New Pathways Towards Nuclear Disarmament

How is it possible to make progress on nuclear disarmament if states continue to see nuclear weapons as credibly instrument of state power? By incrementally restricting the circumstances in which the UK would consider nuclear weapons, BASIC believes can create new pathways towards nuclear disarmament.

The world is tangled up with nuclear weapons and BASIC is here to help untangle them. Since the vote to renew Trident in 2016, BASIC has been working with policymakers to ensure stronger UK leadership on nuclear disarmament. This project has considered different avenues for the UK to promote nuclear disarmament – be that reducing warheads, securing support for diplomatic processes or the decreasing the saliency of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine.

Here, BASIC has led a UK discussion on reforming UK nuclear declaratory policy. Currently, the UK refrains from saying the circumstances it would use nuclear weapons in the belief that strategic ambiguity is beneficial to the UK’s security. Although the UK promises to never to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states, it caveats its assurances in a number of ways that undermine them. The UK continues to retain the right to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict and against non-nuclear threats. This clashes against the common understanding of the purpose of nuclear weapons and the idea the UK maintains a ‘credible minimum deterrent’.

BASIC believe that the UK can do better. By reforming its nuclear declaratory policy, the UK has an opportunity to lead by example on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation without negatively impacting its established nuclear deterrent posture. With the support of the Edith M Ellis 1985 Charitable Trust, BASIC wrote the parliamentary report Leading by Example: Reforming UK Nuclear Declaratory Policy. This proposed four ways the UK could minimise nuclear risks through a clearer articulation of its declaratory policy:

  • First, by strengthening its assurance to never use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;
  • Second, by adopting a No-First Use policy that says the UK would only use nuclear weapons to respond to a nuclear attack on the UK or its allies;
  • Third, issue a sole-purpose declaration, confirming the sole purpose of the UK’s nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks;
  • And finally, clarify that nuclear weapons are only a weapon of last resort.

Since then, BASIC have used this and subsequent research to work with policymakers on opportunities to reform the UK’s declaratory policy. We had a number of meetings with senior politicians and UK officials. While many in the security establishment remain attached to nuclear deterrence, we have found there is an acceptance that the UK could do more to assure non-nuclear weapon states internationally. Since then BASIC have conducted further research into this area. This work contributes towards building an international system based on cooperative security rather than the threat of nuclear annihilation.

BASIC would like to thank the Edith M Ellis 1985 Charitable Trust for their support of our work to create a world free from nuclear weapons. For further information please visit