UN General Assembly

Repairing and refocusing a fractured nuclear discussion

Saying that nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament are interlinked may seem like a spectacular statement of the obvious. Non-proliferation – that is, preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons – relies heavily on our ability to simultaneously deliver results on disarmament – that is, getting rid of the nuclear weapons that currently exist around the world. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not an effective long-term persuasion strategy. So, the longer nuclear weapons possessors are perceived to be clinging to their weapons – regardless of actual reductions in their arsenals or any reasoning around strategic balance – the harder it is likely to become to maintain a strong, cohesive line on non-proliferation.

Yet within policy discourse the two issues – non-proliferation and disarmament – are often addressed separately. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) attempts to bring the issues under a single umbrella – but it stops just short, setting a stronger framework around preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons than it does around getting rid of those that already exist. Under the NPT, states without existing arsenals are to remain nuclear weapon free, and the transfer, trade or development of weapons-grade materials is prohibited. The disarmament element of the treaty has less fixed emphasis: it calls on the official weapons states – the U.S., Russia, U.K., France and China – to “pursue negotiations in good faith” on stopping the nuclear arms race, getting rid of their nuclear weapons, and bringing disarmament under international control.

A worrying consequence of this disparity is that it encourages states to talk past each other on how to drive the disarmament and non-proliferation agendas forward. Frustration bubbles up on all sides, with non-weapon states feeling excluded from a disarmament discussion that they see as directly impacting their own security and future prosperity, and the weapon states complaining of a lack of recognition for the significant reductions they have already made and for the complexity of the disarmament agenda. An already fragile trust is waning and, as a result, less and less emphasis is being placed on digging beneath these apparently conflicting perspectives to identify the common ground necessary to make actual progress. Rather than building bridges between the disarmament and non-proliferation agendas, the debate is at risk of fracturing.

Over the past year, a number of disarmament-focused initiatives have sprung up within, and on the periphery of, international fora. In December 2012, the General Assembly tasked a working group with discussing how to bring the nuclear weapon states together into a collective disarmament process. Over the years, the U.K. and France have independently taken steps to reduce their nuclear arsenals, and the U.S. and Russia have put in place a number of bilateral agreements to implement joint reductions. Now many believe the time is right (or, at least, is approaching) to draw the weapon states together into a multilateral dialogue, with the aim of building trust and stimulating bolder, sustainable reductions. The nuclear weapon states, however, declined to participate, arguing that the initiative served as a distraction from the delivery of an already complex NPT Action Plan.

In March 2013, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use, which brought 127 interested states, U.N. organizations, the Red Cross and civil society organizations together for a “fact-based discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation”. The nuclear weapon states again opted out, maintaining the line that while they understood the serious consequences of nuclear weapons use, the discussion added little clear value to an already challenging issue.

And, in September 2013, the General Assembly held its first-ever High-Level Meeting on Disarmament. States, including the NWS (the five NPT nuclear weapon states), made national statements ranging from calls for greater progress and transparency on disarmament to frustration (from the NWS) that the spread of initiatives around disarmament alone were distracting from the wider NPT agenda.

This spotlight currently being shone on disarmament highlights broader challenges within the international nuclear weapons discourse which are valuable to consider. First, isolating the disarmament agenda runs the same risks as doing so with non-proliferation: the two go hand in hand, and looking at them as discrete issues is likely to be short-sighted. Without a strong commitment to disarmament, it will be hard to maintain an international focus on non-proliferation; the same applies in the other direction.

But second, and perhaps more importantly, it highlights an important point about perspectives. Discussion has tended to focus on the initiatives themselves, and who will or won’t attend. We need to be paying equal attention to why they are springing up in the first place. Whether you agree with them or not, there is a motivation behind them, stemming largely from underlying frustration. Perceptions of imbalance and inertia on the disarmament agenda are currently compounded by a growing sense among non-nuclear weapon states that they have little voice on a policy which is significant to their future security and livelihood. The international regime is failing them. These initiatives are not simply driven by a sense of morality and humanity – they are the product of states seeking an outlet on a question of global security, which currently only a handful of nations have a say in determining.

It is equally critical to consider the flip side of the coin. The NWS, largely behind closed doors, are attempting to maneouvre a complex and delicate balancing act of dialogue and trust-building between nations which have long been suspicious of each other. Much as we want it to, that doesn’t come easily. The nuclear weapon states each have fears and concerns of their own that they are attempting to navigate. And because of that, they are perhaps constrained in their ability to properly articulate how they feel progress is being made on disarmament in any way that assuages the fears and frustrations of the non-weapon states.

The NPT will soon be 44 years old – it opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970, a product of the Cuban Missile Crisis which marked the height of the Cold War. Against the odds it was, and remains, a real success for international cooperation. But, on our current path, we are at risk of allowing this hard fought regime to fracture and fail – which would not only be a sad statement on our times and our diplomatic capacity, but a loss for our own generation and beyond.

The frustrations on all sides are real, and they are important; but rather than driving the agenda further apart, we need to start looking for ways to turn emerging initiatives – high-level meetings, open ended working groups, the humanitarian dimension and P5 discussions – into opportunities rather than dividing forces. For example, non-weapon states and weapon states alike agree that the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use would be catastrophic – it is an area of common ground, which presents a foundation for real dialogue. Starting from a point of shared interest is an opportunity for non-weapon states to have their voices heard by those who most need to hear it, and for the weapons states to demonstrate more openly the steps they are taking to deliver disarmament and the challenges they face.

Finding a way to stop talking past each other and start thinking about the perspectives that are driving national behaviours will be important. We need to demonstrate a capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes – including those we disagree with the most – to figure out where the common ground lies. Over 98% of countries around the world have signed up to the principles of non-proliferation and disarmament under the NPT; striving to better understand the incentives that exist to change the status quo, rather than focusing on our own national positions, will surely help us to get there.

These are the opinions of the author. This article was originally featured on a regular column by Rebecca on OpenSecurity, a forum of OpenDemocracy.net. 


Image: Patrick Gruban, cropped and downsampled by Pine – originally posted to Flickr as UN General Assembly

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