Caught in the Middle: The United Kingdom and the 2005 NPT Review Conference

William Walker

Although it may feign confidence, the British government is viewing with trepidation the approach of the 2005 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. It is anxious about the treaty’s health, even less able than usual to predict how the conference might unfold, and uncertain how to position itself diplomatically.

London is hoping that an atmosphere of cooperation will somehow be established at the conference, the treaty will emerge intact, and an agreement will be reached on some next steps even if there is no final document. Nevertheless, it recognizes that the British government may find itself unable to sustain a consensus within the European Union and marooned between the United States and that country’s critics, with diminished prestige and little influence in any direction. Avoiding such a diplomatic fate is as important to the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair as seeing its preferred policies taken up at the conference.

From its inception, the NPT has been regarded as vital to London’s political and security interests. The treaty has conferred on the United Kingdom the prestige of a nuclear-weapon state and has helped it to avoid the costs and instabilities arising from nuclear proliferation. Equally important, the cooperative international order represented by the NPT is seen as crucial to the United Kingdom’s security and its position in the world. At no time have British governments worried that the treaty might unduly constrain their security policies. On the contrary, the United Kingdom has generally welcomed the prospect of a strong NPT that progressively tightens its grip on state behavior even to the extent of drawing all states, itself included, toward nuclear disarmament. London does not have the history of ambivalence that one finds in Beijing and Paris.

During the 1990s, London attached still greater significance to the NPT and to multilateral arms control. Successive British governments shared the U.S. concept of a “new international order” resting on wide attachment to international norms and laws and welcomed the U.S. and Russian commitments to treaty-bound nuclear arms reductions. Further, unlike the shift in Washington, London’s attachment to multilateralism did not wane or become a battleground. On the contrary, the Labour government that took office in 1997 placed great weight on multilateral arms control when it published its 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Eager to avoid the divisions on nuclear weapons policy that had earlier caused such electoral damage to the Labour Party, Blair’s government sought a new consensus around the maintenance of a true minimum deterrent and active promotion of multilateral restraint.

The United Kingdom, therefore, had a good story to tell at the 2000 NPT Review Conference about the actions it had taken to meet its Article VI obligations. Its nuclear deterrent was being reduced to one weapon system (Trident) operated by one armed service (the British navy) with a ceiling of 200 operational warheads that were being taken off high alert.

Furthermore, the Blair government had secured Parliament’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), had ended production of fissile materials for weapons, was keen to negotiate a verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), and was bringing all British nuclear reactors and enrichment and reprocessing facilities under international safeguards. London also had expressed a strong preference for the retention of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and negotiation of a third post-Cold War U.S.-Russian strategic arms treaty (START III).

Consequently, the United Kingdom did not hesitate to support the stronger commitments to nuclear disarmament expressed in the 1995 Principles and Objectives and 2000 Final Document. These agreements were consistent with its security goals and were regarded in London as natural outcomes of states-parties’ obligations to implement the treaty and to reinforce nonproliferation and disarmament norms. There was little suggestion, then or now, that these decisions were tactical moves that could later be ignored, as Paris and Washington have recently implied.

With the arrival of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Blair government found itself in a much less comfortable position. It was dismayed by U.S. moves away from multilateral arms control. Indeed, there was anger at U.S. undermining of arms control initiatives in which the United Kingdom had invested heavily (the Bush administration’s attempted destruction of the verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention being a notable example). London did not allow its displeasure, however, to upset its close relations with Washington. A pattern of behavior developed. While adopting a stance on arms control and on multilateralism at variance with Washington’s, the alliance with the United States was preserved even when the United Kingdom’s and its European partners’ multilateral objectives were being thwarted. The judgment had formed in Downing Street that the U.S. government could not be deflected from its chosen course. Opposition would therefore damage the transatlantic relationship without bringing tangible benefits. This judgment would lead the United Kingdom down the road toward siding with the United States in the Iraq war, despite grave misgiving in various parts of Whitehall.

After the shock of 9/11, however, the British perspective on proliferation shifted in the U.S. direction. The Blair government recognized that new actors had emerged with potential to cause untold damage if they gained access to weapons of mass destruction and that existing measures were insufficient to prevent the diffusion of relevant capabilities. Indicative of this shift was the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Non-Proliferation Department’s change of title in 2002 to the Counter-Proliferation Department. This was accompanied by an increasing openness in London, induced partly by the desire to keep in step with Washington, to the use of all instruments of power to shift the behavior of aberrant actors, even if the United Kingdom continued to emphasize the role of diplomacy rather than war (Libya and Iran being held out as examples of what might still be achieved).

Still, the British government remained deeply uneasy, in private if seldom in public, with the aggressive and unilateral approach taken by the Bush administration. It disapproved of its unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty and abandonment of the START process, and its unease extended to the intransigent stance taken by the United States at the NPT Prepcom in April 2004.

A general election is expected to be held in the United Kingdom in May 2005 against the background of widespread public disillusion over the transatlantic relationship. Sensitive to electoral risks, there have been signs of some shift in Downing Street’s declared handling of relations with Washington. Efforts are being made to establish “clearer blue water” between British and U.S. policies and to demonstrate that Blair’s close association with Bush has yielded genuine influence over U.S. behavior. This has led in recent weeks to renewed emphasis on the differences between U.S. and British environmental policies and to Blair’s attempts to draw Bush into a stronger commitment to the Middle East peace process.

On nuclear policy, however, the Blair government is still reluctant to oppose the United States, notwithstanding the United Kingdom’s cooperation with France and Germany in striking a deal with Iran to freeze that country’s uranium-enrichment program.[1] Such reluctance was exemplified by the British government’s recent abstention in the UN First Committee’s vote on a verifiable FMCT,[2] a position taken despite strong objections within Whitehall to the verification-less FMCT that the United States now advocates. This decision displays the pitfalls of the British approach: although adopted on the grounds that “some FMCT is better than no FMCT,” it risks reinforcing the impression in other capitals that London is in thrall to Washington and can be used by the United States to divide the opposition.

The Likely Approach
Given its past history, its present diplomatic dilemmas, and the signals coming out of London, a likely British approach to the 2005 Review Conference can therefore be surmised.

Rather than advocating what other countries might do, London can be expected to stress its own Article VI achievements and commitments. Although its major initiatives were launched before 2000, there has been no retreat from the policies announced at the 2000 Review Conference. Attention also will be drawn to studies of disarmament verification techniques conducted by the British Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, although probably without advocating their replication by the other nuclear-weapon states. A bolder government might sense an opportunity here; the Blair government, however, is unlikely to embarrass its fellow members of the nuclear club.

In an attempt to avoid confrontation with any of its key allies, London can be expected to encourage a spirit of compromise among states-parties, beginning with the major groupings to which it belongs. In particular, it will try (preferably in cooperation with France) to steer in a common direction the stances adopted by the nuclear-weapon states and by the European Union. It recognizes that consensus will be hard to achieve in either grouping. There may be particular difficulty reconciling the obviously conflicting interests and perceptions of the now 25 member states of the European Union, containing among them strongly pro-disarmament governments (including Ireland and Sweden) and a French government that has become increasingly allergic to any talk of disarmament. Shaping a consensus within Europe before the conference has begun could be the United Kingdom’s most significant diplomatic contribution.

London will highlight areas of policy on which there is already broad agreement, such as implementation of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol strengthening NPT safeguards, just as it may discourage proposals on which it sees little possibility of agreement, such as the strengthening of negative security assurances or creation of new institutional machinery to oversee the treaty.

In the time remaining before the 2005 Review Conference in May, London will support efforts to develop common proposals on vital but contentious issues. Among the proposals it would like to see are those governing the transfer of fuel-cycle technologies that can produce fissile materials. It would like such proposals to require verified compliance but not institute blanket denials of trade in such technologies. It does not favor the retreat from Article IV obligations recently advocated by the U.S. government.

Although London will try to focus attention on a forward-looking policy agenda, British diplomats can be expected to emphasize that they are not abandoning old agendas. On the status of the 2000 Final Document, for instance, they will probably emphasize that the document exists and deserves respect but that states-parties should not dwell on recommendations that have been made obsolete by events (the ABM Treaty being an example).

In all of its pronouncements, the British government can be expected to stress the need for unity of purpose in preserving this most vital of security treaties. It will not support the U.S., French, or any other government’s attempt to narrow that purpose or downplay the need for unity across a range of issues. Although the United Kingdom may have embraced the U.S. counterproliferation agenda, it will not welcome a diversionary strategy that focuses the main attention on noncompliant states. The British government holds to the view that the NPT is founded on reciprocal obligation and that its legitimacy will drain away if the treaty’s various provisions and bargains are not respected by all states.

Behind London’s increasingly troubled diplomacy lies a hard security reality: the British government wishes to keep open the medium- and long-term options either to sustain its nuclear deterrent or to discard it so that scarce resources can be used for other purposes. It has recently announced that discussions of Trident’s replacement will begin in the next Parliament. Although the government may lean toward replacement rather than elimination, the disarmament option is bound to be examined carefully and may find a surprising degree of support in a Ministry of Defence for which nuclear weapons are increasingly viewed as an expensive luxury. There is thus genuine political and military interest in London in achieving a stronger NPT-centered security order, partly so that it can at least contemplate nuclear disarmament. Yet, this interest cannot be openly expressed in the United Kingdom, let alone at the 2005 Review Conference, for fear of damaging the first option (maintaining the deterrent) and of setting various political hares running.

Furthermore, it is protection of that first option that places the United Kingdom in such a diplomatic pickle, for it knows that a nuclear force can only be retained at a tolerable cost if the U.S. president and Congress continue to sanction transfers of technology, including nuclear weapons know-how under the recently extended U.S.-UK Mutual Defense Agreement. Thus, sustaining the deterrent often drives the British government toward supporting U.S. policies even when it considers them antithetical to its political and security interests.


1. Paul Kerr, “Iran Agrees to Temporarily Suspend Uranium-Enrichment Program,” Arms Control Today, December 2004, pp. 26-28.

2. Wade Boese, “UN Nuclear Disarmament Debate Stalled,” Arms Control Today, December 2004, p. 39.


The United Kingdom on Key Nuclear Issues

Nuclear Warhead Arsenal: Fewer than 200 nuclear warheads total.

Latest Nuclear Force Developments: The United Kingdom announced in 1998 that it intended to maintain a minimum deterrent of four nuclear-armed submarines, of which only a single one would be on routine patrol at any given time.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Signed September 24, 1996. Ratified April 6, 1998.

Fissile Material Production for Weapons: London announced in April 1995 that it no longer produces fissile material for weapons purposes. A longtime supporter of an “effectively verifiable” fissile material cutoff treaty, the United Kingdom, along with Israel, abstained from a vote calling for such an agreement at the 2004 UN First Committee.

Nuclear Use Doctrine: In May 2000, the United Kingdom reaffirmed a commitment not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty subject to certain conditions regarding their behavior and alliances. The United Kingdom is a member of NATO, which reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, although the 26-member alliance deems the possibility of nuclear use as “extremely remote.” London has stated it would only consider employing nuclear weapons in “extreme circumstances of self-defence.”


Sources: Arms Control Association, Institute for Science and International Security, Natural Resources Defense Council, and national governments.

William Walker is a professor of international relations at the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom, and heads its School of International Relations. His Adelphi Paper, “Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Order,” was published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in December 2004.