Less rhetoric and more dialogue needed to reduce grave nuclear risks

Update on delusional new UK nuclear weapon policy

In our 19 March blog we discussed the UK decision to increase the number of its nuclear weapons and to extend the range of threats to which its nuclear deterrence policy would apply.

We referenced the concern of the German government as expressed by foreign minister Heiko Maas and noted the deafening silence of the Government of Canada.

Britain’s nuclear weapons are based in Scotland so it now seems fitting to reference the “swift and harsh” response of Scottish National Party defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald:

It speaks volumes of the Tory government’s spending priorities that it is intent on increasing its collection of weapons of mass destruction – which will sit and gather dust unless the UK has plans to indiscriminately wipe out entire populations – rather than address the serious challenges and inequalities in our society that have been further exposed by the pandemic.

Canadian and international NGOs also made their concerns abundantly clear.

The Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW) issued a comprehensive statement including comments from three former Canadian U.N. Disarmament Ambassadors, Doug Roche, Peggy Mason and Paul Meyer.

The Honourable Doug Roche O.C. inter alia stated:

This unconscionable act, which drives ahead the nuclear arms race, jeopardizes the success of the NPT Review Conference later this year.

RI President Peggy Mason concluded:

It is hard to see these extraordinarily destabilizing actions as anything other than a desperately diminished post-Brexit Britain struggling to maintain some semblance of global prestige.

In the words of Paul Meyer, Chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group:

In 2015 the UK promised “to strive to build conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”. Doesn’t Prime Minister Johnson’s Government realize that increasing nuclear arsenals is not one of the ways to get to that goal?

The CNANW statement also issued a specific call to the Trudeau government:

We call on the Canadian government to clearly state its disappointment to its NATO ally, to urge caution and press Prime Minister Johnson to reverse the implementation of a policy that would lead to a more dangerous world with a greater likelihood of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The CNANW statement concludes with a message that extends to the myriad global challenges we now face:

In these days of pandemics and other global stresses, the world requires sober and thoughtful vision, with leadership that pulls us together for shared mutual security and risk reduction goals. We need to avoid — not increase — global risks from dangerous, and regressive policy changes.

For the full CNANW statement, click here.

Professor Paul Rogers weighs in on the UK decision

World-renowned international peace and security expert and UK citizen Professor Paul Rogers did not mince words in his response, in an article entitled New security report shows UK government is content to swim in delusion (opendemocracy.net, 20 March 2021).

Noting that page 84 of the new report states that “countering proliferation is integral to the UK’s security and prosperity”, he goes on:

This statement of [non-proliferation] policy was published on the very day that the government announced a 40% increase in its nuclear force, running a coach and horses through its commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and going directly against the spirit of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which came into force in January.

Rogers concludes his article with a clarion call for a full-scale “Alternative Security Review for the UK” that takes an integrated “human security” approach to international security.

Whither Canada?

We join with CNANW in calling on our government to press the UK to reverse the implementation of a policy that would lead to a more dangerous world with a greater likelihood of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Democrats call for shift from weapons to vaccines

On a much more positive note, Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to stop funding for a dangerously misguided and ruinously expensive new missile, known as the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD). In the words of California Democratic congressman Ro Khanna:

With all of the global challenges we face, the last thing we should be doing is giving billions to defense contractors to build missiles we don’t need….

Instead, under this legislation, $1 billion of the funding for the new weapons system would be diverted to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Niaid) for development work on a universal coronavirus vaccine.

It is as yet unclear what the Biden administration’s plans are with respect to the controversial new strategic missile system (GBSD), but its intentions will likely become more apparent with the release of a defense budget sometime in April 2021.

For a review of the fierce battle shaping up in Congress over these new nuclear-armed missiles, as well as the history of the U.S. nuclear triad, see The Missile Trap: Congress’s ICBM caucus is taking aim at the White House (Fred Kaplan, slate.com, 10 March 2021).  See also a recent commentary by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, entitled Enough Already: No New ICBMs (armscontrol.org, March 2021).

We give the last word here to Jessica Sleight, Global Zero program director, who states:

The US nuclear arsenal far exceeds any plausible mission requirements put forth by the Pentagon. Even in the best of times, $264bn for new nuclear missiles is money we can’t spare for weapons we don’t need. In the middle of a devastating pandemic, it’s irresponsible.

The urgent need for U.S.–China nuclear risk reduction dialogue

During the Cold War, despite the antipathy of two blocs, East and West, armed to the teeth with both nuclear and conventional weapons, there was rarely a time when some sort of arms control or risk-reduction dialogue  was not taking place.

The Trump administration pursued the opposite policy, abandoning important treaties left and right. President Biden looked poised to reverse that trend with the release of his interim national security guidance on 3 March 2021, which included the undertaking that:

We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control. That is why we moved quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements.

However, “extraordinarily tough talk” in separate meetings with Russian and Chinese leaders have escalated tensions and put the future of new arms control talks in doubt. In the words of Associated Press staff reporter Matthew Lee:

the harsh criticism directed at China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in many ways mirrored the previous administration’s hard line toward Beijing.

Yet the urgent need for risk reduction talks at a minimum, and more meaningful arms control negotiations in due course, could not be greater. David Logan, in his commentary entitled The Dangerous Myths about China’s Nuclear Weapons (warontherocks, 18 September 2020), writes:

too many analysts have focused on the wrong problems when it comes to China’s nuclear forces…. The misguided focus on these [dubious] claims can exacerbate distrust, heighten threat perceptions, and make it more difficult to address more genuine concerns.

In particular Logan focuses on the considerable evidence of misperceptions and misunderstandings between Beijing and Washington. He notes:

China and the United States appear to have dangerously different views of escalation dynamics and the ability of countries to control the scope and intensity of a conflict….

This mismatch in perceptions could lead each side to misjudge the actions or intentions of the other, an error of incalculable consequences where nuclear weapons are concerned.

But as Logan points out, there is a ready solution at hand:

Many of these risks, particularly those rooted in different perceptions, could be mitigated through formal dialogue. Beijing and Washington can share and refine understandings about escalation dynamics or their aims in a crisis or conflict.

Logan concludes his article with the cogent observation that the prevalence of “poorly sourced” or “unfounded” claims about Beijing’s nuclear posture:

makes any dialogue both less likely to occur and less effective if it does happen.

In short, it is time for the Biden Administration to cool down the rhetoric and work to resume strategic stability talks with Russia and to initiate such talks with China.

Whither Canada?

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote nuclear disarmament. Canada was once a leader in seeking to overcome the NPT’s “institutional deficit”, which leaves it without a standing bureau or even the means to schedule emergency meetings.

We call on the Government of Canada to end its role as a passive bystander in reducing nuclear risks. A good first step would be an ambitious and creative set of new institutional reform proposals for consideration at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.

Photo credit: wikimedia (Xi Jinping and Joe Biden)


Tags: "Alternative Security Review", Biden interim national security guidance, Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW), Congressman Ro Khanna, groundbased strategic deterrent (GBSD), NPT institutional reform, nuclear risk-reduction dialogue, Professor Paul Rogers, The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), U.S. - China strategic misperceptions, U.S. nuclear triad, UK Global Britain report, UK nuclear posture, UK Trident warhead increase