Russia finally ratifies New START treaty – but where does the UK stand?

The Russian Duma yesterday ratified the Obama-Medvedev nuclear disarmament deal by a huge majority; but where does the British government stand on nuclear weapons?

Kate Hudson is the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND)

The Russian Duma yesterday ratified the Obama-Medvedev nuclear disarmament deal by a huge majority. Although it’s been slow in the making – since Obama’s visionary Prague speech in April 2009 – it spells a foreign policy victory for the US president.

Hopes began to fade that it would get through the US Senate after the Republican resurgence in the mid-term elections. But it passed comfortably by 71 votes to 26.

Whether there is sufficient bipartisan support for Obama’s nuclear reductions agenda to make more progress possible is an open question. But since Henry Kissinger and George Shultz spoke out against nuclear weapons four years ago, there has been an increasing high level lobby for multilateral reductions and other steps to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in military postures.

Critics of the Treaty point out that it doesn’t actually disarm any nuclear weapons – it takes some off operational status and effectively puts them in the cupboard. But nevertheless, the trend is downwards and the renewed commitment to mutual inspections helps create a greater climate of trust which is very welcome.

So it’s a small step in overall terms, but it’s a positive one. After the heightened tensions between the US and Russia during the Bush era, it’s a welcome relief.

Now more or less all governments have bought into the idea that reductions leading to disarmament are desirable. Nuclear weapons are widely understood to be just too dangerous to condone indefinitely.

Of course this begs the question of where the UK government is going on this. Over the past months we’ve seen commitment to reducing nuclear warheads and a delay in the decision to replace Trident until 2016. This is a welcome small step but new initiatives from Britain could help shift the process further.

The previous government gave strong verbal commitments to Britain’s role in a multilateral disarmament process and Hague has since reinforced that. But now is also the time for the really necessary debate to begin at home: does Britain ‘need’ nuclear weapons for its security?

Twenty years after the end of the cold war that is the real question for parliament and public alike. Without that debate, there won’t be a genuinely informed decision in 2016.

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