BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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False Start

Mark Urban | 12:35 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

The signing of a new strategic arms limitation treaty on Thursday is a success for President Barack Obama.

But the interesting thing is how the US is the only power that really feels confident about cutting nuclear weapons, and how that holds back wider progress towards disarmament, non-proliferation, and even, that goal beloved of visionary speech makers, the nuclear free world.

Under the agreement to be signed in Prague today, the US and Russia will each cap their strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads.

This new limit in fact simply codifies the shrinking of these forces that has taken place since the last round of superpower arms reductions.

The White House would have been happy for deeper cuts, but the Russians were not.

Russia also maintains substantial stockpiles of so-called tactical nuclear weapons such as artillery shells and air dropped bombs that are not included in the new limits, as well as large amounts of chemical weapons.

Why do they do so when their conventional forces have shrunk to a tiny fraction of their Cold War total?

The answer is simple enough - nuclear weapons are one of the few vestiges of the former Soviet superpower that give the Kremlin an air of international importance.

If that seems contemptible, consider Britain's actions in the light of another of Mr Obama's initiatives, the Nuclear Policy Review announced at the start of this week.

America has just renounced the possible use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are compliant with the Non Proliferation Treaty.

This removes some of the ambiguity which the Pentagon insisted for decades was essential for nuclear deterrence.

For that reason it is an important move, even if some of the obvious US potential targets such as North Korea or Iran have been explicitly ruled out of the new pledge.

Wouldn't Britain, with its pocket sized nuclear forces, do well to follow suit?

No, according to people I've been speaking to in government. Attempts by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to follow the US Nuclear Policy Review, have been blocked by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), say insiders.

Britain apparently wishes to maintain the "ambiguity" of a posture that includes a possible nuclear strike against Syria or indeed Bolivia, just to pluck some random examples out of the air.

As Britain struggles to finance the replacement of its single remaining nuclear system, Trident, it finds it hard to rule out such bizarre possibilities.

Britain, then is not so different from Russia in wishing to retain the status of a nuclear weapon state, it just uses slightly different arguments, for example about the unpredictability of the modern world.

Whitehall enthusiasts for a British version of the US Nuclear Policy Review had hoped that it might add some small weight to Mr Obama's attempts to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons more generally.

The MoD's obstruction, apparently added another reason for Mr Brown not to attend next week's nuclear disarmament conference in Washington.

At that conference, Mr Obama will try to use the new treaty with Russia or policy review to strengthen his hand in preventing the proliferation of weapons - Iran is an obvious target of such diplomacy.

But the conference is likely simply to underline a salient truth: that only the US feels big and safe enough to conduct this kind of diplomacy with any real sincerity.

Countries like Pakistan, for reasons best known to themselves, are increasing their nuclear stockpiles despite the threat to the security of those weapons.

Israel remains outside any meaningful supervision in this area.

Iran continues to play its decade-long game of obfuscation with the international community, feeding the impression that it is racing to complete its own atomic arsenal.

While the US tires of the burden and risks of being a nuclear superpower, everyone else it seems wants to buttress their claims to regional or global influence.


  • Comment number 1.

    the evidence is nuclear weapons work against states? which is why there has been no state invasion of pakistan? even though the taliban [and the AQ network that have their hospitality] are an extension of their foreign policy?

    nuclear weapons haven't helped israel much? they can hardly bomb gaza and the west bank. nor did they help in Iraq nor in Afghanistan even though we are told these are 'strategic' to our 'security'.

    it would be enough deterrent to invasion to have plans to turn every uk city into a stalingrad? because as iraq/afghanistan shows a 100k invasion force is not enough to occupy a country if it chooses and has plans to resist.

    who has spare invasion forces greater than 100k these days?

  • Comment number 2.


    Surely all misleading leaders get together and arrange these deals for public/world consumption - to no ultimate effect? Just as the parties in Westminster have more in common with each other than with those of us they manipulate, in a global arena, the people of power collude far more than they confront?

  • Comment number 3.


    So the MoD tell the Prime Minister to shove off? Is that part of the Unwritten British Constitution?

    Knowing Brown's deviation from True North, is it not more likely that this is all an elaborate ploy?

    My assessment of Brown is HE WANTS TO BE NUCLEAR AT ANY PRICE when sitting at global tables. I would not put it past him to falsely claim 'The MoD won't let me negotiate'. As for non-appearance at the talks, remember: THIS IS McCAVITY WE ARE TALKING ABOUT.

    So Mark - run that by me again - does the MoD rank higher than J Gordon Brown?

  • Comment number 4.


    Brown is still claiming the American financial meltdown caught him unawares. Fool or Knave?

    Brown had close links with America for years, holidayed there and no doubt talked money into the wee small hours. If anyone might have known, it is he. What is more, I have heard him claim that, for years before the crash, he had recognised the globalisation of money and tried to get global regulation in place. However, it would seem he put nothing in place to protect this country from the global disaster, implicitly a threat from global banking. Should he not be challenged in those terms? After all, this is not Moral Compass Science.

  • Comment number 5.

    guess which PM of a 'friend and strategic ally' is not going now? which is consistent with the behaviour of a rogue state?

  • Comment number 6.

    I suspect Brown may be lying again, a lot of senior military figures such as former chief of the defence staff Field Marshal Lord Bramall and the ex-head of the army General Dannatt have expressed their concern over spending large amounts of money on weapons that are now irrelevant. Current head of army General Richards has warned the government against spending large amounts of money on new weapons systems that are not relevant to modern conflicts.

    Also keep in mind that the MOD have a £35bn hole in the defence budget so spending £97bn over the next 30 years isn't their top priority at the moment, especially with two conflicts where basic equipment seems to be so scarce.

    Not replacing trident is a big opportunity for the UK to lead the way with disarmament. Sweden, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan and Libya all abandoned their secret nuclear weapon programmes and are no worse off for having disarmed. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all decided to disarm after inheriting weapons from the Soviet Union.

    The "the unpredictability of the modern world" argument doesn’t really add up. What are the main threats to us today? Terrorism? Most likely home grown, so we can't use the bomb against ourselves. The bomb wouldn't really help us in urban welfare like Iraq / Afghanistan. What about Iran? Well for a start we can't really complain about Iran developing a nuke if we refuse to get rid of our own. As for the good old deterrent argument there’s no evidence to suggest that because we haven’t been attacked with nuclear weapons this is down to our nukes actting as a deterrent. In fact there some quite scary evidence that shows we came to the brink on a number of different occasions.

  • Comment number 7.

    I suspect that a lot of vested interests are at play with regards to Gordon Brown's silence on nuclear weapons.

    Firstly, Labour have nailed their colours to the mast in favour of replacing Trident. That doesn't play well with voters when big cuts in public spending are forecast. Who wants to cut health, education, and transport spending but at the same time blow £97 billion on new nuclear weapons?

    Secondly, big Labour-supporting trade unions such as UNITE are keen to protect their members working at the BAE Systems shipyard in Barrow, and BAE Systems itself has also been lobbying hard for more government orders.

    Thirdly, MoD is an inherently conservative organisation, reluctant to change. MoD is too timid and unwieldy to be able to easily consider the possibilities of a defence policy without nuclear weapons. Careers and empires are at also stake within the Ministry and the Royal Navy.

    This is why MoD and the Labour and Conservative front benches are pushing so desperately to keep nuclear weapons out of the post-election Strategic Defence Review. They know it will be very difficult to justify the decision to replace Trident in the current economic climate, so they are struggling to maintain the fiction that a meaningful defence review can be conducted without including nuclear weapons - even though nuclear weapons are the biggest single item of spend in the defence budget and have a huge impact on UK foreign policy.

    A decision to review or delay replacement of Trident would go a long way to support the steps towards disarmament recently taken by Obama and Medvedev, and could even help the next government balance the books on public spending.

  • Comment number 8.

    It seems to me, that Britain must a have Nuclear Deterrent and the only credible option is a SLBM system, The missile itself is not being replaced yet, that will depend on what the US Navy decides on in twenty years time, its the Boats themselves that need replacement. It is possible that only Three could suffice
    But Land or Air based systems would cost more and be less effective.
    its is a pity that Britain had to buy the "Gold-plated" Trident D5 but that was all that was on offer.
    Hopefully a less advanced missile will be needed in the future.
    The subs themselves could with some difficulty be converted to Hunter-Killer Subs in the unlikely event the UK opts out of Nuclear Weapons.

    A effective Nuclear deterrent means that we can never be "Black-Mailed" by hostile Superpowers or Rogue States.
    Insurance Policies can be expensive, but the cost of not having one can be catastrophic!

  • Comment number 9.

    "Countries like Pakistan, for reasons best known to themselves, are increasing their nuclear stockpiles despite the threat to the security of those weapons."
    theres no threat other than one posed by the usa-uk-india.

    "Iran continues to play its decade-long game of obfuscation with the international community, feeding the impression that it is racing to complete its own atomic arsenal."
    no it doesnt, what it keeps telling everyone is that it is not in pursuit of nuclear weapons, and employs the iaea to keep a watchful eye on its reserach and nuclear programmes.
    it is the uk-usa who are making up stories followed by its media that make unsubstantiated claims about iran .

    "While the US tires of the burden and risks of being a nuclear superpower, everyone else it seems wants to buttress their claims to regional or global influence."
    nonsense all the usa is doing is upgrading its nuclear weapons and decommissioning those weapons that have reached end of life and using spin as a pr . it is also threatening iran not becasue of any iranian nuclear efforts but for its oil and gas.

    with so much information available its amazing that presidents feel that they can be less than truthful and expect no one to notice.


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