mnmlist: Multilateral Disarmament: Good Policy, Good Politics

Rhetoric on multilateral disarmament does not match reality. Whilst world leaders embrace Obama’s language of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’, every nuclear weapon state has plans for force modernisation or to develop new types of warhead over the next decade. Research by the cross-party Trident Commission highlights major projects planned in India, China, the US, Russia and Pakistan; attempts to produce inter-continental ballistic missiles in Israel; and several states attempting to build smaller, tactical nuclear weapons. Bruce Blair, founder of the World Security Institute, conservatively estimates that $1 trillion will be spent on new nukes and related infrastructure over the coming decade.

The argument of this article is that multilateral disarmament is good policy and good politics for Labour. It is good policy because it strengthens the Non-Proliferation Treaty, decreasing the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and nuclear war. It is good politics because genuine negotiations would bridge intra-party divisions over Trident and public opinion is sympathetic. There are various multilateral and bilateral formulations through which the UK could ‘negotiate away’ its stockpile. Exploring these options should be at the core of Labour foreign policy.


As post-Cold War Russia demonstrates, the more highly enriched uranium that exists, the more opportunity terrorist groups have to buy or steal weapons-grade material. Obversely,  as Henry Kissinger recently wrote, horizontal proliferation is undermining the tense stability brought by East-West strategic balance. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is the only legal mechanism existing to manage these growing threats. The NPT is essentially a deal: non-weapon signatories are prohibited from building warheads but can produce nuclear energy; weapon states can temporarily keep their warheads, so long as they ‘negotiate in good faith’ multilateral disarmament. Below are two types of talks the UK could push, reflecting either multilateral or bilateral approaches, which would demonstrate commitment to the NPT.

A pure form of multilateral disarmament is the Global Zero Action Plan, a twenty year, four-phased strategy (co-authored by Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, supported by Margaret Beckett MP). In Phases 1 and 2 (2010-2018), the US and Russia would agree bilateral reductions to 500 warheads each (to be implemented by 2021), as long as other states agree to freeze their stockpiles until 2018, followed by proportional reductions until 2021. In Phase 3 (2019–2023) states would negotiate an accord, signed by all nuclear capable countries, for the phased, proportional reduction of nuclear arsenals to zero by 2030. Phase 4 (2024–2030) would see the reduction of all nuclear warheads to zero, under a verification system similar to the IAEA.

A quasi-bilateral option would be to bring Trident or its replacement into negotiations with Russia about tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Russia has an estimated 3,000-5,000 ageing TNWs and incorporating UK and French nukes into talks would bring NATO and Russia closer to parity. Whilst this would involve some classificatory imagination (i.e. Trident is rarely referred to as a tactical nuke), it is politically fecund. The Obama administration has signalled its intention to open talks on TNWs. If Obama wins the election in November, Democrats might look kindly on a UK government preparing the ground on tactical nukes. Such an agreement would, in a sense, be bilateral between NATO and Russia.

Whilst the Global Zero Action Plan is useful conceptually, it is impossibly perfect. European engagement with TNW negotiations is one of several more realistic, near-term, formulations.


Recent polls suggest a small majority oppose Trident replacement and cost is clearly a motivator. In 2005, a split-sample survey showed greater opposition to Trident replacement when the question was accompanied by opportunity cost arguments; in June 2011, 63% favoured scrapping the current Trident system for deficit reduction purposes. Nonetheless, data from a comparable period suggests the public do not have fundamental, ethical opposition to nukes: in 1987 a majority supported keeping the UK’s ageing Polaris system; however, when asked about replacing it, less than a majority favoured doing so.

Opinion on multilateral disarmament is less ambiguous: a 2007 survey by the Simons Foundation found 84.5% of respondents favouring an enforceable agreement on global abolition. Getting serious about multilateralism will bridge the public divide on Trident: acknowledging that nuclear weapons are a dangerous, expensive problem but that strategic balance is important.

Nuclear weapons also divide the Labour Party and could be an open sore for many years. The previous government did some great things with arms control, such as drafting the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports and signing the Ottawa Treaty on Landmines. However, without a compelling narrative on nuclear weapons, the new leadership will have trouble. The mutuality and proportionality of arms control treaties can unite the party on this issue.


We are in a unique time and place politically. The Obama administration worked hard to put nuclear disarmament on the agenda; Europe has the opportunity to keep it there. Labour getting serious about multilateral disarmament will make the world and the party safer.

Andrew Gibson (Secretary, Nottinghamshire Fabian Society)

This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 edition of Anticipations, the Young Fabians magazine.