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As a result of rising tensions between nuclear-armed states and the fragmenting of existing non-proliferation and arms control agreements, nuclear weapons are on the international agenda in a way they have not been since the end of the Cold War.

In this context, the House of Lords International Relations Committee launched an inquiry into the NPT and nuclear disarmament, the aim of which is to examine the state of global nuclear diplomacy and the role of the United Kingdom. In November 2018, the Committee issued a call for evidence focusing on the non-proliferation and disarmament aspects of the NPT.

On 22 March 2019, the Committee published written evidence from Prof Nicholas J Wheeler (Director, ICCS) and Paul Schulte (Honorary Professor, ICCS) submitted in response to the call. In their response, Wheeler and Schulte emphasise the challenges that new technologies pose to the nuclear sphere, particularly in the context of political mistrust between nuclear-armed and –arming states. They argue that the development of Confidence and Security Building Measures, with cross-state agreement, would provide a structure through which to ease tensions in any potential nuclear crisis. They also outline the limitations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (known as the Ban Treaty), the implementation of which is fundamentally hampered by the lack of support from the current nuclear states. They argue in favour of the P5 (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) as a necessary part of the global nuclear infrastructure and support plans for a nuclear code of conduct to be adopted by all five countries. This ties in with research currently being undertaken on the concept of Nuclear Responsibilities by the ICCS in associated with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). A recent report from a nuclear roundtable held in Japan can be downloaded here.

To prevent the development of bad faith models and to facilitate greater cooperation and understanding between nuclear states, Wheeler and Schulte argue for increased face-to-face meetings between high level diplomats, to be conducted in a spirit of openness and compromise rather than scripted dogmatism. While emphasising the weighted responsibility of Russia and the USA as the two most powerful nuclear states in this process, they do highlight the unique role of the UK as a policy innovator in WMD arms control. The diplomatic and scientific expertise of the UK, combined with the close cooperation of the FCO and MoD, means that it leads the way in terms of policy understanding of arms control and disarmament. Britain’s influence in this area lies in backstage persuasion and diplomacy rather than political grandstanding. They argue that the UK must tread a delicate path between engaging with the Ban Treaty discussions and ensuring the stability of the P5 alliance. It has a significant role to play in continuing to facilitate a network of trust between the nuclear states.

For further information on Professor Wheeler’s work on Trust (including his recently-published book, Trusting Enemies), visit the Working Group website. For further information on our research on Nuclear Responsibilities, visit our page on Responsible Nuclear Sovereignty.