It’s not only CND that’s sixty this year. Last week saw the anniversary of the signing of the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA) – the world’s most extensive nuclear sharing agreement. Even though it comes up for renewal in parliament every ten years, few seem to know of its existence, or the extent to which it make us dependent on the US – or indeed that it underpins the wider so-called ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK in foreign policy terms.
Known in full as the ‘Agreement between the UK and the USA for cooperation in the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defence Purposes’, the treaty initially established an agreement between both countries to exchange classified information to develop their respective nuclear weapon systems.
At the start, the MDA prohibited the transfer of nuclear weapons, but an amendment in 1959 allowed for the transfer of nuclear materials and equipment between both countries up to a certain deadline. This amendment is extended through a renewal of the treaty every ten years, most recently in 2014 without any parliamentary debate or vote. The British public and parliamentarians initially found out about that latest extension and ratification when President Obama informed the United States Congress.
Renewing such agreements on the nod, without transparency or accountability is never a good thing. When it ties us so tightly to nuclear cooperation with the Trump White House this is an even greater cause for concern. As Trump visits the UK this week, we need to raise awareness of his new policies which pursue ‘usable’ nukes, for deployment in an increasing range of scenarios, with a bottomless pit of funding available for nuclear modernisation. The time has come to really vigorously oppose this Agreement.
It also puts us at odds with our commitments under the NPT: the relationship and activities which are enshrined by the MDA confirm an indefinite commitment by the US and UK to collaborate on nuclear weapons technology and violates both countries’ obligations as signatories to the NPT. The NPT states that countries should undertake ‘to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to… nuclear disarmament’. Rather than working together to get rid of their nuclear weapons, the UK and US are collaborating on further advancing their respective nuclear arsenals.
Indeed, a 2004 legal advice paper by Rabinder Singh QC and Professor Christine Chinkin concluded that it is ‘strongly arguable that the renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement is in breach of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’, as it implies ‘continuation and indeed enhancement of the nuclear programme, not progress towards its discontinuation’.
On every level the MDA is something that must be challenged. It’s just not possible for the UK to have an independent foreign policy, or defence and security policies, if it remains attached at the hip to the US nuclear programme. Even the most establishment characters must now be able to see that unquestioning allegiance to the US is out of the question.
The MDA will come up for renewal again in 2024. Now is the time to start asking the questions, raising the protest, and making the case for independence. It’s time for the special nuclear relationship to end.