Nuclear Disarmament: The UK Moves in the Wrong Direction

The issue of nuclear disarmament is seminal in world affairs. Its importance had dominated the agenda of relations between the liberal West and the communist East during the Cold War. Alas, more than a generation’s time since the fall of the Berlin Wall that signaled the end of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, if anything accelerates in the evolving multi-polar world. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, 1970) officially recognizes five countries as possessing nuclear weapons (NW) thus designated as Nuclear Weapon States (NWS): China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States. Ironically, the five NWS correspond to the Big Five UN Security Council permanent members.

However, since the NPT entry into force, fifty years ago, the world moved in the wrong direction: India, Pakistan and North Korea joined the list of recognized NWS. In addition, Israel is widely believed to possess 90 plutonium-based nuclear warheads and to have produced enough plutonium for somewhere in the region of one hundred to two hundred more weapons. Further, Israel’s possession of NW has triggered a serious response from Middle East arch-rival Iran. Tehran’s nuclear programme has sparked a huge international controversy. In the summer of 2015 the UN Security Council (Resolution 2231: 20 July 2015) endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between the P5+1 (the five permanent UNSC members plus Germany) and the regime in Tehran that placed Iran’s nuclear programme under the monitoring conditions of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). As Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal, Iran resumed its programme unchecked. For what is worth, Joe Biden, the new US president committed the US to re-engage with Iran re-entering the JCPOA that his predecessor called a bad deal. However, at the end of February Tehran clearly indicated it is unwilling to resume talks with either the US or the Europeans unless the former lifts all sanctions imposed, crippling its economy over the last few years.

In the run-up to the 50th anniversary NPT Review Conference tentatively scheduled to meet 2–27 August 2021 in New York (postponed from its original dates 27 April–22 May 2020 due to the covid-19 pandemic measures the noble cause of nuclear disarmament received another blow: this time from the UK. The British government in its Integrated Review announced it will increase its nuclear weapon stockpile cap to 260 nuclear warheads. On March 16th, the United Kingdom announced that it would increase its limit on its nuclear arsenal for the first time in decades. Instead of decreasing its nuclear stockpile to 180 warheads – which is still a far cry from zero – in the mid-2020s, the UK will increase its stockpile cap to 260 warheads which represents a 40% increase.

The Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) deplored the British government’s colossal reversal of its decades old policy of reducing its nuclear arsenal, calling it ‘shocking’ and ‘unacceptable’. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (2017) organization stresses in its relevant statement:

While most of the world’s countries have declared that nuclear weapons are illegal, the United Kingdom is moving in the wrong direction to increase its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The United Kingdom is currently engaged in a costly and lengthy project to build new nuclear-capable submarines, which it bases off the coast of Scotland, despite Scottish resistance to the bomb. In 2019 alone, the United Kingdom spent $8.9 billion on its nuclear weapons. This decision to increase its nuclear weapons stockpile, announced as part of its Integrated Review, flies in the face of UK promises under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to disarm.

In what concerns Cyprus, the UK’s Integrated Review envisages an upgraded role for the British military bases and other surveillance installations on the island: Significant investment in the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus will assure our ability to contribute to security, with allies, in the Eastern Mediterranean, the 100 plus page strategy, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, states.