03 June 1988 - 05 June 1988

International Security Without Nuclear Weapons?

Chair: Professor Sir Michael Howard CBE MC

Although this conference necessarily covered a lot of well-trodden ground, it was held, as we were reminded, against the background of declarations by the leaders of the two super-powers, as well as the leaders of all the branches of the Christian church, that their objective was a world without nuclear weapons. It was timely, therefore, particularly following the conclusion of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the renewed impulse given by the Moscow summit to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (START), to look at the problems which might arise, both within Europe and in the world as a whole, as the nuclear forces of the two super-powers are reduced, if not to zero at least to very much lower levels than now.

I will not try in this note to rehearse all the arguments, many of them well known, but will rather attempt to give a subjective view of the conclusions that seemed to emerge.

First, while some advocated a non-nuclear world as an ideal, it was argued that any system establishing such a world would require the satisfaction of so many pre-conditions, including the agreement of all countries and the institution of intrusive verification and a potentially repressive regime of sanctions, that the idea must be seen as impracticable. In this context ballistic missile defence was seen as irrelevant, if not unrealistic, and potentially destabilising. Moreover it was common ground that even if agreement could be reached to destroy all existing stocks of nuclear weapons, the capacity to make nuclear weapons would remain; and that, should war arise between states possessing that capacity, each would quickly put in hand the creation of a nuclear force, if only to deter resort to nuclear weapons by its opponents. In that sense also then a non-nuclear world was unattainable. At least one participant argued, however, that this nuclear potential would in itself suffice in a "nuclear-free" world to deter war, if conventional defences were thought to be inadequate to the task.

This led to a discussion of the nature of deterrence. While some seemed to argue that it was sufficient to deter the use of nuclear weapons, most, especially the Europeans, believed that the objective must be to deter war, by facing a would-be aggressor with the risk of unlimited liability, so that the potential loss through resort to war would far outweigh the potential gain. Whether or not "history showed" that conventional strength had not reliably prevented war in the past - the historians magisterially rejecting the laymen's claims on this point - it was argued that it was the element of unlimited liability which nuclear weapons added which made nuclear deterrence so stable, even if, as others argued, the actual use of nuclear weapons in war was increasingly to be seen as irrational and counter-productive, not to say catastrophic and therefore incredible, and that for that reason it must be right to search for other reliable ways of bolstering deterrence.

That said, while some argued cogently that it was by no means sure that "kill" or "under-kill" would be any more stable than "overkill”, it was generally accepted as the basis for discussion that the only realistic objective was a reduction in the nuclear arsenals of the two super-powers towards a level approaching minimum deterrence, or at least a much lower level than now, and coupled preferably with parallel, if not proportionate, reductions by other declared nuclear powers. What that level should be was debated but not established. How much was enough might vary with time and circumstance (a change of leadership or of policy in one or other of the two super-powers, for example), but in principle it would depend on a political judgement of what damage a would-be aggressor was likely to regard as too great to risk and a military judgement of what, in all the circumstances, was required to inflict that level of damage.

To reach anything like that result, however, there would have to be a great improvement in the relations between the super-powers and between East and West, a redressing of any imbalance of conventional forces and the institution of an intrusive (but technically feasible) regime of verification (the lower the level of nuclear forces, the more significant the margin of error became). (It is worth noting here that we were informed that earlier US charges of cheating had been proved invalid, though that did not mean that cheating could be ruled out in future.) All these elements were linked, each bolstering the other. In discussion, however, doubts were expressed, on the one hand about the degree of conventional imbalance that was claimed to exist in Europe and on the other about the feasibility of achieving any significant adjustments in this field, given the facts of geography and the perceived requirement for large asymmetrical Soviet cuts, to name two of the difficulties. There were several advocates of greater progress towards a re-structuring on both sides in Europe towards "defensive defence", though some were sceptical of this concept. At best, it was suggested, growing mutual confidence between the super-powers, bolstered by an enhanced regime of confidence and security-building measures of the kind set in train at Stockholm, might lead them to agree on the relinquishment of certain military options, such as particular categories of nuclear weapons (e.g. first strike missiles, short range nuclear forces (SNF)), or the carrier battle groups and from there to go on to cooperate more closely in the management of the world, and perhaps to a joint no-first-use agreement which, however valueless it might be in practice, would improve the atmosphere. Public opinion would in any case require that the West should respond positively and persuasively to the unrealistic but seductive vision proclaimed by Mr Gorbachev and others of a nuclear-free world. To do so, Western governments would have to be able to offer some image of the way towards a more stable, more lightly-armed world; and perhaps something of the kind outlined above might be the right approach.

The conference also addressed the problems that would arise outside the two major military alliances, where, however, it was noted that the proliferation forecast several years ago had not occurred. Whatever the two super-powers agreed by way of nuclear reductions, it was contended that the potential nuclear powers, including in that category Israel, which already possessed the bomb, and India, would be guided solely by a judgement of their own interests, in the light of the perceived regional threats to them. Israel, for example, would in no circumstances give up its nuclear capability. That fact, and the advance to nuclear status of Pakistan, with its links to Saudi Arabia where cruise missiles had been acquired, increased the urgency of settlement of the Arab-Israel problem. Some indeed argued that if the nuclear stand-off between the super-powers, which had induced great caution in them in their interventions in the Third World, were to be radically affected, the dangers of confrontation in the Third World would be increased so that, for that reason as well, it was unrealistic and unwise to look for total renunciation of nuclear weapons by the super-powers. China, moreover, and others might be encouraged to expand their capabilities once it became realistic to think of matching the reduced arsenals of the super-powers. Curiously, throughout the meeting, there was little real discussion of the position of French and British nuclear forces, though the point was made forcibly that in any minimal deterrent the US would regard the retention of some US nuclear forces in Europe as essential if US troops were to remain there.

Finally, straying beyond the narrow terms of reference, participants discussed the prospects for lowered tension between East and West in the light of perestroika, upon which progress in the field of arms control would so greatly depend. Here many advocated caution, but even they agreed that it was necessary to test the intentions of the Soviet Union, preferably against a thought-out strategy of where the West itself wanted to go - the West was seen as too prone to react defensively to Soviet initiatives where it ought to be taking the initiative. While nobody seemed to think that a world without nuclear weapons would be a safer place, there did indeed seem to be the possibility that the Soviet Union might evolve into a society with which we could do business, to the extent that it might be possible eventually to cooperate in the management of a dangerous world, in which, however, neither party would have any incentive to cheat.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Professor Sir Michael Howard CBE MC
Regius Professor of Modem History and Chairman of the Faculty Board, University of Oxford; President and co-Founder, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS); a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation

List of participants

Professor Robert O'Neill

Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford and Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford

Group Captain David Bolton

Director, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies (RUSI), London
Field Marshal Lord Carver GCB CBE DSO MC
Life Peer (Independent)
Dr Christopher Coker
Lecturer in International Relations, London School of Economics
Admiral Sir James Eberle GCB
Director, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House; a Governor and Member of the Council of Management of the Ditchley Foundation
Professor Lawrence Freedman
Professor of War Studies, King’s College, London
Mr Nik Gowing
Diplomatic Correspondent and Presenter, Independent Television News (ITN)
General Sir Thomas Morony KCB OBE
Retired as UK Military Representative to NATO (1983-86)
Mr Martin O'Neill MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) Clackmannan; Opposition Spokesman on Defence; Member, Select Committee, Scottish Affairs
Sir Rudolph Peierls CBE FRS
Emeritus Fellow, New College, Oxford
Sir Michael Quinlan KCB
Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence
Dr Paul Rogers
School of Peace Studies, University of Bradford
Mr James Sherr
Lecturer in International Relations, Lincoln College, Oxford; Research Associate, Soviet Studies Research Centre, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst
Mr Dan Smith
Vice Chairman, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament
Mr Ian Taylor MBE MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative) for Esher; Director, Mathercourt Securities Ltd; National Chairman, Conservative Group for Europe
Sir John Thomson GCMG
Retired as United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York (1982-87)

Mr D B Dewar

Deputy Minister of National Defence

HE Mr Peter Dyvig

Danish Ambassador to Britain

HE Luc de la Barre de Nanteuil

French Ambassador, London; a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation
Madame Monique Garnier-Lançon
Chairman, European Institute for Security (EIS) Paris; Assistant to the Mayor of Paris; Member, Regional Council, He de France

Dr Andreas von B
ülow MdB
Member of Parliament (Social Democratic Party)
Dr Ludger Buerstedde
Head of Department, European Security and Arms Control, Foreign Office, Bonn
Dr Ernst Jung
Retired as Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Budapest

Professor Takashi Inoguchi

Associate Professor of Political Science, Tokyo University; Member, Interna­tional Institute for Strategic Studies, London and Research Institute for Peace and Security

Dr Peter Corterier

Secretary General, North Atlantic Assembly

Dr Hans Binnendijk

Director of Studies, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London
Professor Robert D Blackwill
Lecturer in Public Policy, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Member, International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations; Senior Research Associate, Center for Sciences and International Affairs, Harvard University
Professor Lincoln P Bloomfield
Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
The Hon Richard R Burt
US Ambassador, Bonn
Professor William Griffith
Ford Professor Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Adjunct Professor of Diplomatic History, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Professor Barry R Posen
Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Mr Jefferson B Seabright
Legislative Assistant (Foreign Policy and Defense) to Senator John D Rockefeller IV
Professor Stephen F Szabo
Professor of National Security Affairs, National War College, Washington, DC
Dr Gregory F Treverton
Council on Foreign Relations, New York; Lecturer, John F Kennedy School of Govern­ment, Harvard University
Professor Kosta Tsipis
Director, Program for Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Professor Richard H Ullman
David K E Bruce Professor of International Affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; Member of the Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation
The Hon John W Warner
Member, United States Senate (Republican) Virginia Senior and Ranking Republican US Senate Armed Services Committee; a Director, the American Ditchley Foundation
Mr Timothy Wolf
Vice President, Controller, Taco Bell Company California

HE Mr Alfred Cahen

Secretary General, Western European Union, London