Nuclear disarmament: the case for engagement, not division

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) articulates a collective ambition: a world free of nuclear weapons. And since its inception, we have made significant progress: 189 countries have signed up to the NPT; nuclear weapons have reduced in number from an estimated 70,000 at the height of the Cold War to somewhere in the region of 17,000 today; and while there have certainly been bumps in the road, the treaty has largely kept a lid on further proliferation.

However, we are struggling to achieve our vision. The truth is, we continue to hold a deep psychological attachment to nuclear weapons, rooted in emotions of fear and self-preservation. Non-weapon states, such as Saudi Arabia, resort to hints of nuclear ambitions when they feel vulnerable and unprotected. Possessor states still cling tightly to a doctrine of nuclear deterrence that, despite dramatic reductions, means that the number of nuclear weapons still in existence remains unacceptably high and the obstacles to complete disarmament feel daunting.

The lower the numbers get, the harder it appears to be to let go. What is more, some of the states ostensibly pushing for disarmament continue to do so from the shelter of the US nuclear umbrella. These are weapons that continue to have a deep hold on our psyche, with a reach that extends well beyond a handful of influential decision makers.

The question is: what do we do about it?

Some in the advocacy community believe they have found the solution. They believe we can skip over this psychological attachment; that we can drive through change by sheer force of will. Rebecca Johnson writes about attempts to push through an international ban on the use of nuclear weapons inspired by discussion of their humanitarian impacts. The hope is that a formal treaty, if signed by others in the international community, will effectively guilt and shame the possessor states into giving up their nuclear arsenals.

Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly agree that the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use is a discussion we must have. The potential impacts of nuclear weapons use stretch well beyond the national boundaries of the possessor states and, as I pointed out in my earlier article, I believe all states deserve a seat at the disarmament table.

The problem I have with the divide and conquer, “guilt and shame” approach, however, is that I do not think it brings us closer to where we want to be in the long term. It is applying a method successfully used on other weapon systems, such as landmines and cluster munitions, which have weaker connections to state power, and assuming nuclear weapons are the same beast. This may make us feel more empowered, but it is a placebo. Political gamesmanship will likely ruffle some feathers, but it is highly unlikely to dislodge deep-seated beliefs that are linked to feelings of national security, status and global power balance; and, even less likely if we make no attempt to actually address them.

To claim, as Johnson does, that the nuclear weapon states have not participated in the humanitarian discussion because they are “taking a stand against humanitarian disarmament” is disingenuous. The truth is that by centering the discussion around a nuclear weapons convention and demanding the nuclear weapon states abandon their deep-held beliefs, the advocacy movement have been actively pushing away the nuclear weapon states.

It is understandable that frustrations on disarmament run deep. Our blind attachment to weapons that hold such high risk is frustrating and unacceptable. But attempting to force through a nuclear weapons convention without the engagement of the states we are actually trying to persuade seems more likely, in the long term, to simply compound the “them” vs. “us” mentality that already pervades this debate. We may feel empowered in the short-term, but the long-term issues remain untouched.

On an issue that is rife with disagreement, the dire humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use are a rare point on which weapon states and non-weapon states, proponents and opponents of nuclear deterrence, all agree. We should be grasping that opportunity for dialogue with both hands.

My suggestion is that, rather than using the humanitarian discussion as a means of highlighting division, we should be using it as a point of agreement from which we can open the door to more forward-looking engagement: engagement based upon the joint enterprise of strengthening international norms that support inclusive, universal, non-discriminatory, law-based structures. There have been many years of stalemate and inaction on this agenda, reflecting the complexity and entrenched attachments involved in it. But ultimately, the most effective means of creating the necessary international consensus to move forward is not by threat, but by seeking to build positive international relationships through dialogue. That is surely the lesson we are learning with Iran, and we should apply it too to the nuclear weapon states.

Our ambition needs to be greater than creating two separate tables: the weapon states at one and the non-weapon states at another. We should be aiming for a single table, where both sets of interests are appropriately represented. But to do that we need to stop pretending that the humanitarian discussion is about inviting the weapon states in, and actually open the door. By refocusing on engagement, rather than on a treaty that is intended to drive deeper fractures into an already divisive debate, I think we stand a much greater chance of making sustainable progress.


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

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