"No Special Privileges"? British Nuclear Forces, Transatlantic Relations, and the INF Negotiations

We will discuss Oliver Barton's paper "'No Special Privileges'? British Nuclear Forces, Transatlantic Relations, and the INF Negotiations."

If you would like to participate in this online seminar, please register here. All participants will receive the paper and a Zoom invitation in advance.

Speaker: Oliver Barton, PhD Candidate, London School of Economics and Political Science and Principal Policy Analyst, UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory

Respondent: Dr. Susan Colbourn, DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins SAIS


In 1983, Britain’s top foreign policy priority was the implementation of NATO’s dual track decision.  At the same time, as a nuclear power, the UK’s strongest interest was the protection of it strategic deterrent.  These goals were increasingly in tension the more that the Soviets found a sympathetic audience amongst European Allies for their claim that the exclusion of British and French nuclear forces was the main obstacle to reaching an INF agreement.

Having effectively blunted domestic opposition to Cruise by winning the 1983 General Election, the Thatcher Government encouraged the Allies to show continued resolve. However, the Germans, facing much stiffer opposition, wanted to avoid NATO being blamed for the failure of the negotiations and the need to deploy new systems.  Consequently, the Germans called for the British and French to be more forthcoming about when and how their nuclear forces would be included in arms control.  Although they claimed ‘no special privilege’, the British fiercely resisted such calls, fearing a slippery slope towards greater concessions. 

As Anglo-German relations deteriorated, Britain hoped that the United States, as a fellow nuclear power, would be sympathetic.  However, the stark difference in scale of their respective nuclear forces, and a certain lingering ambivalence on the Americans’ part about the British and French deterrents, meant that the British never felt that they could take American support for granted.  Although the French shared the British philosophy of minimum deterrence, they did not commit their nuclear forces to NATO, and were prone to flashes of Gaullist independence. 

Finding themselves increasingly isolated on an issue that they believed threatened their most vital national interest, the British eventually conceded that in the unlikely event that negotiations gave rise to ‘substantial reductions’ in US and Soviet arsenals, ‘Britain would want to review its position’.  Why, when the dual track decision had reached its critical stage and European public support hung in the balance was Britain not more accommodating?  In short, the Thatcher Government had reached a tipping point where protecting the viability of the British strategic deterrent trumped the imperative to implement the dual track decision.

With recent calls to broaden participation in future arms control negotiations, this episode highlights the central (if occasionally overlooked) role that British and French nuclear forces have often played in arms control, and the tensions that debates about their status have caused within NATO.  It also highlights the paradoxical dependence that Britain has upon the US for the protection of its independent deterrent.

Speaker bio:

Oliver Barton is a part-time PhD candidate in International History at the LSE, and a Principal Policy Analyst at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Oliver read History at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London. His PhD project draws upon declassified documents to shed light upon the Thatcher Government’s contribution to the implementation of NATO’s 1979 dual track decision: the deployment by NATO of intermediate nuclear forces (INF) in Western Europe, and the negotiations that led to the elimination of all American and Soviet INF systems. Oliver’s work is supervised by Professor Matthew Jones, the official historian of the UK’s strategic deterrent.

Oliver’s latest publication, “‘The Most Staunch and Dependable of the Allies’? Britain and the Zero Option” can be accessed for free at: https://www.vr-elibrary.de/doi/10.13109/9783666352171.91

Respondent bio: 

Susan Colbourn is a DAAD Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). A diplomatic and international historian, her research focuses on NATO, the Cold War, and the role of nuclear weapons in international politics and society. Prior to joining SAIS, Colbourn received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto (2018) and spent two years as a Henry Chauncey Jr. ’57 Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University’s International Security Studies program.

At SAIS, she is working on two book-length projects. The first is an international history of NATO’s Cold War, focused on the Atlantic Alliance’s struggles to manage the promise and the pitfalls of a relaxation in tensions with the Soviet Union and Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies from 1949 through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The second is a brief history of NATO’s enlargement in the 1990s.


Published Mar. 11, 2021 2:26 PM - Last modified Mar. 11, 2021 3:34 PM