top of page

Lord Hannay: In Their Own Words

Updated: Apr 26



Lord Hannay has a distinguished and extensive career. He first joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1959, and he spent the following decades committed to public service. From 1984 until 1985, he was a Minister at the British Embassy in Washington, and he was then promoted to Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the European Economic Community from 1985 to 1990. Lord Hannay was also the Permanent Representative to the UN from 1990 until 1995, and between 1996 to 2003 he served as the Special Representative for Cyprus. Lord Hannay has also been a member of the House of Lords since 2001 and is currently the Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation.

Note: this interview was recorded on July 6, 2023.

Hello and welcome to the brand new Global Weekly interview series! This is our first interview, and hopefully the first of many. I’m Toby Gill, the Chair, and I’m here with our Editor-in-Chief, Jack Parkinson. Today we will be discussing a variety of topics on nuclear threats and the challenges to global security. Today we are delighted to be joined by Lord Hannay.

With the recent invasion of Ukraine, the nuclear sabre-rattling from the Kremlin, and the recent deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus, the concerns of nuclear weapons being used in a conflict zone are higher than any time since the Cold War. How realistic is the threat of nuclear deployment by Russia? What steps can the international community take to minimize the risks of nuclear deployment in Ukraine?

Lord Hannay (LH): Putin’s sabre-rattling is correctly described as that, nuclear sabre-rattling, in the context of Ukraine. I don’t think there is any calculation that he, or his generals, or others would make that could possibly lead them to suppose that it would be to his advantage to use a nuclear weapon against a non-nuclear weapon state. Ukraine having, of course, given up the ex-soviet nuclear weapons that were on its territory when it became fully independent in the 1990s. So, I don’t think the calculus of advantage and disadvantage points at all, even in the Kremlin, towards using nuclear weapons.

There is now increasing evidence that the Chinese have said they would be deeply distressed if there was any use of nuclear weapons, and the Indians have done so too. So, although the West, including the UK, have plenty of grouses about how China and India are handling this crisis, and how both states decline to recognise that it was a straight-forward breach of the UN charter, it does now appear that some influence has been brought to bear on the nuclear issue. It came to the surface most obviously at the time of the Bali G20 meeting last Autumn, when the Chinese actually signed up to a communique that included a warning that there should be no use of nuclear weapons.

So, I don’t want to dismiss it as something that could not happen under certain circumstances, particularly because Putin doesn’t seem to take a lot of advice about what he does – indeed if he’d taken any advice, he probably wouldn’t be where he is now. Nevertheless, I don’t think it should be overstated, and it’s certainly not wise to allow yourself to be drawn down the path of what could be called ‘nuclear blackmail’ because, like with other forms of blackmail, once you’ve given into it on one occasion, you’re only likely to be subjected to it on other occasions.

You mentioned that it’s certainly not in Putin’s interest to deploy nuclear weapons. But if the Ukraine counter-offensive was to gain pace - were Ukraine in a position to threaten Crimea, perhaps - do you still believe that even then, Putin would not resort to using tactical nuclear weapons?

LH: I do not know. But I certainly don’t assume that he would, because as I say, I think the calculus would remain that the damage that he would do to himself would far outweigh any military advantage he would achieve by using tactical nuclear weapons. Of course, tactical nuclear weapons have never been used, so it’s very hard to be sure what their military effect would be. But I think a lot of people would express doubts, as to whether they would be very effective militarily, and there's absolutely no doubt that the reaction of the rest of the world would be highly negative to the use of nuclear weapons - whatever the circumstances. So, I don't know; I can't predict the future. None of us can.

But I don't think that one should allow oneself to go down the primrose path of speculation, because I don't think it gets you very far. Particularly since neither you nor I, nor anyone else on our side of this argument, is in a position to read the mind of Vladimir Putin.

The invasion of Ukraine has highlighted a particular concern within warzones, and that's the issue of protecting civil nuclear facilities. As we know, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has been under attack in the Ukraine war, facing bombardment from artillery and mortars.

With Russia seemingly unwilling to have a demilitarized Zone around these areas and with the disregard shown to the safety of these nuclear power plants, how can the international community in Ukraine and the future, prevent a disaster occurring at these civil facilities?

LH: Well, I think the first thing is not to equate the problems of civil nuclear installations with the use of nuclear weapons, because they aren't the same. Yet, the threats facing the Zaporizhzhia plant present a serious problem, partly because it is the biggest nuclear power station in Europe, partly because the Russians who control it militarily have behaved extremely irresponsibly and have played all sorts of complicated games with how the plant was operating, where the electricity was going, and so on. It is, of course, a part of Ukraine, which they have seized by the use of force in violation of the UN Charter and many other international agreements.

But how bad is the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant? That’s hard to tell. The International Atomic Energy Agency, and its excellent director general, the Argentine doctor, Rafael Grossi, have some access. They have some people there ensuring the security and safety of the plant, and they are worried, but not frantically worried. What is necessary is that the Russians, who have military control, give the IAEA full access to every part of the power station and its facilities. They're not doing that at the moment. A lot of people are pressing them to do that, and they would, in my view, be very wise to do it.

But it also raises another wider issue, more long-term mind you, which is how you ensure that civil nuclear installations, which by happenstance become part of a war zone, avoid the sort of risks which have arisen, but have not yet happened, in Ukraine. I think we are all now very conscious of the fact that the international protocols that deal with these matters are not fully effective, even if the Russians were paying any attention to them, which they are not.

The international community will need to strengthen the kinds of international protocols surrounding civil nuclear installations that find themselves in a war zone. As the climate change negotiations and actions gain pace, there is clearly going to be an increase in the number of civil nuclear installations around the world, because it is a better alternative than fossil fuels, coal, oil or gas - even if it's not totally risk free, which it is of course not. So, if there are going to be more of these installations around the world, then a little simple arithmetic will tell you that more of them are likely to end up in conflict zones.

Therefore, we need stronger international agreements on how you're going to handle that sort of situation. A lot of which will consist of giving access to the IAEA and their inspectors in an unimpeded way and avoiding targeting or fighting anywhere near these installations. That's probably quite a tall order. But advances in international affairs tend to come when people have been taken rather too close to the brink for comfort, and when they realize then that it would be in the interest of everyone if there were certain rules agreed about how you would handle such situations.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine came as a surprise to many, and it overturned long standing assumptions that these sort of interstate wars on the continent were a thing of the past. Russia has been ostracized by the West and relations are now the poorest they have been in decades. Have we now entered a new era of international relations with the invasion of Ukraine?

LH: That's a pretty complex question, which would require a very complex series of answers. You are quite correct in thinking that we have moved from the Cold War, the first Cold War, as I would certainly call it, which ended roughly about 1989 - 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw pact, and the escape from Soviet domination of the countries of central Eastern Europe. Yet we've also now emerged from the post-Cold War era, sometimes called by people, the Unipolar era, when the United States seemed to be the only man left standing, as it were.

We're now in a new era, which has started very badly with the invasion of Ukraine, and which has now created a new Cold War, which will last for quite a long time. Whether it will last a lot longer than the present hot war between Russia and Ukraine is hard to tell, but my guess is that it will. But that will also be affected by what happens domestically in Russia; what is decided by Russians is to be their governance system, and who is going to be in charge of it. At present, it is not easy to see President Putin reaching an agreement which will be anything other than a temporary ceasefire, with the resumption of hostilities when he felt he had been able to replenish his military capacity.

Is there a chance of diplomatic reconciliation between the West and Russia if the war does come to an end anytime soon?

LH: I do think this is bound up with the question about whether President Putin remains in charge. If President Putin remained in charge, I think the chances of reconciliation would be very slight. If there was a successor to Vladimir Putin in whatever form, they might be even more aggressive than him, although I think we should again not go down the road of speculation on that. Yet [this successor] might conclude that Russia has made a mistake in invading Ukraine and try to bring an end to all that - and we would have to respond to that. But, going back to what I've called the beginning of the second Cold War, which is now in full flood, along with the hot war between Russia and Ukraine, I don't think that's going to be over very quickly.

For instance, the decisions that everyone in the West has taken, and the Germans most impressively, to do without Russian gas and oil - that's not going to be reversed. The taps not going to be turned on again. Partly because it will have been replaced - they will find other supplies of gas, and partly because they will have developed renewables of various kinds, which won't be replaced.

But of course, the one reality which we do all have to live with, and we'll have to continue to live with, is that Russia is a very large country (geographically speaking, not demographically); they are a part of Europe, and they are next door to us. So, of course we will have to deal with them. Of course, eventually, we will have to come, I hope, to a peaceful way of handling any disputes we have between us. And I suspect that any subsequent security arrangements will be based on something not dissimilar from the first Cold War. That's to say, on a mixture of deterrence and cooperation.

There hasn't been the same level of condemnation of invasion around the world as there has been in the West. Many key players in the Global South have notably remained neutral. Could this represent the beginning of the end of Western hegemony on the world stage, and what can the West do to encourage nations to act more resolutely against the invasion?

LH: Firstly, I think if you look at the numbers, they're not that impressive. At the UN General Assembly, there were [39] states who abstained or voted against the vote condemning the

invasion. Well, there were 140 who voted to condemn Russia. That's rather a big difference. Moreover, the number who voted against condemning Russia was in the single figures, and not a particularly savoury group of states who anyone would wish to associate themselves with.

Of course, the Europeans are in the front line. Although they didn't choose to be in the front line: they are next door to Russia. Russia which has just invaded Ukraine, a non-nuclear weapon state, whose territorial integrity they had confirmed and indeed stated that they would respect. So, this is a really serious threat to all the countries of Europe and of the whole Euro-Atlantic area.

Now, there are other countries around the world, sometimes loosely known as the Global South, who have felt themselves less directly threatened by this and are therefore less willing to take a very firm position. I myself think that is a bit short-sighted, because any number of those countries are at risk from a bigger neighbour who might invade them. And if Russia gets away with seizing large chunks of Ukraine, or indeed wiping Ukraine off the map, then that precedent will be extremely dangerous for a lot of those countries who are now abstaining. I think over time, they will probably come to recognize that. They will also, if you're being cynical, be weighing up who is likely to come out best from this war, and if they conclude that Russia is not going to come out best, some of them may turn out to be fair weather friends. That often happens.

It is a long and complex game. We need to not get over-anxious about it but recognize that we have not yet persuaded quite a number of important countries in the global South, like Brazil or South Africa or India, that Russia’s actions need to be condemned and countered by economic sanctions. But we should persevere and explain our point of view. And we should also bear in mind that one of the reasons they are reluctant is that they don't think that the West pays enough attention to the problems that are important to them.

We know what the problem that is greatest for us in the security field is - it is the threat by Russia which they created by invading Ukraine. They don't feel that. But they do feel at risk from a whole lot of other things, whether that is climate change or indebtedness, or a lack of food stuffs, or not being treated very fairly over vaccines when there's a pandemic, etcetera. We need to pay more attention and do more about the things that concern them if we want to persuade them to do more about the things that concern us.

With the Ukraine War, a permanent Security Council member has illegally invaded a neighbouring state, and despite the widespread condemnation from the General Assembly, retained their seat on the Security Council. This has led some critics to claim the UN is no longer up to task and call for sweeping reform, or even a new organisation.

How can the UN remain relevant in this modern world, as it is in its current state, when a permanent member with veto powers has shown such open disregard for the very principles upon which it was founded?

LH: The UN was quite deliberately founded in 1945 without any provision for withdrawal and without any provision (other than Charter) for changing its rules. I think that was wise. They were building on the extremely damaging precedent of the League of Nations, in which nations often invaded their neighbours, and then merely withdrew from the League to avoid being a part of their security arrangements, which were themselves fairly vestigial. I don't think we want to go back there again.

On the question on whether the UN could be replaced by something else, we need to ask the question: would it be more effective than the UN? Not very likely. I think it would divide the world into people who joined the new organization and people who didn't, which would be far from helpful.

You must remember that in the first Cold War there were periods of pretty bad despair about the UN; times when the UN was marginalized totally. For example, in the early 1980s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, or when they shot down a Korean airliner with a member of the House of Congress on board, and so on. Those were grim days. But if we’d given up then, if we said: “let's kick out the Soviet Union out and do something different”, we would have destroyed the organisation. The organisation which only ten years later was reversing an aggression by Saddam Hussein against his neighbour, Kuwait. So, I think talk of a “new organisation” is not a very good way to look at it. We have to protect what we've got. We’ve got to protect the rules base international order.

We must look for opportunities to strengthen it and to improve it. And we must also recognize that the impasse that exists in the Security Council over Ukraine would have existed at any time from 1945 onwards, had they chosen to invade. Once Russia acquired nuclear weapons, no one was prepared to start World War Three, and it would not have been sensible to. Ultimately, the provisions of the Charter are such that you wouldn't have even had voting in the Security Council if the permanent members didn’t have the power of veto. So, I think one has to be realistic about these things.

It's a bad period. The UN has taken quite a lot of hits, but it's still an essential part of any rules based international order. And without a rule based international order, you have the law of the jungle.

In 2004, you remember you were a member of the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. This was a panel focused on analysing the greatest threats to international peace. That panel identified ten key threats, such as the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear proliferation, among others.

How has this list changed today in response to the War in Ukraine, and what would you say are the greatest threats to global peace today?

LH: Well, most of the ones that we identified still exist. Some of them are more acute than they were then. Some of them are perhaps less acute. Climate change and global warming is clearly rising up the list. As are the strategic military, possibly security, consequences of a failure to turn back Global Warming.

Likewise, pandemics are clearly far more serious than we thought at the time, although equally, COVID showed that with a massive amount of effort, we can get on top of them. So, we're going to have to do that again, no doubt. And we're going to have to get better at handling them.

Regional instability remains a huge problem; there are places all over the world, including particularly in Africa, places like Sudan or the Sahel, where there is fighting - whether it is instability, or whether it’s terrorism. I don't think that there is a lot of talk about AI. I'm not sufficiently qualified to determine how much a threat it really is, but I'm sure we need to get together internationally to talk about it and see whether one can identify some sort of rules of the road, which will reduce the risk from it.

How about the recent threats to nuclear facilities, would you include that on the list?

LH: No, I wouldn't say so. I don't think it needs to be. We've talked already about Zaporizhzhia, and the need to have some more constructive rules about how to handle civil nuclear installations that find that find themselves in a conflict zone. But no, I don't think it should be.

I think there's a greater misunderstanding - having a civil nuclear power station does not in fact equip you, to have nuclear weapons. There are all sorts of ways in which that could be dealt with, as is within the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, with their inspectors. And so, no, I don't think that we should see the threat to civil nuclear infrastructure as a threat to international peace and security.

A lot of our readers are seeking careers in the diplomatic service, Foreign Office, or similar sort of roles. Clearly, you've had an extensive career in the Diplomatic Service and Foreign Office, so is there any advice you'd give to a student or a new graduate looking to go into foreign affairs?

LH: It’s a little bit difficult to give other people advice, particularly if the other people in question are quite a lot younger than I am and been brought up in different surroundings. But, I mean, there are general things I would have drawn from my own experience.

One of them, and this is particularly if you're in public service, but it's also true if you're in the private sector, is that you should always try and do your best in your job. You should not spend your whole time thinking about the job you're going to get after this job, or the one you're going to get after that. If you do that, you won't achieve very many things, and you will always be judged by how well you did the job you're currently doing.

So that is key. Yet I also think one of the most important things is to learn to listen. Listen to other people's opinions and pay attention to them. You don't have to agree with them! If they are serial human rights abusers, you're not going to agree with them. But you do need to listen to people's views and try to understand what has led them to those views. They may seem so apparent - for instance, people who commit genocide will never be tolerated by the international community. But you still need to know why they are doing it, because otherwise you're not going to understand very well.

And you do also need to understand that countries don’t remain exactly the same as they always were. Take Germany. Is Germany now the same as Hitler's Germany? Of course it's not, and anyone who suggests it is simply not very historically well informed. So, countries do change. And the purpose, of course, of these rules that we're always talking about, the rules based international order, is to provide a framework within which people can work out their differences in their disputes by negotiation, by compromise, and not by the use of force. That's worth persevering with and will remain worth persevering with however many accidents along the road there are. And believe me, there will be plenty more like Ukraine.

Some great advice. That wraps up our interview. Thank you for your time, Lord Hannay.

LH: My pleasure.


bottom of page