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BASIC-ICCS Responsibility Framework: An Innovative Tool for Understanding a Complex Subject

This piece is also published on the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies website.

In 2022, the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham launched the Nuclear Responsibility Toolkit. Co-authored by Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Alice Spilman, and Nicholas J. Wheeler, the Toolkit offers a new and structured way to think, talk and write about nuclear weapons, using the lens of nuclear responsibilities. Nuclear responsibilities are the responsibilities of states and other actors in relation to nuclear weapons. The concept of nuclear responsibilities is usually debated and discussed at state/government level. However, any actor that can in some way influence nuclear weapons futures can have and explore nuclear responsibilities, and the Toolkit aims to broaden the debate around nuclear responsibilities amongst different actors at the national, regional, and international levels.

The Toolkit makes three core contributions:

  1. A new policy exploration tool called the Responsibilities Framework.
  2. A model three-stage process for running dialogues on nuclear responsibilities.
  3. Advice and inspiration for research and writing on nuclear responsibilities.

The most interesting aspect of the Toolkit is that it is not solely designed for nuclear experts. It can be used by government ministers, national policy officials, scholars, researchers, and the civil society, to have deeper insights about how different members of nuclear policy communities perceive nuclear issues and responsibilities.

The most useful part of the Toolkit is the Responsibilities Framework. This can be used in interactive workshops with the help of one or more facilitators to guide the dialogue without influencing the outcomes of the discussion. The participants could be from any field contributing to the discussion in their own way, based on their previous observations, knowledge or expertise. In subsequent workshops, participants can take the role of facilitators who may want to conduct similar workshops in their own networks/organisations to carry on the discussions.

The Responsibilities Framework is used to explore the nuclear responsibilities of a given stakeholder (i.e. a state, a nuclear policy community, a media group, and so on) through a series of facilitated questions. The Framework can also be used to assess perceptions of responsibilities of other nuclear weapon states or even non-nuclear weapon states, following the assumption that all states have responsibilities in relation to nuclear weapons (for example, in relation to peaceful nuclear uses in the civilian sector). The ultimate goal is to review an actor’s ‘nuclear responsibilities’ under any state/actor. The Framework aims to deconstruct the existing debate around nuclear responsibilities, mostly focused on which actor is considered responsible/irresponsible, to shift conversations away from a chronic blame game and foster an inclusive understanding of what are nuclear responsibilities according to different actors and how do they translate into policies and practices.

For ease, the Responsibilities Framework can be divided into three main sections, each responding to a different set of questions. The first section asks questions in relation to the nuclear responsibilities of the identified stakeholder. The questions are linked to one another and help draw connections between what are the nuclear responsibilities of the identified stakeholder, to whom is the stakeholder responsible, and what are the sources of such responsibilities. After having identified responsibilities and their sources, the second section explores how the stakeholder is fulfilling such responsibilities, assessing how far different responsibilities are reflected in existing policies and practices. It then aims to determine the relationship between the various policies and practices, exploring whether they complement or compete with one another. The last section of the Framework explores how the stakeholder’s responsibilities are perceived by other actors/stakeholders, even adversaries. It also seeks to find new approaches to translating various responsibilities into policies and practices and determine what more could be done to fulfil nuclear responsibilities, better signal them and reduce conflict dynamics in the future.

Having explored the Responsibility Framework as part of a joint workshop between BASIC, ICCS, and the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR) at the University of Lahore, it was felt that the data and findings of the workshop could potentially inform policy-making through a comprehensive overview of different responsibilities and their related policies and practices. This highlighted the importance of gathering a diverse group of individuals to participate in the workshops. The findings could reveal insightful information in relation not only to the responsibilities of the state but also to responsibilities at the individual level, for example, the responsibility of citizens of a nuclear state vis-à-vis use of social media during any crises.

After running nuclear responsibilities dialogues at the national level, conversations can be continued at the regional and international levels to have a shared understanding of diverse nuclear responsibilities in international politics; and propose relevant and informed risk reduction policies across different policy domains. The Responsibilities Framework could be helpful in Track 1.5 or Track 2 diplomacy between states, particularly those in adversarial relations, to have better understanding of each other’s perception of nuclear responsibilities and chalk out a way for risk reduction and crisis management in the future via dialogue. 

Given the ever-growing interest in nuclear-related subjects, the Framework should definitely be used in classrooms for students of Strategic Studies/International Relations/Political Science and Public Policy etc. and serve as a guide for them in drafting similar frameworks. 

The Framework’s application is not limited to nuclear responsibilities. It could also be applied to explore other domains of responsibilities. For instance, it could be used to stir a debate regarding cyber responsibilities, AI responsibilities, space responsibilities, and so on.

Moreover, the authors should also consider its translation into different languages for better outreach. It is equally important to mention here that participants from the nuclear field may find the Framework relatively easy. On the other hand, participants new to nuclear issues might find the Framework challenging. For this reason, the role of the facilitator is very important in the employment of the Framework. The facilitator needs to be unbiased and cooperative in order for the discussions to be more accurate and productive. The BASIC report on Exploring the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Responsibilities is very helpful in understanding the role of facilitators and the utility and applicability of the Framework in steering discussions around nuclear responsibilities amongst a diverse group of experts and officials in a given nuclear policy community. 

Overall, the BASIC-ICCS Responsibilities Framework opens a new way to consider nuclear responsibilities. It is a relevant contribution to the literature in broadening the debate about nuclear responsibilities or any related subject (like cyber, AI) that needs in-depth discussion, debate, collaboration and even conflict management.

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This article is co-published with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. 

Shaza Arif is a Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace Security Studies, Islamabad.

Views expressed belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

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