Pursuing an Improved Nuclear Order in Difficult Times

Times are difficult for the nuclear agenda. With the US and Russia possessing 95 per cent of all nuclear weapons on earth, the relationship between them matters, and that relationship, despite developments on Syria and Iran, is not in a good place.

Underlying disagreements between the US and Russia on Missile Defence, Snowden and non-strategic nuclear weapons, to name a few, are disparate views on something even more fundamental, namely the nature and role of sovereignty in the international affairs of the 21st century. But we must realize that across the fields of economics, the environment, public health and security issues, all countries destinies today are not only linked but to a large extent are shared with those living beyond their borders. Governments must therefore look to each other for help in managing problems and seizing opportunities. In that context, traditional sovereignty defined as the right of a state government to do what it likes on its own territory, without considering the effects on others, no longer seems fully practical or even beneficial. Moscow’s and Beijing’s more traditional interpretation of sovereignty as non-interference, almost no matter what the circumstances, still seem to hold sway. It is going to be very difficult to build a common approach to international security problems, including nuclear problems, until and unless we can begin to bridge this fundamental conceptual divide.

And if one looks beyond the US-Russia relationship, nuclear arsenals elsewhere in the world are growing or being modernised for the long-term. China, India and Israel are currently seeking to build effective, land, sea and air launched nuclear triads, and France and the United Kingdom have both pledged to keep and invest in their nuclear weapons for the long term, though in the UK the debate is still live. India and Pakistan, two countries that have fought three wars with each other and at least one other major skirmish in recent decades, are also both increasing their nuclear forces and building new plutonium production reactors which could add to their fissile material stocks and warhead production potential. North Korea is improving its long range missile capabilities and may be learning how to make warheads small enough to put atop missiles. And alarmingly, the mainstream political leaders in South Korea are beginning to break the nuclear taboo. And does anyone believe that what the Middle East needs today is a second nuclear weapon state?

If the times are difficult, what should we do about it?

One thing is certain, we have to keep talking to the Russians. Even before the recent developments on Syria, there was evidence that cooperation, can deliver things of value: a New START Treaty; an amendment to a Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement; joint measures aimed at bringing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to a close.

Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is an important diplomatic player in the Middle East and a key actor in Euro-Atlantic security affairs. To pursue core US and wider western interests, including on nuclear issues, the west has no choice but to find effective ways of working with Russia.

We also have to keep trying because the unfinished business of the Cold War and the legacy of mistrust which still hangs over Europe as a result are sapping valuable intellectual and analytical energy that could be focused on events outside of the Euro-Atlantic area. They are frankly distracting us, economically, diplomatically, and militarily, from the fact that in the Middle East and Asia huge waves of change are underway that will have profound effects on the interests of both Russia and the West. Or simply put, Russia and the West have good reasons to cooperate more effectively in a world where the centre of power and attention is beginning to move away from the Euro-Atlantic area and from us.

But perhaps, for a shorter-term progress on the nuclear agenda, we should look elsewhere, the ongoing P-5 nuclear dialogue and the upcoming nuclear security summit in the Netherlands in 2014.

I had a hand in setting the P-5 dialogue up when I was UK Secretary of State for Defence. It is currently operating with a moderate level of ambition, but it has begun to develop a diplomatic momentum of its own and has generated a number of outcomes (1). But the P-5 dialogue could still be much more ambitious. It could be used to promote a much wider dialogue on strategic stability between the United States, Russia and China and to reduce mistrust in strategic relations between these major powers. This could also develop into a discussion about strategic reassurance and even collective security in the longer-term. The P-5 dialogue could be used as a venue to multilateralise the START talks. The Russians in particular have always said they favour multilateralisation and if they can be induced to be more positive in a multilateral framework then this could help get us out of the current impasse in bilateral US-Russian talks (2). Any moves in this direction in the P-5 dialogue could help boost preparations for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

With regard to the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands next year, again, there is an opportunity for progress. The Washington Summit in 2010 focused exclusively on fissile materials. The Seoul Summit in 2012 expanded the scope to include the interface between nuclear safety and nuclear security at nuclear facilities and the protection of highly radioactive source materials. Now, at the 2014 summit the focus needs to shift to improving global nuclear security governance arrangements as a whole.
Despite the fact that nuclear security is important in the fight against nuclear terrorism, the current global system for addressing it is a patchwork of mostly voluntary agreements and requirements that allows states to opaquely pick and choose among them. The system as a whole has many gaps and weaknesses.

Progress is particularly important in four areas, according to Kenneth Lungo:

  • We need the patchwork of existing agreements to be made more cohesive and its current components to be both universalised and implemented more effectively;
  • We need to see greater cross-border communication of non-sensitive information for the purpose of international confidence building in the system;
  • We need to introduce some sort of peer review process, similar to the one deployed in the nuclear safety regime, so that states can begin to re-assure each other about their nuclear security practices;
  • We need best practices to be disseminated, but allowed to be implemented in a flexible and culturally sensitive manner – need for specific benchmarks. (3)

The Hague summit should sign up to these goals set itself the task of developing a cohesive action plan with implementation then to be the focus of Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2016.

I’m not arguing that progress in any of the areas will be easy. But I am arguing that the stakes are too high to allow the difficulties in the current scene to forestall all diplomatic efforts to strengthen the nuclear order. We have opportunities before us. They won’t be taken without active political leadership and willingness to engage. We have to keep pushing those in office to take this agenda seriously. I intend to do that from my vantage point as Chair of the European Leadership Network (ELN) and as the Convenor of the UK Top Level Group.


(1) Berger, Andrea & Chalmers, Malcolm (2013), ‘Great Expectations: The P5 Process and the Non-Proliferation Treaty’, RUSI Whitehall Report Series, August.

(2) Ritchie, Nick (2013), ‘Pathways and Purposes for P-5 Nuclear Dialogue’, European Leadership Network (ELN), 3 September.

(3) Luongo, Kenneth (2013), ‘Improving Nuclear Security Governance through the Nuclear Security Summits’, European Leadership Network (ELN), 4 September. Available at <http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/improving-nuclear-security-gov…;.