carefully-crafted letter to the editor, the occasional expert opinion piece on crowded, column-fixated editorial pages - means little coverage.

I say 'public' discussion because the issues are being aired in some important places: in September Sir Michael Atiyah, a former president of the Royal Society, set out the findings of the Canberra Commission on nuclear weapons in the elegant wood-panelled lecture hall of the Royal United Services Institution on Whitehall - hardly a standard forum for discussing disarmament. Ministry of Defence mandarins and service chiefs sat attentively as the Canberra case was put from the podium and Professor Joseph Rotblat of Pugwash commented approvingly as Sir Michael called deterrence "a game of poker with incredibly high stakes" and deftly rebuffed one sceptical hawk with the words: "The chances of a nuclear holocaust are considerably greater than yours of winning the lottery."

Similar scenes have been played out recently in meetings at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, where Professor Robert O'Neill and Field Marshal Lord Carver also presented the Canberra conclusions to an audience of the great, the good and the interested.

The absence of a wider public debate is partly explained by the time-lag between events and understanding: the Cold War has ended and prospects for a nuclear confrontation are non-existent. But few who are not professionally or politically involved with nuclear weapons have challenged the government line of proclaiming the triumph of deterrence, emphasising uncertainty and doing nothing unless forced to.

For Whitehall, maintaining the status quo, with symbolic gestures towards disarmament (like phasing out the RAF's outdated free-fall bomb), seems the simplest option. The maintenance of existing assets can be justified, in the absence of probing external scrutiny or discussion, by the 'lunatic dictator' theory ("with people like Gadafy or Saddam around...") or the cost argument. And taken the continuing congruence of nuclear weapons possession and membership of the United Nations security council for Britain and France, two medium-sized, former colonial powers, the purely political arguments for retention are clearly strong.

But behind this ostensibly assured facade the professionals seem to know what the wider public has not yet taken on board: that nuclear weapons may have outlived their utility and that the more pressing problem for the future may be how to get rid of them rather than how to hold on to them. December's statement by General Lee Butler, former commander-in-chief of US Strategic Forces, Field Marshal Lord Carver and dozens of other retired senior officers should be a useful stimulus to debate.

Discussion is timely because privately, the establishment seems nervous: British officials were shocked by the unilateral US testing moratorium that put paid to their own plans. Strong support by John Major for Jacques Chirac's Muruora Atoll tests flew in the face of furious popular reactions, but it was a deliberate gesture, not only of solidarity with a loyal and like-minded ally, but of stubborn reaffirmation of belief in deterrence.

Politicians did little to help clarify the confusion: the Labour Party's criticism of the government for backing France seemed to contradict its own bipartisan support for Trident and reflected a wider lack of understanding over exactly where we are in the nuclear business these days. And outrage faded quickly when the Mururoa tests ended: emollient diplomatic gestures like the coordinated accession of the US, Britain and France to the South Pacific Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (Treaty of Rarotonga) barely attracted any notice. Some focussed on the meaning of India's refusal to sign the CTBT - with Delhi's charge of double standards muddying the waters - but this failed to stimulate much debate.

Yet the CTBT really mattered: no-one who has followed nuclear issues could be left unmoved by the rhetoric that marked September's treaty signing ceremony at the UN. "In the annals of history it will be told that nuclear testing happened over a period of 40 years in the 20th century and then never again," proclaimed Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian Prime Minister. It would have been good to have heard such lofty sentiments from anti-nuclear campaigners like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), who offered only grudging acknowledgement that something had happened and focussed unhistorically only on the (very real) flaws of the treaty.

Two years of change have made significant inroads into the case for nuclear weapons, but fundamental connections are simply not being made: the two treaties, the World Court ruling and the Canberra Commission all testify to movement. But people need to understand better what has happened, and the potential for what could follow.

Not only abolitionists want debate. Sir Michael Quinlan may be right to argue that abolishing nuclear weapons is "neither feasible nor necessarily desirable" - on grounds of verification difficulties, Russian-Chinese rivalries and a host of other reasons. "We are simply not entitled to assume that history has no more difficult exam papers to set us," he argues. But his voice, and the voices of his interlocutors, should be heard more widely.

It is time to move discussion out of the think tanks and into the streets - or at least into the columns of our newspapers. For as one wag said in the bad old days before change ever seemed possible: "One nuclear weapon can ruin your entire day."

Ian Black is Diplomatic Editor of The Guardian.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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