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Commentary | 24 August 2021

The ELN at 10: The Founders’ Story

Image of Des Browne

Des Browne |Chair of the ELN, Vice Chairman of the NTI, Convener of the TLG and former UK Defence Secretary

Image of Shatabhisha Shetty

Shatabhisha Shetty |Director of the APLN and Co-Founder and Former Deputy Director of the ELN

Image of Ian Kearns

Ian Kearns |Co-Founder, Board Member and former Director

Europe Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons Security

This piece is part of the #ELNat10 anniversary series

 

The European Leadership Network was founded in 2011 to advance multilateral nuclear disarmament, support non-proliferation and improve nuclear security through bringing together former and current leaders from wider Europe. In the last ten years, the purpose of the Network has developed into a broader commitment to building mutual security, as a necessary condition for nuclear disarmament in the Euro-Atlantic area. It has expanded from a network of experienced policymakers, such as former defence and foreign ministers, to include current and future leaders connected by a shared commitment to mutual security and multilateral approaches.

In the ELN’s anniversary year we are publishing a series of analyses, reflections and case studies reflecting on how and why the Network operates. For this first piece in the series, the ELN’s staff sat down with its three founders – Lord Browne, Shata Shetty and Ian Kearns – to discuss the story of how it all started, what they’ve learned and what the organisation has achieved over the past decade.

A realistic path to a world free of nuclear weapons

The ELN was originally inspired by the celebrated Schultz, Perry, Nunn and Kissinger op-ed of 2007, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. This was an example of respected leaders from both parties in the US, coming together across partisan differences, to warn of the dangers that the deterrence that has held since 1945 could still fail, and to set out steps back from that dangerous brink. This was in a context of a changing world where nuclear-weapons risks were increasing in their complexity—a trend that has only increased since that time.

According to Des Browne, “Margaret Beckett’s Carnegie speech in support of that agenda the same year was foundational for us and, in 2008, I, in my capacity as Secretary of State for Defence made a complementary speech at the Conference for Disarmament in Geneva. I think I was the first defence minister to speak there.”

These calls to action reverberated globally. In support of the op-ed, further groups of leaders from around the world came together to write their own op-eds with a similar call. Their ideas and vision were strongly reflected in President Obama’s seminal speech in Prague, in support of multilateral nuclear disarmament.

In the UK, this momentum and leadership led to the formation of the Top Level Group, comprised of very senior parliamentarians, most of whom had held high office. It included almost everyone who had held the position of defence or foreign secretary for the previous 20 years. As Des describes it, “On leaving the MoD, I was invited to chair the group. In response, I told them no one could chair such a group, but I would convene them, as long as it was for a very specific purpose. The Wall Street Journal op-ed and the Obama speech became our manifesto.”

President Obama’s seminal speech in Prague in 2009 calling for multilateral nuclear disarmament.

Encouraged by the example of the Top Level Group in the UK, Des and Shata Shetty decided this was the right time to build a network across Europe. They started to write to all of the politicians who had signed the op-eds from European countries calling for a world free of nuclear weapons. “Leadership has always been central for us. We recruited people who were showing leadership by writing those complementary op-eds, including the authors from Russia,” says Des.

“And, to our surprise, they were interested!”, says Shata. She describes the ELN emerging at “an auspicious moment in time”, where it was possible to bring together “senior political, military and diplomatic figures who were not the usual suspects on nuclear issues, who had always focused on defence and security issues, and yet were energised by the momentum to promote multilateral nuclear disarmament.” They reached out widely to former ministers, and the ELN became “a club others wanted to be part of”, in Shata’s words.

The ELN emerged at “an auspicious moment in time”, where it was possible to bring together “senior political, military and diplomatic figures who were not the usual suspects on nuclear issues.. yet were energised by the momentum to promote multilateral nuclear disarmament.”

To build the organisation’s research and advocacy capacity, Ian Kearns came in as ELN’s first director, having previously been acting director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). In that role, he had helped to run a national security commission chaired by Paddy Ashdown and George Robertson on the need for European collaboration. “Frankly, I felt the lack of a strong European collective voice was embarrassing,” said Ian. He was meanwhile looking with interest at the work of the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the US. “We thought we needed something more ambitious on this side of the Atlantic – with the ambition to get stuff happening, not just people talking.”

The ELN sought to put that into practice by reaching out to people who were writing op-eds and assembling them in real life, to meet, design policies, and connect to government decision-makers with clear, realistic calls to action. “Having a recent defence secretary of a nuclear weapon state calling for multilateral nuclear disarmament was something to be taken seriously,” said Shata. “We were conscious of our constituency and what was realistic, pragmatic and doable – we had people who understood what governments could and couldn’t do, and what was in the gift of decision-makers. Stepping back from the brink of nuclear confrontation was – and still is – common sense.”

A European voice

It was – and is – important to make sure that Europe has a voice on the issues that affect its security. Shata Shetty

Lord Browne speaks at the “Deterrence: Its Past and Future” conference in 2011 in London, co-sponsored by the ELN, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Discussing the motivations of the Network members, Shata notes “It was – and is – important to make sure that Europe has a voice on the issues that affect its security. At that time there was a policy discussion about potentially removing tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, the prospect of which had energised many.” Another issue that motivated Network members at this time were the fears that in 2010, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference would end in failure. “This would have been the second failed conference in a row and there were deep concerns over the ramifications for the global disarmament and non-proliferation regime,” says Shata.

Des describes the transatlantic element as fundamental to the purpose of the Top-Level Group, and later the ELN. “Early in the life of the TLG, we visited the USA with a small delegation. There, unsurprisingly, I was constantly being told what Europe thought. US organisations regularly invite delegations of Europeans whose views are then represented as Europe’s opinion.” Yet this was – and is – at odds with the diversity of voices and opinions that exist within Europe, and within each European countries. “Even within my own family, there is a diversity of voices and opinions. It is not in any single group’s interests, especially when they are on a lobbying visit to the US, to show that diversity. We needed a vehicle to expose diversity and differences to our US allies.”

Shata emphasises inclusivity as one of the ELN’s core values and objectives from the outset. “It was essential not just to bring together the usual suspects. And we did not want to define Europe by the boundaries ascribed by the EU or NATO.”

The Network’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity of viewpoints seems more important than ever as politics becomes more partisan and polarised in many places, and people retreat into their social media “filter bubbles”. The ELN’s founders and staff have consistently sought to balance the need for clear calls to action with the ethos of having a diversity of views in the network.

As Des puts it, “It was really important for us not to use the Network to force consensus. Given the purpose and nature of the organisation, that would have undermined its principal objective. I love multilateralism but hate consensus. It reduces everything to the lowest common denominator, which is usually the wrong conclusion.”

The ELN does not formally take a single collective policy position on the issues that it works on, which it could not do on behalf of such a diverse network. Instead, groups of network members and researchers work on a problem, develop an analysis, reach conclusions and make clear recommendations. Typically they then reach out to Network members to invite them to join in supporting that position through a variety of means. These could range from lending their names to a public statement, to advocating in their own speeches, meetings and press engagements.

As Des describes it, “Now, I often find myself in the position of the chair or convenor of a Track II meeting. When I set out the terms for my chairmanship of such a meeting, I say that we must invite every view, if possible. Contributors to the discussion are welcome to challenge the dominant view, as long as they do so in a spirit of mutual respect and are prepared to listen to what others are saying. As Chair, I tell participants that no one will try to change their mind. Interestingly, we have changed more minds that way than if we set out to persuade them they were wrong.”

Similarly, Ian notes that when organisations feel the need for everyone to sign off on every idea, it tends to result in a slow process. “We wanted to move faster and provide some leadership. What we did was an implied criticism of the think tank industry, as it was constituted then.” Many think tanks produce brilliant research but are less focused on ensuring policy uptake. Project timelines often end when the report is published. “I think many think tanks think you have to choose between an objective research organisation or doing advocacy. Instead, we felt these things could be synthesised powerfully,” says Ian.

I think many think tanks think you have to choose between an objective research organisation or doing advocacy. Instead, we felt these things could be synthesised powerfully. Ian Kearns

In terms of where things are now, that combination is more important than ever. Ian notes, “When you feel that things are moving against international cooperation and stability, the ability to bring robust thinking together with political advocacy is very important. If the advocacy is not well-grounded you won’t get reach. That’s part of the distinctiveness of the ELN”.

Creating the conditions for nuclear disarmament

The focus on multilateral nuclear disarmament has remained central throughout, but the ELN has also looked more broadly at the other security elements that feed into the thinking of governments, where nuclear issues are nestled. Shata Shetty

The ELN brings together leaders who are committed to a safer Europe and to the concept of mutual security. It has always been driven by a vision for multilateral nuclear disarmament, based on an overriding common interest in preventing nuclear war, which would be catastrophic for all, regardless of borders or beliefs. This policy focus has also meant addressing the conditions for nuclear disarmament, and the context in which nuclear policy is developed.

In Shata’s words, “The ELN’s growth and its strength is its flexibility. The focus on multilateral nuclear disarmament has remained central throughout, but ELN has also looked more broadly at the other security elements that feed into the thinking of governments, where nuclear issues are nestled.” Broadening the issues that we addressed wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly. With a diverse and growing Network, there is always a balance to be struck between members’ different perspectives and priorities, and the need to maintain focus. And we had to ensure we avoided the risk of diluting our focus. But to address the “wicked problem” of nuclear risks, there are a variety of different possible entry points and a need for creative thinking.

The ELN Delegation in Moscow in 2020. Shata second from left. Image: Valdai Club.

Des observes that it has been a consistent experience that dialogue with Russians about nuclear issues tends to lead to a larger conversation about security in the round. “For example, these conversations require discussions of ballistic missiles, conventional military superiority and other related matters. That is not surprising, as they were conscious that NATO, the West, were superior to them militarily in conventional weaponry and other ways and they saw their nuclear weapons as balancing out the conventional forces that NATO could bring to bear.” Geography matters: members from Southern Europe and Turkey are often more conscious of the security challenges in North Africa, the Sahel and the Middle East, while in the north of Europe many look towards the High North and the Arctic.

“The ELN started off with a very long title, which sought to reflect its three purposes, nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and nuclear material security. During the last ten years, there have been many points of inflection, and the point when we changed the name was really important.” To properly represent security challenges in the Euro-Atlantic space, we needed a title that reflected that it was not all about nuclear,” says Des.

Ian says that defining the mission is in fact very simple: “Start with world peace and work back from there!”

Finally, we asked the three founders to share their hopes for the ELN’s next decade.

The Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN) in Minsk in 2017. Image: ELN/YGLN.

We mustn’t continue mostly to be a network of people who used to be something. We need to get hold of the people who will be something, and work with them to advance the idea of mutuality of security, so that when they are something, they can do something about it. Lord Des Browne

Ian says,I’m very pleased to see ELN grasping the technological aspect of things with its project on nuclear weapons and new technologies. Today technology is sitting at the heart of pretty much every system, and technologies are not value-neutral – they embody aspirations and we need to think of them as an opportunity to do things differently not only as a threat.”

For Shata, “Our efforts were and are focused on trying to bring about policy change at the level of governments and leaders. Although our focus has been on nuclear issues, I am particularly proud of our policy and research work on identifying dangerous military incidents and identifying the gaps – the areas that governments want to tackle and aren’t able to see yet. What I would really hope is for our organisation to continue to distinguish the signal from the noise.”

Des concludes, “I have many hopes. Chief among them is that the Network will embrace systems thinking. In the modern environment, we are always dealing with problems that whoever we are, we cannot resolve alone. Also, all security is economic. We need to be working with businesspeople. The economy cannot work without security to provide predictability. We need to persuade businesspeople to work with us and invest in what we do.

We need to build partnerships and use them. Our partners and funders have been critical to our success. For example, we’ve invested in the University Consortium which we helped set up.

The only way we will get policy impact will be by improving diversity significantly and having younger faces. We mustn’t continue mostly to be a network of people who used to be something. We need to get hold of the people who will be something, and work with them to advance the idea of mutuality of security, so that when they are something, they can do something about it.”

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.