18/12/2014 This content is not up to date

Nick Ritchie: British nuclear weapons are peripheral

Prague Agenda interview with Nick Ritchie. He does research and teaches in the areas of international relations and international security at the University of York. His particular focus is on nuclear disarmament, proliferation and arms control and US and UK national security.

How did you like the Prague Agenda 2014 conference?

I thought the Agenda was very good over the two days. It covered most of the salient issues in global nuclear politics. It might have been good to have some other voices - from, perhaps, developing countries - but that would be my only comment.


I saw you making notes. Does that mean that you will utilize them in your lectures or further research?


I will use part of the notes that I have taken for my own research in terms of new information that was delivered by the speakers and questions or things that were said that got me thinking. Some statements confirmed and/or challenged some of my thoughts and assumptions,. I am particularly interested in statements from our Russian colleagues, to understand their perspectives. So I will primarily use my notes for my own research purposes and to develop my own thinking.


In your opinion, hypothetically, if the UK got rid of all of its nuclear weapons, would it cause a chain reaction? I mean, would all the other countries have the same initiative? Or are we waiting for Russia and the US to make the first step?


If the UK unilaterally relinquished its nuclear weapons it would not cause a chain reaction, because in my view, it’s not how nuclear politics work. It is not that simple. It would certainly have an effect on France and NATO as well as on NPT nuclear dynamics, although it would depend on how that decision was framed. If it was framed in the UK in terms of financial constraints and a sense that the UK could no longer afford the nuclear weapons it has, but would prefer to keep them if circumstances were different, then that might not change the situation much.

If it was part of a genuine reconsideration of British national and international security perspectives and a judgement that nuclear weapons are no longer required in the sense that it would be perhaps counter-productive to continue to practice nuclear deterrence, then I think that could have some political force, but no one could argue that it would have a direct causal impact on nuclear weapon decisions of other nuclear-armed states, because British nuclear weapons are peripheral to the security logics of India, Pakistan, Israel and, I would dare to say, even Russia.


What about the actual numbers and statistics? Are those unbiased? Because I would expect that every country would classify them and not give them out so simply.


In terms of the numbers that the UK government has given publicly, there has been no independent verification of these numbers but there is also no reason to doubt their veracity, seeing as they are broadly in keeping with independent assessments of the number of Trident missile bodies that the UK has acquired and the amount of fissile material that it produced and the number of nuclear warheads that are thought to have been produced for the Trident programme over the 1980s and 1990s.

But you are right: there is no independent verification of these numbers, and that’s something that perhaps the British government could think about. There has been a transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War period in that it is seen as politically important and valuable to be more transparent about nuclear holdings.

So the British government, following the American lead, conducted an exercise to publicly disclose the historical production of weapon-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and published declassified summaries of that historical accounting exercise, and it has stated the total number of warheads it has, the maximum number of warheads it will deploy on one a single nuclear armed submarines, one of which is always permanently at sea, and the number of Trident missile bodies that we’ve leased from the US. So that information has been placed in the public domain.


How can the political culture be changed in this context?


The political culture in the UK that is still explicitly and tacitly supporting the continuing possession of nuclear weapons is underpinned at the elite level by a particular conception of the sort of state Britain is and how it sees itself acting in the world. I think that would have to evolve and change to the point where acting as a so-called 'force for good', which is a phrase that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense use to describe us, in the interest of the international peace, security and justice will no longer be seen to require nuclear weapons.

It would require some visible support from the public, which we’ve seen over the last seven or eight years, and a shift in favour of getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than keeping them. And we’ve certainly seen that in the debate on Scotland around the recent referendum on independence. So the public support is by no means overwhelming for the continued retention of nuclear weapons in the UK. But there are broader national role conceptions that would need to change as well as the American factor that looms large in the British nuclear weapons programme, and a fear of destabilizing that relationship should the UK decide that it no longer wanted to be in the nuclear weapons business. So some kind of reassurance from the US, I think, a tacit or explicit approval, would be required to show that they are comfortable with Britain no longer being a nuclear weapon state.


Will you come to the Agenda next year?


I will be delighted to come back to Prague. It’s a fantastic city, and it has been a very enjoyable two days, and I look forward to participating in equally stimulating discussions next year.

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Expertise to impact

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