University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

An Interview with Hon. Margaret Beckett

Former UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was a keynote speaker at a recent conference, “The NPT and a World Without Nuclear Weapons,” in Helsinki, Finland, co-sponsored by the Kroc Institute and the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. Peace Policy asked her to comment on some of the issues she addressed at the conference.

Has the NPT been a success?

There is no doubt that the NPT’s grand bargain has served us well over the years — better than expected, better than, you might say, we deserve. But it will not hold, unless we can strengthen and renew it. We stand at a critical turning point in the world’s affairs. The risks are greater than perhaps at any time in the last 40 years.

The three pillars of the NPT bargain are: the willingness of non-nuclear signatories to forgo nuclear weapons, the continued access of such states to civil nuclear power, and the commitment by the nuclear powers to pursue disarmament. It is only fair to acknowledge that significant steps have been taken to reduce nuclear stockpiles. In the UK we have achieved a 75 percent reduction since the end of the Cold War. But recently there has been a sense of stalemate and lack of progress. This has been accompanied by the spread of weapons to new players and by what appears to be a challenge to the basic bargain itself — not least from Iran.

In addition, the threat of climate change is leading to a major expansion of the desire and the need for access to civil nuclear power. This inevitably brings with it a greater risk of the misuse of fissile material by state and non-state actors alike.

What are the next policy steps needed?

In strengthening the NPT, we should strive to extend its reach. India, Israel, and Pakistan are not signatories. The British government has called on them to join the treaty as non-nuclear states, just as we support the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free from all weapons of mass destruction.

The way forward has to include ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and moves towards a fissile material cut-off treaty. We must do all we can to promote international cooperation as a key component of progress. For example, I welcome the recent decisions of Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to ban enrichment and reprocessing as they pursue access to civil nuclear power. A number of ideas and proposals are circulating for ensuring secure access to nuclear fuel without the need for all to possess facilities for enrichment or reprocessing.

We must do all we can to promote international cooperation as a key component of progress.

The cross-fertilization of ideas — among those pursuing climate security, energy security, and so-called ‘hard’ security — is immensely helpful. Our own prime minister recently announced the establishment of a Nuclear Centre of Excellence to work with other nations on developing proliferation-resistant technology for civil nuclear power. He also recently announced an increase in the UK’s contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency fund to facilitate its role in strengthening the safeguards of nuclear facilities and materials.

What is required from advocates of nuclear disarmament?

The simplest, most important, but perhaps hardest step is to be prepared to think afresh. We must all be willing to modify — even to abandon — some of the most cherished assumptions and arguments about nuclear disarmament. There is a natural human tendency to be most comfortable with the familiar. But if advocates pursue with zeal concepts which are, as yet, unacceptable, and make their acceptance a condition of moving forward, we will stay trapped in the shibboleths and assumptions of the past.

We must all be willing to modify — even to abandon — some of the most cherished assumptions and arguments about nuclear disarmament.

In the UK, a wider dialogue has begun, and with it has come a real understanding of the worth of a vision of a nuclear weapon-free world. Yet many campaigners in Britain still center the debate almost solely on whether we unilaterally end the Trident nuclear submarine program. I regard this as shortsighted in the extreme. It is unlikely to be accepted in the very near future, and people who agree about the long-term fundamental goals of nuclear disarmament are busy arguing with each other instead of with those who agree with neither of us.

What steps is the UK taking to advance support for disarmament?

One practical step that can be taken across the world is to create a diverse network of contributors to public debate. In the UK, we are launching a high-level group of “not the usual suspects,” with the aim of raising the debate in the UK and the European Union and contributing to the dialogue already underway in the United States. I see similar initiatives blossoming in Germany, Italy, and, most recently, France. Our own group includes both former ministers of defense and foreign affairs and former chiefs of staff, with a divergence of views but a shared vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Contributions from those who have dealt with the realities of the nuclear threat lend weight to the debate.