Eoghan with Lord Desmond Browne at the Symposium in Berlin

European Leadership and Nuclear Weapons

Posted July 5th, 2011

Last week I travelled to Berlin to take part in a symposium organised by the European Leadership Network for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

I was invited to join the network by Lord Des Browne of Ladyton, former UK Secretary of State for Defence and a founder member. The network is about 3 years old and includes a number of very experienced and distinguished people in its ranks. I was excited about the prospect of getting back involved in arms control issues, particularly from this side of the fence.

The theme for the symposium was ‘Reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the Nato-Russia relationship’ and that’s what we discussed over the day and a half that I was there. Much of the discussion centred around plans in Europe for ballistic missile defence (BMD) and possible avenues of cooperation between Nato and Russia as a way of improving both the system and cooperation between the two entities.

To sit around a table with 30 or so experts – former cold warriors, ministers, officers, intelligence officials and diplomats – was fascinating.

We are not members of Nato, and many of their concerns and issues would seem foreign to us here in Ireland. Yet it is important that we are aware of and involved in developments in this most important of international issues. Our reputation and our history on the international stage dictate that we are. But now we must also take responsibility for our future, take an active involvement in the affairs of the world.

And I suppose I mean that both in terms of my generation (for whom the cold war is a history lesson soon forgotten), as we move to take on leadership and decision making roles. But also for our country. Ireland once did excellent, strategic work in the areas of multilateral security and cooperation. We must again.  

Much of our discussions during the symposium were detailed, sometimes technical, and I won’t go in to it here. But you may be interested in reading my interjection on BMD below.

Costs of flight and accommodation were covered by the ELN. I travelled to and from the airport by Aircoach.

Thank you Chair.

One of the speakers commented that if Iran was kept from achieving a nuclear weapons capability then ballistic missile defences against Iran would not be necessary. But would it be necessary even if they did achieve such a capability? Because I’m wondering who this system is for – what is the threat? A former Secretary of Defence in the US, whose name escapes me, gave an interesting speech on BMD in the late 60s. He argued that BMD against the Soviets was unnecessary as they were rational actors and as such were locked in to deterrence and would not break that logic. China on the other hand, he said, were irrational, and as such BMD against the Chinese was needed.

China aren’t irrational, the US just didn’t understand them. But the same can be said about views of Iran and North Korea today when assessing the potential threat. Much of it rests on their perceived irrationality. Which is unhelpful. Why do we think that Iran would bring about its own destruction by launching a small pre-emptive missile strike on a Nato country or on Russia, or both, who would retaliate overwhelmingly. So my question is, who is this system for, why is it being built?