King's College, London
February 6, 2002


The Future of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Jack Straw, UK Foreign Secretary

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to come to King’s College, which, thanks to the efforts of Professor Freedman and the Centre for Defence Studies, has long been one of the world’s leading repositories of wisdom and experience on issues of war and peace.

And it is an honour to address an audience many of whom have helped to drive forward the debate on arms control, which still goes to the heart of our security.

There is much pessimism about the future of arms control and non-proliferation efforts today. Some seem ready to give up on the whole enterprise, arguing that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is inevitable, and that our only hope lies in deterrence, defence and, in the last resort, retaliation.

I shall turn in a moment to the reasons why the outlook might seem gloomy to some. But the first important point to remember is that arms control has been one of the outstanding successes of international policy for over 50 years.

There has, thankfully, been no use of nuclear weapons in warfare since 1945. Nuclear deterrence has played a vital role in preventing their use.

But so has arms control. President Kennedy predicted that there might be 25 nuclear weapons states by the 1970s. Happily, we are still nowhere near that number. In fact, the great majority of industrialised nations have not felt the need to develop nuclear weapons programmes of their own.

Although there has been proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction since 1945, in recent years there have been some striking successes in getting key states to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear states: including South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Argentina and Brazil. Some of these could have made a different choice: having the human capacity, and the GDP, to do so.


So what has happened to make some argue that arms control has had its day? A number of factors have been at work.

Undoubtedly, September 11 forced a re-assessment of priorities in many areas of international policy, and arms control and non-proliferation are, quite rightly, no exceptions.

That day was a brutal warning of humanity’s capacity for evil. People who have the capacity and the ruthlessness to fly airliners into skyscrapers will not be deterred by human decency or international treaties from using nuclear, biological or chemical weapons if they get the chance. We have to do all we can to stop this happening.

People are right to ask whether current approaches to arms control are up to the job. Can treaties, which apply to states, keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of non-state actors like terrorists, who will never be bound by international law or standards?

This question is also made pointed by the anthrax attacks in the United States last year. These broke an important taboo on the use of biological agents for hostile purposes which had largely held since the Second World War, reinforced by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) since it entered into force in 1976.

But it is not just these recent events that have raised questions about arms control. We already knew of Saddam Hussein’s programmes for developing weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, Saddam Hussein is unique among modern dictators in having actually used chemical weapons in conflict – both against Iranian soldiers in the 1980s and against citizens of his own country at Halabja in 1988.

But it still dealt a severe blow to confidence in the safeguards system administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when the full scale of Iraq’s nuclear ambitions became apparent. Cheating and non-compliance are real problems.

So are the limits of the existing regimes. India and Pakistan were deservedly condemned in 1998 when they carried out nuclear tests: but their actions were not contrary to international law because they are not parties to the NPT.

Another wake-up call came that same year when North Korea launched an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan’s airspace. And we all know of North Korea’s determined and successful efforts to sell their technology and hardware on to third countries.

Further challenges to traditional methods of arms control come from developments in technology.

This is a challenge which we have faced repeatedly in the past. Every step change in the sciences has opened up new and more terrifying methods of killing, and at longer and longer range: and in turn made more urgent that these methods be subject to internationally enforceable control.

In the Middle Ages, for example, there was a papal ban on crossbows. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol on biological weapons was a response to the widespread and horrific use of mustard gas in the First World War. Indeed, the history of modern warfare is largely the history of science and the law.

But the problem is becoming more acute. Modern developments, like plastic anti-personnel mines, present new challenges for arms control.

Others, such as the spread of harmful know-how through the Internet, and of new techniques for producing biological agents, have undoubtedly made proliferation cheaper and easier.

The sheer pace and complexity of scientific developments today means that Treaty negotiations alone may not be fast enough, or cost-effective enough, to deal with them.

The fact that proliferation continues, often in states which reject internationally agreed standards of decency, means we cannot afford to regard the existing body of arms control methods as the complete answer to the problem.

Some commentators in Europe and elsewhere caricature the US position on arms control as unilateralist. In reality, it would be foolish to overlook the shortcomings of some existing arms control instruments. John Bolton, the US Under-secretary of State, argued in a speech in Geneva last month for ‘treaties and arrangements that meet today’s threats to peace and stability, not yesterday’s’. He has a point.


So we have to be open to new thinking. And this spirit informs our approach to Missile Defence. Predictably, many have reacted with disappointment to the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

This Treaty was a product of its time. In 1972, global security was underpinned by the grim logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Nuclear arsenals had been growing at an alarming rate.

The mutual agreement between the two major powers of the era not to deploy nationwide defences against strategic ballistic missiles preserved the balance of terror. And, in time, it paved the way for the control and reduction of strategic nuclear forces – first through the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the 1970s and later through the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in the 1980s and 90s.

But the world has changed. As President Bush said last May, ‘Today’s Russia is not our enemy’. He and President Putin have stressed their desire to work together to establish a new strategic framework, based on openness and mutual trust, not enmity.

This holds rich potential for stability between the two and perhaps more widely. The new threat to the US, and to international security more generally, now comes from other sources, not least those who are beginning to develop more sophisticated delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction.

Missile threats, even missile attacks, are not new. London, after all, was the first city in the world to suffer the sheer terror of missile attack, when it became the target in 1944 and 1945 of the Nazi V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket.

More recently, short-range ballistic missiles were used by both Iran and Iraq in the 1980s during the so-called ‘War of the Cities’.

However, for about half a century after the Second World War, longer-range ballistic missile technology remained largely the preserve of the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. This monopoly broke down in the 1990s, as others came on the scene, and as existing producers, above all North Korea, but also Russia and China, began to increase their exports of missile technology.

Defence against this threat is not a new idea either. ‘Theatre’ Missile Defence systems to defend against shorter-range missiles have been under development for some years, outside the remit of the ABM Treaty.

The Treaty itself allowed the United States and Soviet Union to develop one strategic ABM system each. Initially, the US developed a system to protect ballistic rocket sites in North Dakota, but soon abandoned it. The Soviet Union chose to protect Moscow, which is today the only city in the world with such protection.

The Bush administration has made clear that they envisage a system of limited Missile Defence. As the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has said, ‘It is not an effort to build an impenetrable shield around the US. This is not Star Wars. We have a much more limited objective to deploy effective defences against limited missile attack’.

Missile Defence, then, constitutes no threat to Russia. President Putin told the Financial Times in December, ‘even if Russia goes down to a level of 2,000 weapons, from a level which is much higher, it is unimaginable, totally unrealistic, to think that such a number of missiles could be intercepted’.

China, it is true, has expressed its concern. But the US has made clear that its plans are not intended to defend against responsible states with established strategic forces, and that the US Administration is continuing to discuss Missile Defence with the Chinese. China has for some years been pursuing a programme modernising its nuclear forces, irrespective of US Missile Defence proposals.

And these proposals do not, of course, drive the regional relationship between China, India and Pakistan.

What Missile Defence should do is give pause to those tempted down the path of proliferation even before they begin. Those who seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction are not usually irrational. They must make a cost/benefit calculation before seeking to acquire such weapons or the means of delivering them. Anything that affects this calculation by raising the cost or reducing the benefit has to be worth considering.


As such, it is possible that Missile Defence may pave the way for greater progress on disarmament, not an arms race. Indeed, Presidents Bush and Putin have agreed to make substantial reductions in their respective strategic nuclear arsenals. Missile Defence, then, is not an alternative to the wider non-proliferation effort, but could be part of it.

There has to be room in our approach to arms control for a greater variety of measures. For example, no one should underestimate the value of co-operative threat reduction work. The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars helping the Russians to dismantle nuclear systems. The UK, too, is giving millions of pounds to provide assistance on safety and security in the nuclear area, and to fund the destruction of Russian chemical weapons.

National and international controls on exports of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons also have a key part to play. And sometimes we will have to take direct action to stop the rules being broken. In recent months we have acted on more than one occasion with key partner governments to prevent deliveries of WMD-related consignments to known proliferators. The international community as a whole is readier than ever before to support such action – witness also the recent UN resolutions on Iraq.

In extremis, where powerful groups of terrorists are prepared to wreak mass destruction, we have to be ready to take military action. Our recent action against Al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan was an act of self-defence against a group whose intentions to acquire weapons of mass destruction are now evident, and whose readiness to use such weapons was in little doubt.

But does this mean the traditional methods of arms control by consensus, treaty and mutually agreed restraint are dead? No, it does not.

Because however much the world has changed since the end of the Cold War, and again since September 11, many old truths remain as valid as ever.

Whatever small numbers of states and individuals may do in practice, very few would now dispute the principle that there are certain weapons whose effect is so horrific that humanity’s interests are best served by limiting, reducing and where possible eliminating them.

This consensus is itself of value because it isolates the cheats and exposes them to the criticism of the international community at large. It makes it more difficult for states to harbour or assist terror groups seeking to procure weapons of mass destruction.

This consensus is a direct result of the efforts of diplomats, academics, NGOs and other experts who worked to create Treaties like the NPT, the BWC and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). These efforts are also seen in the work of the implementing organisations like the IAEA and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

To work, arms control has to provide mutually advantageous, predictable and verifiable security gains. People need agreements they can rely upon, confidence and security building measures and settled rules which we are prepared to enforce.

We have to be ready to make full use of all instruments to deter and uncover those who cheat on their international obligations. That includes the provisions available to the IAEA and OPCW to launch challenge inspections of suspect sites. Where there is genuine cause for concern, we should not ignore these measures just because using them might be politically difficult.


In an era when trade and information are going global, there is much to be said for making arms control as global as possible. This does not mean we need only global instruments. There is more scope than ever before for regional and sub-regional arms control too.

Even in a Europe at peace, the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement still makes people feel secure. Nor should we forget the psychological impact of a stable set of arms control agreements.

International arms control means setting and defending international standards. The value of existing measures, strengthened where necessary, should not be underestimated.

So the international community should not talk down arms control and non-proliferation measures, nor lightly seek their amendment.

Negotiating useful texts is a painstaking business, requiring an extraordinary level of technical skill, diplomacy, determination and patience – as anyone can attest who was involved in the 7-year, but ultimately unsuccessful, negotiation on the draft Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention.

But when there are obstacles – as there were last year – the important thing is not to go down the path of recrimination, but instead to identify the rubbing point, and see what more can be done. We need, in this, for example to look again at the US’s concerns, and acknowledge that they merit careful assessment.

Verification is a real problem in this area. For many years, we in the UK had sought to find ways of strengthening the Convention with a Protocol which would have gone at least some way to remedying this deficiency.

If there are other ways to counter the threat of biological weapons, we shall certainly support them. But we also have to go on looking for ways to strengthen the Convention itself as well. This happens to be a US, as well as a UK, objective. I will shortly be publishing a paper making detailed suggestions on how to do this.

Similarly, we remain committed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As the Treaty recognises, the cessation of all nuclear explosions will be an effective measure of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The UK has not conducted any nuclear explosions since 1992 and we ratified the CTBT in 1997.

As I said in November at the CTBT Article Fourteen Conference in New York, we welcome the fact that several countries which have not yet ratified the Treaty, nonetheless retain moratoria on nuclear explosions – among them the US. We in the UK will go on promoting the ratification and entry into force of this Treaty.

We are also firm supporters of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which is supposed to be negotiating this, has been unable to do useful work for almost six years. We have to overcome the road blocks and move forward.

The US takes a similar view to us. We both believe that this would be an effective measure of arms control.

Also like us, the US backs an International Code of Conduct against the Proliferation of Ballistic Missiles as a tentative first step to developing an internationally agreed regime.

Apart from the Missile Technology Control Regime of suppliers, there are no international instruments to control missile proliferation. An International Code of Conduct would increase transparency and create the confidence that space and satellite programmes are not being used to conceal ballistic missile programmes.

We shall therefore be working hard at the meeting opening tomorrow in Paris to drive this initiative forward, and to reduce the threat from ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.

No one should be in any doubt of the UK’s commitment to the international approach to arms control. We have taken a lead in every area – devising and negotiating new instruments, spreading best practice in export controls through the EU Code of Conduct, and supporting efforts to tackle the spread of conventional weapons, including small arms.


In the same spirit, we believe in leading by example. We have made significant reductions in our nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War. We have withdrawn and dismantled all our WE-177 air-delivered bombs and all our nuclear depth charges. We have substantially reduced the planned size of the nuclear arsenal on our only remaining nuclear system, Trident.

Our total number of operationally available warheads is fewer than 200, and at any one time only a single Trident submarine is on deterrent patrol, carrying less than a quarter of that number of warheads and doing so at a reduced state of readiness.

We have become more transparent about our holdings of nuclear warheads and fissile material, and we have promoted research into the verification issues which will be involved in reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.

So a firm belief in the value of arms control lies at the heart of this government’s policy.


But the fundamental principle of this policy can be summed up best in the words of Deng Xiaoping, when he said, ‘it matters not whether the cat is black or white, but whether it catches mice’.

The best criterion for judging a measure is whether it works.

Multilateral, global approaches are highly desirable – but this does not mean they cannot be accompanied by unilateral, bilateral, sub-regional or regional action. These too can catch mice.

There is a worthwhile debate to be had, case by case, on whether particular types of arms control in a particular area are best applied globally, regionally or bilaterally. As I have said, regional security problems may demand more regional arms control. Control of conventional weapons in the countries of the former Yugoslavia is a key element of the Dayton Agreement.

We have to consider this model elsewhere, and not forget that ‘soft’ arms control – in the form of confidence building measures, including transparency and verification – can play an important part in reducing tension and building stability in fragile and insecure regions.

This approach will probably play a role in future in regions like the Middle East, South Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

It would be nice to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to compliance problems. But in practice, sometimes we cannot do without country-specific approaches, such as those applied to Iraq after the Gulf War and in North Korea under the Agreed Framework.

The scope for tailored approaches to non-proliferation is, in broad terms, likely to be proportionate to the perception that they are justified and legal. But we should not rule them out simply because they do not fit the traditional image of a classical arms control measure.

The aim of arms control is ultimately too important for us to be bound by dogma or orthodoxy in seeking means to achieve it. We have to be open to new methods and new technologies, like satellite monitoring and weapons tagging.

The important thing is to remember that we shall never arrive at a final method of arms control which meets all eventualities. There will be setbacks. But that is no reason for giving up. We have to have faith that we can make a difference.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The effort is worth it, because a world founded on the rule of international law is the surest bulwark against disorder, injustice and insecurity. But the law achieves nothing unless we are prepared to enforce it. Arms control requires sustained commitment. Treaties require proper and sustained maintenance and attention.

We have to have the political will to deal effectively with those who defy the will of the international community and put global security at risk.

This was never an easy task. And now that the old simplicities of the Cold War have gone, now that terrorists have signalled their interest in mass destruction, maintaining peace and stability has become more complex than ever.

But the UK is determined to shoulder its share of the responsibility for global security.

That means taking every opportunity to make the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as expensive, difficult and unacceptable as we can.

It has to include tackling tension and conflict, which are the root causes of most missile proliferation.

Efforts to address problems between India and Pakistan, to support the Middle East Peace Process and to encourage rapprochement and dialogue on the Korean Peninsula are all part of wider counter-proliferation work.

And arms control is one of the key levers which allow us to act as a force for good in the world, making Britain more secure by helping to make the world more stable.