Sandra Butcher, senior program coordinator, international secretariat, Pugwash. This article first appeared in Comment is Free on Monday 22 March.
Gordon Brown told the Foreign Press Association in London on Friday that he would highlight the upcoming "moments of opportunity and challenge". He said we "must now urgently do more to build upon that brief moment of collective international will", and he reminded us that "global problems need global solutions".
Despite this rhetoric, and earlier UK statements promoting the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, in reality Brown's comments on nuclear weapons were tepid, sadly leaving him in some ways behind the Tory party lines as discussed by shadow foreign minister David Lidington last week at the Royal Society. There was certainly no sign that Brown intends to encourage his government to show transformative leadership in this area.
Similarly, the world is watching Washington closely to see if the much delayed Nuclear Posture Review will prove that Nobel peace laureate Barack Obama has the necessary grit to reduce "the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy" and "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons", two goals he put forward in his acclaimed speech in Prague last April.
"The US and the UK must signal a decrease in the number of and reliance on these weapons if they want a world free of WMD"
Without more progress on decreasing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons, it's not looking good for prospects that either Britain or the US will be able to demonstrate significant progress to convince their fellow signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty at the May review conference that they are seriously moving in their committed direction.
It doesn't have to work this way. President Kennedy had a vision that the US could draw down its extensive network of military bases. He instructed his secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, to make that vision a reality. Closing military bases struck at the heart of the establishment, and also caused major consternation among members of Congress whose districts were faced with losing significant jobs and income.
And yet, despite opposition from the bureaucracies, McNamara instructed his deputies to "do what is right", in the words of David Ignatius. Kennedy was facing a dangerous phase in cold-war relations and needed to institute bold change. Similarly, Brown, Obama and current and former political leaders worldwide have admitted the world has reached a new and more dangerous nuclear reality in which the continued existence of nuclear weapons threatens to bring us to a much more dangerous world, where nuclear proliferation is likely to accelerate, and taboos on nuclear use are at risk.
Brown and Obama could draw from the US base closure experience and force their respective bureaucracies to move, by providing strong and clear signals of the direction in which they want things to go. They must be prepared to accept that, while not everyone will like it, it is the right thing to do.
In Prague, Obama acknowledged "that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda". He provided his own answer to this dilemma by saying: "When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. We know the path when we choose fear over hope."
Timid steps now from the US and the UK will lead toward a ripple effect throughout the world, where other nuclear states and would-be nuclear weapons states would follow the US and UK examples, and continue to dig in deeper on their reliance on these weapons of terror. It is impossible for the US and Britain to maintain continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the "fix" for their security and not bear responsibility for a future in which an increased number of states adopt the same logic.
Three relatively easy steps could be taken:
- Both countries could unequivocally state that the only purpose for nuclear weapons is to deter other nuclear weapons;
- they could signal their intent to cure the cold-war hangover of US nuclear weapons stationed throughout Europe, which would set a new principle that no country should base its nuclear weapons on foreign soil; and
- 3) rather than counting on sanctions to fix the Iran situation, they could take solid steps to discuss ways forward on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, a discussion many of the states in the region are eager to have.
It is time for the US and the UK – partners in the so-called special relationship – to decrease the number of and their reliance on these inhumane and unusable weapons.