Time for a nuclear entente cordiale

“It is not acceptable for North Korea to carry on developing its nuclear weapons program,” warns British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Iran must permanently abandon “all military goals to its nuclear activity,” demands French President Jacques Chirac. Both leaders are concerned about nuclear proliferation, and both know that, as nuclear weapon states, their own countries are obliged under Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to make “good faith” efforts toward eliminating their respective nuclear arsenals. What Blair and Chirac may not realize is that Article 7 of that same treaty succinctly offers them a double opportunity to set a moral example and to establish a cooperative process for nuclear disarmament that other nations could emulate.

While the United States was the first nation to possess nuclear weapons, there was a strong Anglo-French heritage to the underlying science, beginning with the researches in radioactivity conducted separately by Marie Curie and by Ernest Rutherford. Decades later, in 1940, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, two refugee physicists working in England, wrote a revolutionary description of how to build a fission weapon from uranium 235. Their wartime memorandum was notable for more than the clarity of its physics. Anxious that former colleagues in Germany might make the same conceptual leap as they had, the pair urged the British authorities to take immediate steps to establish a counterthreat, “even if it is not intended to use the bomb as a means of attack.” The fearful symmetry of mutual deterrence was born.

In the aftermath of World War II, the British government embarked on a secret, independent atomic weapons program. Britain saw the bomb not only as a deterrent, but as a means to prevent a U.S. nuclear monopoly and to preserve its own status despite a fading empire. France took a tortuous route. The French government told the newly formed United Nations in 1946 that it had no intention of acquiring the bomb; a decade later President Charles de Gaulle made the decision to produce plutonium and manufacture nuclear weapons. De Gaulle was not prepared to entrust the ultimate defense of France to NATO and wanted to restore la gloire de la France.

Despite some reductions in the past decade, France still possesses more than 300 nuclear weapons, while Britain has an estimated 200 and is actively contemplating (with little public debate) the replacement of its four Trident submarines.

Patrick Blackett, the British atomic heretic and Nobel Prize-winning physicist, suggested in 1959 that: “Once a nation pledges its safety to an absolute weapon, it becomes emotionally essential to believe in an absolute enemy.” Neither Britain nor France faces any absolute enemies that threaten their existence. As such, we propose that they should set a crucial example for the world by agreeing to bilateral nuclear disarmament. The opportunity to do so exists under Article 7 of the NPT, which simply states: “Nothing in the Treaty affects the rights of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”

Such a cooperative venture might rescue the NPT from oblivion. France and Britain, two mature states diplomatically and technologically, would be uniquely placed to guide other disarmament efforts (such as in South Asia) after concluding an internationally verified agreement of their own. Their national atomic establishments have deep expertise that would be invaluable in global nonproliferation efforts to secure and monitor fissile materials.

If France and Britain cannot conclude such a treaty, while both are members of NATO and do not face any imminent threats, it will not be due to opposition from the British or French public (or from their neighbors in Europe). Rather, the two countries would exemplify states that originally developed nuclear weapons in utmost secrecy and whose political leaders continue to rely on their arsenals to assert national prestige.

The nuclear threat began in Europe–it can also be reversed there.

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