05 November 1993 - 07 November 1993

The Future of Nuclear Weapons in World Security Structures

Chair: General Brent Scowcroft KBE

Nuclear weapons, in one aspect or another, have been a familiar theme at Ditchley conferences. This was however our first addressal of the subject since the Gulf War and the break-up of the Soviet Union; and new issues about the Ukraine and North Korea, the announcement of revised Russian doctrine and of a new force appraisal by the United States, and the imminence of a Government re-statement of British policy all added fresh topicality.

We asked ourselves whether the real goal could and should now be a wholly nuclear-weapon-free world. Very few of us were minded answering Yes. We recognised that nuclear armouries ought to become less salient in world security, and that we were in some degree groping for new conceptual structures to shape their place in a more complex and unsettled world. But a world from which nuclear risk had truly vanished would have to be a world vastly different from the present one; and while we lived in this one attempts at abolition were more likely to damage than to enhance stability. Such attempts might positively stimulate undesirable proliferators, and then others defensively in turn; it would pretend to remove the salutary nuclear shadow from major war and leave open the risk of a dangerous race to re-nuclearization if such war loomed or happened. The better way forward was to manage nuclear reality more acceptably in a new setting - if possible, with a more explicit relationship with the United Nations - rather than to hanker after its removal.

We recognised that such a conclusion, with its implied acknowledgement that existing “public” nuclear powers were going to remain so, sat uncomfortably with the deep desire we all shared to seal off proliferation beyond those five powers. It was argued that we should not be readily apologetic about the two-tier character of the present counter-proliferation regime; that regime, in place now for a quarter of a century and starting from a base of established reality rather than theory, had conferred undoubted benefit on the great majority of non-nuclear states which had no nuclear aspirations and no wish to be forced into them by the decisions of others. At the same time, it was a political fact that some non-nuclear nations felt an underlying resentment - whether on grounds of real security or of international status - about the two tiers; and this placed areal onus on the nuclear five - if the regime was to retain the assent of the majority - to continue down the path of restraint and cutback.

We all wanted to see START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) implemented and reduction of armouries reach the prudent minimum (which we did not succeed in defining). Opinions differed on whether the reasons for desiring this went much beyond the importance of controlling the ex-Soviet armoury and underscoring politically the general theme of restraint - we noted that the precise size of the super-power armouries had little strict relevance to the calculations of potential regional proliferators, and that there was little evidence that the massive reductions already agreed had influenced such calculations. We doubted, somewhat in passing, whether adjustments in British and French capability had widespread impact, save that their absence would no doubt have been seized on by those seeking ground for complaint against the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) system. We were unsure about how much China’s actions - notably an armoury still apparently being strengthened - mattered beyond its borders. Some thought little, on the ground that the strengthening was not strategically significant enough to warrant the expenditure of political effort needed for quite different China-related issues; others argued that there would be cumulative impact on the confidence of China’s neighbours, that there were already other aspects of China’s behaviour that gave ground for concern in the proliferation context, and that in any event it would be bad for the general credibility of the NPT regime if China appeared to be exempted from the political pressures brought to bear on the other four.

We found strands of both satisfaction and concern about the history and prospect of counter-proliferation strategy. The record since NPT signature in 1968 had many welcome features - no nuclear test outside the “Five” for nearly twenty years; no formal emergence of any nuclear power beyond the Five; clear successes in respect of Argentina and Brazil, and now of South Africa; useful if imperfect controls on nuclear materials, with the lessons of failures like Iraq being learnt There were merits simply in delaying proliferation, and in preventing covert or on-the-brink additions to the Five from declaring themselves openly. But the pessimists noted that with the ending of the Cold War and the erosion of some of its security groupings the world was less stable, with proliferation accordingly both more tempting and more dangerous.

Counter-proliferation strategy, we knew, was an amalgam of diverse components. Some of these sought to operate on the crucial matter of why potential proliferators might be so minded - to strengthen incentives to refrain, to raise the international political cost of proceeding, to ease security worries. In this last regard we saw both the attraction of positive security guarantees from among the Five and the great - perhaps increasing - difficulty of making them acceptable to the giver and credible to the recipient; we mostly doubted whether much more could be done down this particular route. But we did recognise that nuclear temptations needed to be understood and wherever possible managed in the broader context of security concerns as a whole within the specific region. Some thought that promises of help in respect of theatre defence against missiles could contribute usefully, though it could scarcely offer certainty of immunity from nuclear strike.

On the supply side, we focused particularly on the control of nuclear materials like plutonium and enriched uranium. Perfection was unattainable, but we were disposed to favour stronger powers for the International Atomic Energy Authority, though this would entail a degree of intrusiveness which would scarcely render NPT accession more attractive to waverers (and might also risk forcing into the open undeclared actors whom it was politically wiser to leave undeclared). We believed that it would be valuable if in this respect - as perhaps in others like intelligence sharing and openness about weapon inventories - the Five accepted for themselves greater transparency and outside involvement.

Through all this we were unanimous that the NPT itself remained the cornerstone of the strategy, and that its maintenance through the 1995 renewal conference was of first-class importance. Whatever its arguable imperfections, moreover, its terms could not prudently be opened up for renegotiation. The strategy needed overwhelming consensus, not bare majority, in support of the Treaty; and several argued that the world community should seek to treat the non-proliferation regime as an international norm for all, not just an option dependent on whether or not nations elected to ratify the NPT.

We believed that acceptance of the norm would be strengthened by an accumulation of supporting measures like “cut-off’ (the ending of nuclear material production for weapons) and - so most but not all of us thought - a comprehensive test ban, though we realised that the latter’s significance was more as political symbol than as real obstacle to the undesirable proliferator, and also that a test ban treaty must not be so constructed that it appeared to permit experiments which the NPT itself would not. No First Use found little favour, and indeed there was some inconclusive discussion of an argument for explicitly legitimising first nuclear use as a response to aggression with illegal chemical or biological weapons.

We talked a good deal about the special case of Ukraine. That country’s concern in relation to the uncertain depth of Russian acceptance of its boundaries and its independence was evident; and we acknowledged that its intention to move to non-nuclear status had not been withdrawn, and that major steps in that direction had already been completed. The recent Russian declaration abandoning No First Use, for all that it seemed in strict terms merely to align Russian doctrine with what had always been NATO’s, fitted uncomfortably into the present context; and the inability of the United States and NATO to offer security guarantees going materially beyond the generalities of the UN Charter was disappointing to Ukraine. All this said, we believed, and hoped Ukraine would be persuaded to accept, that Ukrainian retention of nuclear status, besides adverse impact upon global counter-proliferation strategy, would in reality be unhelpful to the entrenchment of Ukraine as a stable independent member of the international community.

North Korea was a different story, and for most of us a more immediately worrying one. Real intentions were hard to read, but we were unanimous that for North Korea to become an effective possessor of nuclear weapons would be deeply damaging to the global regime, highly dangerous within the Korean Peninsula itself and gravely damaging in its regional repercussions, not least upon Japanese perceptions and decision-making. Coercive pressure upon a government like that of Kim Il Sung was nevertheless hard to mobilise; we were sceptical (at mildest) of direct military action, and economic sanctions could really hurt only if China - especially in respect of oil - could be induced, against current indications, to play a full part.

The broad impression with which we left ourselves was one of a new or re-ordered agenda in a more complicated world. We were wisely reminded that the valid intellectual acquis of the Cold War years - the understanding of the basic significance of the nuclear revolution and the relationship between war-prevention and serious contingency planning, for example - should not be jettisoned. But the conference underlined that the long-haul countering of proliferation risks had now become, and must remain, the central political concern.

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

Chairman: General Brent Scowcroft KBE
President, The Forum of International Policy


Professor Harry Gelber
Fellow of the University Professors and Visiting Professor of History and International Relations, Boston University

Field Marshal the Lord Carver GCB CBE DSO MC
Life Peer (Cross Benches)

Dr Stuart Croft
Assistant Dean, Faculty of Commerce and Social Science, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham

Professor D E N Davies CBE FRS
Chief Scientific Adviser to Ministry of Defence

Professor Lawrence Freedman
Professor of War Studies, King’s College, London

Dr Beatrice Heuser
Lecturer, Department of War Studies, King’s College, London

The Rt Hon Tom King CH MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Bridgewater

Mr Paul Lever CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Professor Michael MccGwire
Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge University

Mr David B Omand
Deputy Under Secretary of State (Policy), Ministry of Defence

Dr John Reid MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Motherwell North

Mr Peter Snow
Television presenter, reporter and author, presenter, BBC Newsnight

Mr David White
Defence Correspondent, Financial Times.

Mr Michael Kergin
Deputy Head of Mission, and Minister for Political Affairs, Canadian Embassy to the US, Washington DC

M Olivier Debouzy
Lawyer, Salès Vincent Georges & Associés, Paris

Dr Jean-François Delpech
Director, CREST (Centre d’Etudes des Relations entre Technologies et Strategies), école Polytechnique

M Jean-Claude Mallet
Director, Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Defence, Paris

Ambassador Dr Josef Holik
Commissioner for Disarmament and Arms Control, Foreign Office, Bonn

Professor Karl Kaiser
Director, Research Institute, Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswärtige Politik, Bonn, and Professor of Political Science, University of

Dr Holger H Mey
Chairman and Director, Institute for Strategic Research, Bonn

Dr Uwe Nerlich
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Ebenhausen.

Mr Gregory L Schulte
Director, Nuclear Planning, NATO International Staff

Dr Sergey Rogov
President, Center for National Security and International Relations

Mr Volodimir Belashov
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ukraine

Professor James Brown
Professor of Political Science, Chairman of the Political Science Department and Ora Nixon Arnold Research Fellow in American Statesmanship and Diplomacy, Southern Methodist University

Professor Sidney D Drell
Professor and Deputy Director, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University

The Hon Stephen J Hadley
Partner, law firm of Shea & Gardner, Washington DC

The Hon Dr Ronald F Lehman II
Assistant to Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Department of Energy

Professor John Mearsheimer
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago

Dr Steven E Miller
Director of Studies, Center for Science & International Affairs, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Mr James Quinlivan
RAND: Vice President, Army Research Division and Director, Arroyo Center

The Hon Walter B Slocombe
Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

Dr John D Steinbruner
Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institute, Washington DC

Professor David S Yost
Visiting Professor and Research Associate, Centre des Hautes Etudes de l’Armement, Ecole Militaire, Paris

Signor Roberto Zadra
Institute for Security Studies, Western European Union, Paris