WASHINGTON — Breaking with its closest ally, Britain Monday called on the United States to help renew a drive for global nuclear disarmament by joining Russia in reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals lower than the Bush administration says it can go.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the United States also should ratify a global ban on underground nuclear testing and agree with Russia to extend the verification measures the two countries use to monitor each other's arsenals beyond a December 2009 expiration date, steps the Bush administration opposes.
"What we need is both vision — a scenario for a world free of nuclear weapons — and action — progressive steps to reduce warhead numbers and to limit the role of nuclear weapons in security policy," said Beckett.
Her speech to an international arms control conference a stone's throw from the White House appeared to signal that incoming British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will not provide President Bush with the same lock-step support that cost his predecessor, Tony Blair, so much popularity.
A British official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the speech wasn't aimed at U.S. policies. It built on a review of Britain's small, submarine-based nuclear force and on recent calls by a group of U.S. elder statesmen for a fresh drive for global nuclear disarmament, he said.
A U.S. official interpreted Beckett's speech differently.
"She made it clear that (Brown) is not our poodle," the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak publicly, referring to criticism of Blair as "Bush's poodle".
Beckett said there's an urgent need for the world to reinvigorate the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, the cornerstone of the global system to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
As part of the drive, the world's nuclear powers should begin discussing the creation of an international scheme for tracking the elimination of their arsenals, she said.
Under the NPT, Britain, France, Russia, the United States and China — the world's only nuclear weapons powers in 1968 — agreed to eliminate their arsenals gradually in return for the other signatories forswearing nuclear weapons.
But the NPT is now "under pressure" from the development of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, Israel — which has refused to join the treaty — and North Korea, and from Iran's suspected nuclear arms program, she said.
Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, Beckett said. Moreover, terrorist groups such as al Qaida are seeking nuclear materials, access to which could grow as more countries invest in civilian nuclear power.
While nuclear weapons powers have made extensive cuts in their arsenals, they must do more, especially to rob Iran and North Korea of the ability "to turn the blame for their own nuclear intransigence back onto us."
Beckett said that given the nature of today's world, nuclear weapons powers couldn't immediately produce timetables for total disarmament.
"But that does not prevent us from taking steps to reduce numbers now and to start thinking about how we would go about reaching that eventual goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons," she said.
Those steps should include the United States and Russia agreeing to reduce their arsenals beyond the limit of 2,200 deployed warheads required by the 2002 Treaty of Moscow by December 31, 2012, she said.
"There are still over 20,000 warheads in the world. And the U.S. and Russia hold about 96 percent of them," said Beckett. "Almost no one — politician, military strategist or scientist — thinks that warheads in those numbers are still necessary to guarantee international stability."
Russia has indicated that it could agree to a limit of fewer than 1,500 deployed warheads. But U.S. officials say the United States can't afford to deploy fewer than 2,200 warheads without undermining its nuclear deterrent.
Beckett also reiterated Britain's call on countries that haven't done so to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which mandates an indefinite global ban on underground nuclear tests. The Russian parliament ratified the test ban treaty in 2000.
While he's maintained a U.S. moratorium on underground testing, Bush opposes ratification of the treaty. He contends that it doesn't prevent rogue regimes from developing nuclear weapons and is unenforceable.