A policy proposal for the UK government: Prevent a nuclear catastrophe, Caroline Leroy
An alarming situation that threatens the world is indicated by the thousands of deployed nuclear weapons currently on high alert, especially as tensions increase between nuclear-armed states. Not only do these weapons pose a massive risk to human life but their use would likely constitute a major violation of international law, as affirmed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Nevertheless, many nuclear-armed states retain the option of using these weapons in an unspecified variety of ways and implicitly challenge key international law principles. The UK, as one of the nine nuclear-armed states, is in a position to push back here and take a significant and influential step in strengthening the norm against any use of nuclear weapons. This piece will argue for the UK to adopt a no-first-use policy which, I believe, will make the world safer in important and immediate ways.
In order to advance a proposal that has a possibility of being adopted by the UK, it is important to understand the role that nuclear weapons have in British security strategy. By affirming that “defence and protection start with deterrence” the UK government has made clear that it is not yet ready to phase out nuclear weapons entirely from its security doctrine. Nonetheless, it has adopted a number measures to reduce the role of, and the readiness to use, nuclear weapons. For instance, it cut by half the number of deterrent warheads and changed the ‘notice to fire’ on ballistic missile submarines on patrol from minutes to days, among others measures (see here).
If the UK is interested in furthering its commitment to a safer world, it could adopt a no-first-use policy (NFU) without undermining continued nuclear deterrence. This policy has already been adopted by India and China. If the UK embraced NFU, it would be able (along with China) to encourage other P5 members of the UN Security Council to follow suit, as well as use its position within NATO to influence certain key states (a diplomatic power neither China or India possess). Indeed, the Obama Administration demonstrated an interest in the US moving to no-first-use but indicated as a barrier the lack of support of some NATO allies, to whom ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ is provided. Yet, as an initial step, President Obama affirmed in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review a ‘primary purpose’ of nuclear weapons being to deter only a nuclear strike from an aggressor, with the commitment to adopting a policy of deterrence against a nuclear attack the “sole purpose of their nuclear arsenal”.
This policy shift by the U.S., along with increased international attention to the humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, provides fertile ground for the UK to adopt NFU. In addition, the decision by the United Nations General Assembly to commence multilateral negotiations in 2017 on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons places pressure on the nuclear-armed states to respond with a significant measure in the direction of disarmament, and possibly announce or adopt this at the UN High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament which will be held in 2018. NFU could be that measure.
Employing this policy could greatly improve not only national but global security. To begin with, NFU would give Parliament a guarantee that a nuclear strike would not be authorised by the Prime Minister under the auspices of Royal Prerogative, unless the country has been attacked. A first-use of nuclear weapons constitutes a major act of war, a decision that should not be taken without democratic oversight. By ensuring that the Prime Minister could not authorise the first-use of nuclear weapons, Members of Parliament would be protecting democracy and the right of their constituents to peace. This is particular important in light of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010 which originally included a section on parliamentary approval required for the use of armed forces, but was dropped from the bill before royal assent.
Some security analysts might argue that NFU would undermine the ability of the UK to deter nuclear attacks by another nuclear-armed state. However this is unconvincing given that the British nuclear arsenal is "effectively invulnerable to pre-emptive attack" and is deployed using stealth, nuclear-powered submarines. In the case of a nuclear attack on British soil, the remaining nuclear force would be able to deliver a response with a significant, devastating blow to its aggressor.
Moreover, the UK is also in control of a powerful conventional military complex, the employment of which can conform with international law and morality, unlike the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, since the 1996 ICJ case confirming the general illegality of nuclear weapons use, there have been considerable developments in understanding the catastrophic humanitarian impact of any use of nuclear weapons, and of law protecting civilians, the environment and future generations. As such, it is irrefutable that any use of nuclear weapons would be illegal – and the first-use even more so. It is likely that these developments influenced the leader of the UK opposition party to affirm recently that if he was the Prime Minister he “would never push the button”.
Adopting NFU would be a significant move that could bolster the P5 Process initiated by the UK seven years ago and make up for the lack of progress achieved so far. This is because British no-first use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, and trigger an effect on confidence building measures amongst the nuclear-armed states, reducing tensions that are believed to be the highest since the Cold War. NFU impedes the nuclear escalation that would result from such weapons being employed in a conventional military conflict as a result of such increased tensions, particularly between the West and Russia. In addition, Britain could be set to positively influence the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review under the Trump presidency after NFU received strong support during the final year of the Obama administration.
Finally, nuclear weapons pose a huge threat to our world. The UK could show leadership by reducing the role that such weapons play in security doctrines. This would challenge the dangerous Cold War-era reasoning that has re-emerged and help decrease tensions between nuclear-armed states. There is no doubt that a nuclear-weapon-free world would be a much safer world but this is unattainable in the short term. A no-first-use policy bridges this long-term goal with a feasible action that the UK could take now to reduce the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe and build greater security.