On Being the Member of a Club


Clubs are by their nature exclusive – that is the very essence of their attraction.  There is no point in joining a club that is open to all.  Clubs are for those with an interest in common, and offer advantages unavailable to non-members.  So when Iranian prime minister Ahmadinejad announced that his country was about to join the nuclear club it caused a stir amongst existing members.  It seems that Iran is about to satisfy the only practical qualification required, the possession of a nuclear weapon of mass destruction. 

It may be helpful if club rules are explained for the benefit of new members.  The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is an international treaty signed by both members and non-members of the nuclear club in 1968.[1]  It was designed by existing members to restrict membership.  Non-members promise not to join, in return for a promise by members to abolish their club as soon as possible.  The famous Article 6 commits members to proceed ‘in good faith’ to total nuclear disarmament.

Membership restriction has not been entirely successful, however.  Since 1968 several nations (Israel, India, Pakistan) have joined the club, after having avoided signing the NPT.  North Korea did sign, but then withdrew, presumably as a prelude to entering the members enclosure. It is estimated there are around 25 other nations that, because they have nuclear power and so a source of plutonium, could fairly easily become fully accredited members, by following the North Korean path of resigning from the NPT to prevent IAEA access during the acquisition period. 

The new members have not yet signed the NPT, though there are advantages in so doing.  They are probably put off by Article 6, which obliges them to get rid of their new and very expensive weapon, but they should not be – existing members don’t take it seriously.  Article 6 is merely a sop to non-members, to encourage them to stay that way.  The only problem that arises is when a member (the United Kingdom) decides to go for a new-improved nuclear weapon.  This is a rather too blatant disregarding of Article 6, and requires some special diplomatic logic to justify. 

However, the MoD has risen to the occasion.  A letter to an M.P. asking that the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith rule on the legality of this vertical proliferation will, if your M.P. is sufficiently conscientious, result in your letter being passed on to, and by the Attorney General, who apparently avoids a direct answer, to the Minister of State for Armed Forces, Adam Ingram. He may say (and I quote from an actual letter):

The White Paper made absolutely clear (paragraphs 2-9 and 2-10 of the main White Paper, and supporting Fact Sheet 3 on our international legal obligations) the Government’s collective view that retaining and renewing the current Trident system is fully consistent with all our international legal obligations, including under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

A summary provided by the MoD titled International Legal Obligations may come with the reply.  It occupies two pages and is too long to reproduce here in full.  Below are quotes from what appear to be the main points.

The UK is fully compliant with the above articles [numbers 1,4,5 and 6] and all its other obligations under the NPT.

In addition to these obligations, the UK also supports the further measures that were adopted at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and in the outcome document  from the 2000 NPT Review Conference to take forward the implementation of the Treaty.  These include the ’13 practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article 6.  These are available at http://disarmament.un.org/wmd/npt/2000FD.pdf

The UK shares the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons.  We continue to press for multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons.

The UK stands by its unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of its nuclear arsenal. The operational status of our nuclear weaponry has been significantly reduced.

Renewing the Trident system does not reverse or undermine the positive steps outlined above.  It is simply about maintaining no more than the very minimum nuclear capability judged necessary for our security whilst we pursue the right security conditions for complete multilateral disarmament. [Emphasis in original]


So there you are.  Avoiding detailed arguments, making simple assertions, and holding out for conditions that have never happened in all the sorry history of nuclear weapons control (‘multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons’) – that is the government case for vertical escalation of our weapon of mass destruction.


[1] There are currently 188 signatories.