Some of the world’s leading nuclear arms controllers are meeting at the UK Foreign Office conference centre in Wilton Park, Sussex, this week. As the week progresses, there will be discussions on the state of the nuclear non-proliferation system, the initiatives currently in train after the NPT agreement around an Action Plan in May 2010, and prospects for progress in the current five-year NPT round that culminates in the 2015 Review Conference.
The mood as delegates gather is mixed. On the one hand, things in many areas are clearly better than they were after 2005’s disastrous NPT RevCon, and it is clearly helpful to have an agreed program to work on for the road ahead. Since last year we have witnessed the ratification of the new START treaty by the US and Russia, and the appointment of a facilitator and host for the long-awaited official conference on a Middle East zone free of WMD. On the other hand, prospects for early further progress such as the entry into force of the global nuclear test ban treaty look slim, and Republicans in the US Congress are balking at further arms reductions. Negotiations clearly will not start in earnest until 2013, at the earliest. Meanwhile, the diplomatic crisis with Iran heats up, and tools to pressurize the regime appear fewer and less effective or attractive.
We do not have the luxury of time to simply wait until the politics in Washington, Moscow or Tehran are conducive to progress. Instead, we need fresh thinking and a new approach that escapes the traps of current stale formula. Negotiations may have played a central role in setting up the NPT or in breaking the deadlock of the Cold War. But they did not work alone, and today, negotiations may have unhelpful or unintended side-effects. For example, NATO allies are holding back on the inevitable conclusion that their tactical nuclear weapons are liabilities, in the mistaken belief that they can achieve negotiating gains with the Russians by placing them on the table.
In helping to kick off the conference this week in the opening session, I will be presenting my thoughts around the problems of negotiating disarmament in the current environment, and will be suggesting alternatives. Some involve coordinated actions, and some simply use well tried and tested unilateral measures that dominated the disarmament in the early 1990s.
Arms controllers such as those meeting at Wilton Park this week are very familiar with the complexity that prevents easy resolution of the problems. But sometimes I wonder whether the well-meaning approaches to finding solutions to this complexity simply keep alive the notions that underpin the deployment of nuclear weapons, when otherwise they would simply vanish in the new strategic realities of the 21st century, characterized by other far more salient currencies of power and threat to global security and stability.