Britain and France have begun tentative behind-the-scenes moves towards nuclear disarmament, and Canada is about to announce a "positive" new policy on nuclear weapons, experts told a discussion group on nuclear disarmament in San Francisco yesterday (Oct.29).
Canada's ambassador for disarmament to the United Nations, Douglas Roche, told a panel discussion at the State of the World Forum that that country's upcoming policy paper on nuclear weapons would "break ground."
Another speaker, General Lee Butler, said he had had recent discussions with high-level French officials, in which they had detailed moves to de-alert some of their nuclear weapons-capable planes. The French officials had also said that France had shut down three nuclear research centers, said Gen. Butler.
And Britain's Ministry of Defence had set up an in-house group for the first time to consider the implications of non-military security issues for the next century and to explore technical aspects of nuclear disarmament, said Scilla Elworthy, the director of the Oxford Research Group, a British-based disarmament facilitation group.
The comments came during a panel discussion on the Middle Powers Initiative, a non-government organization which promotes nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Roche outlined the process leading to the formulation of Canada's new nuclear weapons policy, which he said had been subjected to considerable pressure by the United States.
"The U.S. Government has read the report in its draft form, and do not like what's in the report." He did not outline what the report's conclusion was, but added: "I have reason to hope that this report… is a positive document and will break ground in the international community."
Gen. Butler, who was Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Strategic Air Command from 1990-94, said that high-level French officials had told him in private briefings recently that they were shutting some of their testing centers and reduce the alert status of their nuclear weapons-capable aircraft.
"They are looking for an opportunity. The president of France has said publicly that France will champion the cause of nuclear disarmament. I came away encouraged."
Dr. Elworthy said Britain was not yet looking at eliminating nuclear weapons, but it had for the first time started "looking at what the difficulties would be of building-down further."
As well as setting up the in-house policy group, its Ministry of Defence had begun consulting with non-government organizations such as the Oxford Research Group on nuclear weapons issues.
She considered it encouraging that the Ministry had continued the consultation process on nuclear weapons with non-governmental organizations after the policy paper had been completed.
"[They] could have said that's enough, we don't have to do anything further for five to ten years. But they're not doing that. In October they are inviting us in again to talk about how we can go further. And that's very hopeful."
The country's most recent policy paper on defense had for the first time revealed the size of Britain's stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium, and also said that the alert status of Britain's nuclear weapons-equipped Trident submarine fleet would be altered from "a matter of hours to a matter of days."
She said in an interview later that she had questioned a senior official at a briefing what that meant and had been told: "They will be phoning home to mother less often."
She added: "All these things have to be seen as positive, and are to be encouraged. They open up further the possibility of a de-alerting agreement, at least between the minor nuclear powers, China and France and Britain."
Several speakers during the session said they were concerned that the window of opportunity for nuclear disarmament which had been opened at the end of the Cold War was now closing, following the decision of India and Pakistan to test nuclear weapons, in June.
Gen. Butler said there was a small group of people in key places who believed that nuclear weapons were what prevented a third world war.
"They believe passionately that there are still threats out there for which the best answer may be nuclear weapons."
He made an impassioned plea during the panel session for those working for nuclear disarmament not to give up.
"I wake up every day and rejoice that we talk about the Cold War in the past tense, that however haltingly we have made some progress. We have changed the terms of the debate. The debate now is about whether we need them, not about whether we need more.
"Don't despair, but don't be overly optimistic. This is a long fight, but in the long scheme of things it will appear blessedly short."