Speech by Executive Chairman of the Institute for Global Change, former Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair at the 10th Anniversary conference of the International Luxembourg Forum

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Proliferation of nuclear weapons capability remains the most serious threat to the future of humankind. Except at times of crisis, it’s often less debated than its related threat of environmental destruction. Related, because both are in the hands of humanity to solve.

The NPT in 1968 gave recognition to the five nuclear powers and recognition to the need for restraint and reduction. And, as your president has just indicated, the SALT and START treaties had substantial impact, indeed an accelerated impact, after the end of the Cold War.

However, modernising delivery systems proceeds, tensions remain, nonetheless deterrence between rational actors, with vast amounts to lose from conflict, continues to work positively as a guiding principle of statecraft. This is important because the other drivers of proliferation continue to intensify.

There is status. The NPT powers were self-appointed. Other powerful nations, especially when located in areas of regional security anxiety, see nuclear power status as essential. We might describe India as one such. And the world by and large accepts this, because in its case it is a responsible and rational actor.

Then there can be rival regional powers which fear neighbours with nuclear capability and where hostility is an actual or potential risk. So, we might put Pakistan in such a category. And then Iran, Iraq got into a competition of some sort around nuclear capability in the 1980s.

And then there are regimes that are under threat primarily or in part because of the nature of the regime, which raises concerns amongst the international community, and whose acquisition of nuclear weapons provides, so they think, the most secure form of protection against their removal. This is nuclear power capability as regime insurance, and Iran and North Korea are clear examples, as the aspirations of Libya used to be.

Then there is nuclear weapons capability in the hands of terrorists, the so-called ‘dirty bomb’ scenario. This is a special form of proliferation, but it can be combined in threat with a rogue state, a nuclear power willing to share its nuclear know-how.

Then again there is a new development, arising out of technology, the cyber threat. Which could disrupt or damage or otherwise abuse the nuclear facilities of nuclear systems.

So these drivers exist, and some are increasing. And the challenge, as your forum has recognized, is that proliferation begets further proliferation; and thus the possibility of leakage, spread of expertise or material and therefore additional terrorist capability.

And the nature of a state with actual or desired nuclear weapons capability, that state’s governance and general disposition towards the international community, this also matters. Whatever the precise terms of the NPT, in practical terms political leaders judge the risk of a nuclear weapons capability state in part in line with how we judge its essential character.

So, as we approach this subject today, what are the political principles that should guide political leaders?

First and foremost, and most obviously, we must stop the immediate proliferation risks. In respect of Iran, the joint plan of action agreement of 2015 was heavily contested both in the politics of the United States and in the world. We can debate the wisdom of the deal and some of its terms, but now it has been done; it has a process of verification; it means, for now at least, that the nuclear programme of Iran can be stalled; and the sensible thing, in my judgment, is to preserve it.

Being out in the Middle East so much as I am, I understand fully the concerns over parts of Iran’s behaviour not dealt with in the agreement, but these can and should be dealt with separately. The ballistic missile capability is clearly one example related specifically to weapons capability. However, the greatest anxiety in the region is the destabilising effects of Iran’s policy across the Middle East by conventional means. Pushback there is vital and urgent, but can be done also by conventional means, whereas abandoning the JCPOA would add another dimension of immediate risk, which at present we do not need.

North Korea is the most dangerous and most pressing problem. This regime is uniquely abhorrent. We hope it is also at one level rational; but if reason implies any regard for the human condition and a state with some basic appreciation for the wellbeing of its citizens, then North Korea is also, at a certain level, irrational. This is why I oppose acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power, because of the nature of the regime and the real and justifiable impulse it would create in the region for other countries to acquire defensive nuclear capability.

This is a problem resolvable only with China; and China’s full-hearted participation in dealing with North Korea will only be secured by a broader and strategic agreement between the USA and China on the future of the Korean peninsula. There is an urgent need for such a dialogue to take place. Because I believe it is the only rational route to a solution.

We can threaten military action, and I agree that no options can be taken off the table, but unless there are elements of which I am unaware in either the weakness of the North Korean defences or the strength of USA capabilities, it is hard to think of a pre-emptive strike which would not result in catastrophic consequences; something which limits the credibility of the threat, since the USA is a rational actor.

Second. The North Korean situation reinforces the point that non-proliferation can only be dealt with effectively by close cooperation between the main powers. And this cooperation has to take effect of the changing picture of global geopolitics in the 21st century. Without China, Russia and other emerging powers in alignment with the USA and Europe, it is hard to see how non-proliferation can be successful. And the president has just reminded us of the importance of the American-Russian cooperation in the START treaty.

I would say that the China–USA relationship is going to be the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. The Transatlantic Alliance, in my judgment, remains of supreme relevance for this and many other reasons. The role of Russia and necessary cooperation with Russia, whatever other disagreements, is essential.

Multilateral diplomacy is a little out of fashion nowadays. It shouldn’t be. In this world of proliferation risks, it is crucial and unavoidable if we are to forestall those risks.

Third. Long term, there are other issues that may seem tangential to immediate risk, but which nonetheless are cardinal to non-proliferation. So, we fear North Korea as a nuclear state precisely because of its nature. And precisely because of its nature, the regime wants such capability. Therefore, the spread of basic human rights, proper norms of international behaviour, good governance, the rule of law, systems of government in line with the wishes of the people – this actually also is the best long-term protection against nuclear proliferation and the desire to acquire nuclear status.

And fourthly, actions to prevent leakage of nuclear material and expertise to agents of terrorism remains paramount. The Cooperation Threat Reduction Programme, Global Partnership Programme, international conventions such as that for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the work of the IAEA need to be supported and where necessary expanded.

However, in respect to terrorism, ultimately the best protection against this threat which disfigures so much of our world and in virtually every continent is to defeat the extremism and particularly the ideology which gives rise to it. The menace posed by the abuse of Islam as a religion and the turning of it into a totalitarian political ideology has to be combatted of course by security methods, though their costs are enormous and their ability to protect us always vulnerable. But the elimination of the root causes of this terrorism lie in the soft power interventions of better and more open-minded education, economic and political development, the promotion of religious and cultural tolerance and building the strong alliance, today possible, with states with majority Muslim populations who are willing, able and prepared to work with us in defeating this ideology.

And finally, there is the threat of cyber warfare and its interaction with nuclear systems. It’s important we do not exaggerate the threat – in countries like the United States the levels of protection are very high. On the other hand, the Nuclear Threat Initiative December 2016 report makes it very clear that there is a necessity for governments to coordinate more and to intensify efforts because the risks are also constantly evolving. They identify four overarching priorities from the better institutionalising of cyber security to reducing the complexity of digital systems and transitioning to non-digital systems, all of which seems sensible policy.

So, in summary, non-proliferation continues to be a severe and critical challenge. And to meet it adequately requires international cooperation and alliance, focus, determination and wisdom.

For policy-makers and decision-takers in positions of leadership, this is not an area in which good policy can be made without expert help. The facts and the detail matter. The deeper the knowledge, the better the decision. The more informed, the more likely the right decision will be made. This is one reason among many why this forum and its deliberations are of such importance. The expertise assembled here is formidable and unparalleled.

When I first came into politics in the early 1980s, there was a very active part of the political debate, however, that revolved around nuclear proliferation and the need to stop it. I think it is important that we carry the message of this forum also to the younger generation in politics today. People have lived so long with the prospect of the nuclear threat being managed that they forget that it has only been managed by constant vigilance and focus. And there is a real risk, in my view, that we forget the lessons of the past and are forced to relearn them. We face very-very critical threats immediately, now. But in the longer term, even despite those immediate threats, this issue remains absolutely critical to the future of this planet and of humankind.

So, I hope very much in the deliberations you have here, in this forum, we find ways of taking that expertise and those messages out, to this generation of politicians, and educate them as to the necessity of taking this issue not just seriously, but making it a focal point of political debate, discussion and decision.

Mr. President, it’s a very great honour to be invited to address these words to the forum today, thank you so much for the opportunity. I look very much forward to studying the outcome of this 10th international forum, and it’s a great pleasure to have been able to spend some time with you all. Thank you.