Wilton Park 2010

Dec 17 2010
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

The annual Wilton Park conference on arms control and disarmament is always well attended. Those arriving late may find themselves without a chair. This happened to me this year, as I missed the first two days due to a series of meetings in London. However, I found the first meeting that I was able to attend very stimulating, despite having to stand up for parts of it. Truth be told, as I was standing close to a radiator on a cold day, I didn’t mind that much.

The meeting discussed how to bring about a conference on the long-proposed weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Such a conference was promised by parties to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) at the eight review conference of the treaty, held earlier this year in New York. Then, the nuclear-weapon states promised to fully engage and support this conference.
One question discussed at Wilton Park was what, if anything, is in it for the Israeli government. ‘Israel’s strategic situation has changed’, one participant argued, ‘and it is more difficult now’ than some 15 years ago. Much of the technical groundwork has already been laid by the International Atomic Energy Agency, another participant argued, and will be transmitted to the United Nations, which is tasked at coordinating the conference, when requested and ‘together with a bill for services rendered’.
The Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) was also intensively discussed, especially together with an idea that has recently been gaining traction: that the treaty should be negotiated outside of the Conference on Disarmament (the ‘CD’). What this treaty should do is subject to considerable debate. Some argue that it should cap the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, but leave accumulated stockpiles aside. Others argue that the treaty is meaningless unless it imposes some quantitative controls on existing stocks. The CD, a diplomatic conference charged with negotiating multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements, has been stalled over this debate for over a decade. This has led to intense frustration, and now calls for moving negotiations to another, smaller forum.
The question at hand is whether or not this would achieve anything, and whose objectives such a move would best serve. If the intention with the proposed treaty is simply to formalize the already existing production moratorium amongst the nuclear-weapon states, this may be a good development. The majority of the P-5, as this grouping of states is sometimes called, shares the view that the treaty should look at future production, and leave the past alone. However, one of the P-5 members is reluctant to accept this as it orients itself not only in relation to the other nuclear-weapon states, but also to the other three states standing outside the NPT. The worst case scenario would be for treaty negotiations to be moved outside the CD, only to have them stall again. This could both wreck the CD, and at the same time destroy prospects for meaningful negotiations on the FMCT.
The meeting also discussed prospects for further strides towards multilateral disarmament. The goodwill generated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference seems to have faded somewhat, as the start of the session illustrated. An attempt by one nuclear-weapon state participant to explain his country’s position backfired, as others began to accuse him of attempting to revise, or downplay, the outcome of the conference. ‘You don’t need to tell me what the conference documents means’, one non-nuclear-weapon state participant forcefully argued. ‘I was there too, remember?’
In a similar way, many participants privately expressed the opinion that the debate on how to verify multilateral arms reductions felt flat and uninspired. I would not agree with that. The presentations by David Chambers and Joe Pilat were considered and thoughtful, as well as cautiously optimistic. Mr Chamber’s call for more states to get involved in multilateral disarmament verification R&D was welcomed. On behalf of VERTIC, I thanked the Atomic Weapons Establishment for our past cooperative research on the UK-Norway Initiative, which has been very fruitful.
Overall, I use Wilton Park as a way of gauging the health of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And while it is too early to tell for sure, I sense a slight retrenchment of the positions of some of the nuclear-weapon states on disarmament issues. A representative of a prominently-engaged non-nuclear-weapon state once told me over dinner in New York that the successful outcome to the NPT Review Conference had in fact been a ‘failure in disguise’. I believe that it is too early to make pronouncements of that kind. The coming years will show whether the nuclear-weapon states are serious about implementing their ‘serious political commitments’, as one ambassador put it, ‘in an accountable fashion’.

Last changed: Jan 11 2011 at 6:14 PM