Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Beckett & Nunn: It’s okay to use the “D” word again

Friday it was the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons expert meeting in Geneva, Monday it’s the Carnegie Non-Proliferation Conference in Washington D.C. It’s a jet-set life, and I have the jetlag to prove it (cue: yawn, hair swish. Eat your heart out Paris Hilton).

In disarmament and non-proliferation terms, the U.S. scene is a bit of a fish bowl. Viewed from the outside certain things in there can seem distorted, and from the inside the outside world is definitely distorted. So it’s useful from time to time to dunk one’s self into it to try to get a sense of what’s really going on, hence Carnegie.

The last Carnegie Conference I attended was, I think, in 2002. At that time the U.S. was still reeling from the September 11 attacks and there was some uncertainty as to which direction the Bush Administration would go in arms control terms.

A lot has changed in the intervening five years, but some things remain the same. The Carnegie Conference itself remains – unsurprisingly – overwhelmingly American in the composition of its participants, albeit with a smattering of Eurotrash and others like me. The coffee is still bracingly North American bad. And, after years of fierce noises and metaphorical hand smacking from the government arms control establishment here whenever the D-word “disarmament” is mentioned, the concept still seems almost entirely excised from the collective vocabulary of American-based thinktankers and policy makers – despite it remaining alive and well in other parts of the world, for instance in the output of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission.

But the wind seems to be changing direction. This morning, Senator Sam Nunn signaled the changed by wearing his newfound commitment to nuclear disarmament on his sleeve in remarks to the Conference. Although head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Nunn had until recently apparently considered talk of disarmament as irresponsible. Not now. In nuclear proliferation terms, he said, the world was in "a perfect storm".

Meanwhile, although six months old, there is still buzz about Nunn’s Wall Street Journal op-ed with Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Bill Perry – not a pinko, liberal among them - calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. Arms control greybeards (there are plenty of them here) are still pinching their arms in confusion.

But there was more to come. British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett delivered the lunchtime keynote. Yesterday the Financial Times had carried the scoop that Beckett might have something significant to say, and she didn’t disappoint. Forget the summary of her remarks on the FCO website, below is a link to the full speech in which Beckett, referring to the Wall Street Journal op-ed by Nunn et al, called for a truce

“in a sterile stand-off between those who care most about disarmament and those who care most about proliferation. The dangers of such mutually assured paralysis - as [Kofi Annan] termed it - are dangers to us all. Weak action on disarmament, weak consensus on proliferation are in none of our interests. And any solution must be a dual one that sees movement on both proliferation and disarmament - a revitalisation, in other words, of the grand bargain struck in 1968, when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was established.”

Bold words and a good speech outlining some constructive, albeit modest, steps the U.K. is taking or is prepared to take in company with others. From where I was sitting I certainly felt Beckett’s conviction. And it sent a firm signal nuclear disarmament is going to assume some priority for incoming British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

It remains to be seen, of course, what influence this will have on Gordon Brown’s counterpart dwelling just a couple of streets away on Pennsylvania Avenue, or how much political capital Britain will be ultimately prepared to expend to this end. But although there were many sobering issues to consider during today’s discussion (Iran, North Korea, nuclear terrorism to name but a few) Beckett’s statement was welcome indeed. Signs of renewed progress toward a nuclear-free world would be even more welcome.

John Borrie


Transcript of British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett’s speech is here.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed by Nunn etal is here (subscription required).

An interesting 25 February New York Times article analyzing Nunn’s change of heart (apparently thanks in part to media mogul Ted Turner) is here.

The WMD Commission’s report and other resources are here.

The 24 June FT article is here.

Photo courtesy of author.