President Obama's nuclear diplomacy agenda has taken some significant steps forward this week: firstly with the launch of the US Nuclear Posture Review, and then with the signing of a new US – Russia arms control treaty that will reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads that each country has deployed. The momentum will continue into next week, when the President is hosting a global nuclear security summit in Washington.
Although Obama has so far made limited progress towards his eventual aim of a world free of nuclear weapons, the recent developments are to be welcomed. The new treaty will result in modest cuts in American and Russian strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 over seven years – only about 30% less than the 2,200 currently allowed to each nation – but it is evidence of travel in the right direction.
The Nuclear Posture Review has left much of the USA's cold war infrastructure and nuclear weapons in place and it leaves the door open for modernisation of US nuclear weapons, but it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in American military policy and commits the military to "a course for the verified elimination of all nuclear weapons." American nuclear analyst Joseph Cirincione has shrewdly observed: "I could have written a much better one…but I couldn't have gotten the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to agree with it".
The Nuclear Posture Review announcement and the agreement between the USA and Russia has now raised the big question of steps that other nuclear-weapon states should take to support Obama's arms control agenda.
As one of the USA's closest NATO allies, Britain can play a key role in helping to move closer towards the President's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Cutting the number of nuclear warheads deployed on the UK's Trident nuclear submarines; taking the submarines off constant-at-sea patrols; and declaring that the UK will never be the first to use nuclear weapons are all constructive steps that the government could take to show it is serious about arms control, without compromising national security in the slightest. Such moves would demonstrate to conservative elements in the US and Russia that Britain, too, sees a need to reduce the number of nuclear weapons globally, and would show other nations that we are serious about our Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations to take steps towards disarmament.
The post-election Strategic Defence Review will provide the next government with an opportunity to review how nuclear weapons contribute to defence and foreign policy objectives. The role of nuclear weapons and proposals to replace Trident must be included within the scope of the review.