Imogen Michel, ‘Entente démodé?’ The Student (Edinburgh), 9 November 2010
|Subvertised billboard in South London, April 2010. Photo credit: Imogen Michel|
In a historic agreement this week, the UK and France agreed to defence treaties which, according to some commentators, will usher in a new era of cooperation in defence matters between the two countries. As part of these agreements, the testing of nuclear weapons will be shared by Britain and France. According to David Cameron, this will save the two countries millions of pounds they would have otherwise spent on developing their nuclear weapons.
High on the agenda in the discussion of these treaties has been the common threats and interests which the two countries share. Undoubtedly, Britain and France as two geographically-close European democratic nations will have many similar concerns in the modern-day, increasingly globalised world. However, one topic has dominated the conversation in this regard, and that has been the need to fight the perceived threat of terrorism.
The shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, used this argument when he said, in response to the signing of these treaties, that "We share common threats with countries such as France, from terrorism to privacy to cyber-attack. Deepening military ties is an essential part of modern defence policy." David Cameron himself said that while “there was no more sensitive issue on which the two countries could cooperate than nuclear technology”, the 50-year treaties were necessary as they would create “strength, solidarity and power in defeating terrorism”.
It is not difficult to argue that increased cooperation on a diplomatic and information-sharing level could be a very useful tool in dealing with the threats mentioned above. However, to claim that working together on developing nuclear weapons will help us to deal with terrorism, threats to privacy or from internet hackers seems more than a little far-fetched. How exactly do you fight an organisation such as Al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons, when you consider that it is a loose network of terrorists that works multi-nationally with no regard to borders, and has been known to use agents from within the country it is attacking? How can anyone argue that nuclear weapons are a useful tool in dealing with computer hackers? As far as I’m aware, there is no nation state or city where the world’s computer hackers congregate and would be vulnerable to the threat of a nuclear attack.
Even without these considerations, the sharing of nuclear weapons technology remains illegal under international law. As Kate Hudson, the General Secretary of CND stated in a press release in response to this issue, “Article 1 of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] expressly forbids transfers in relation to nuclear explosive devices. […] But the fundamental point that both Britain and France have to recognise and act upon is that the NPT – to which they are signatories – requires both of them to disarm their nuclear weapons. Rearranging the deckchairs on the nuclear sub is not sufficient.”
To argue that sharing technology in the development of nuclear weapons would save Britain and France money overall skirts around this simple fact that further developing and maintaining nuclear weapons, and the sharing of knowledge about them, is in breach of international law. The very fact of having signed these new treaties means that, instead of working to reduce and eliminate the nuclear weapons in their possession as required under international law, the two countries are now indicating that they are committed to keeping and developing their nuclear weapons potential further.
We should not allow the fear of terrorism, or the lure of potentially saving money from the national budget, to obfuscate our vision and steer the debate in regards to the continuing presence of nuclear weapons in the modern day world. It is certainly a positive step that two nations, who have not always necessarily seen eye-to-eye on foreign policy, are now talking collaboratively in regards to international relations and their common interests in defence. However, to use this increased communication and cooperation to further develop weapons of mass destruction which are illegal under international law, and whose arguments for further development rest on such questionable grounds, seems utterly nonsensical.