Stockholm Syndrome: Looking to escape the nuclear trap we’re caught in

Whilst the public debate over nuclear disarmament tends to deal in black and white, the reality is that the nuclear disarmament process to which every member of the international community is committed to inevitably involves a complex set of steps that can be taken unilaterally, bilaterally and multilaterally. And this process inevitably involves uncertainty and setback.

Sixteen influential Non-Nuclear Weapons States, most represented by their Foreign Ministers, met in Stockholm this Tuesday to discuss how to reverse the current deeply worrying trend away from global nuclear disarmament. Caused by deteriorating strategic relations, increasing nuclear dangers and a re-energised arms race involving disruptive emerging technologies, it is a wicked existential problem for the global community, one of the most intractable of our time.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was there. He had been in Tehran the day before, and was only too familiar with the challenge for the international community in persuading the Iranians to voluntarily accept restraint on their nuclear programme when its most powerful members are modernising their own nuclear arsenals. The legitimacy in pressurising Iran relies completely upon the NPT, yet the principal UN guardians of global governance, the five permanent UN Security Council members, are also those who are most at risk of undermining the sustainability of the NPT by resisting calls for their own nuclear disarmament.

Japanese Foreign Minister Tarō Kōno flew from the meeting to Iran to join Japan’s first top level political delegation to Iran in four decades. As the only country to have directly experienced a nuclear attack, Japan and its people place a strong priority on nuclear disarmament. Its delegation to Stockholm included 38 officials. But equally it has a strong alliance with the United States and is nervous about any possible signals of weakening in the US nuclear umbrella the government believes it needs against North Korea and China. Its presence at the Stockholm Ministerial was highly significant.

But what can such states do when they themselves do not have nuclear weapons and have limited options in affecting the decisions of those that do? When there is so much resistance to the agenda from states that possess nuclear weapons? The international agenda of disarmament steps agreed at previous NPT Review Conferences, such as entry into force of the test ban treaty, a ban on fissile materials or achieving major reductions in arsenals, has been stymied by hold-out armed states. Each step, seen by some as weakening their security or strategic position, is one too far for them. Difficult in their own right, these steps are easily damaged by disagreements, failure to understand sensitivities, projection of malevolent intent onto other states, or simply ideological attachment to opposing strategies. Advocating specific disarmament steps, introducing new bans on nuclear weapons and blaming other states has a whiff of desperation to it. These sixteen attended to say that we need steps within steps, termed in their declaration as a stepping stone approach.

I outlined the thinking behind this initiative in my address to the working lunch of officials on Tuesday. Based upon a systems approach to complexity it has three distinguishing features.

  1. Open and Ambitious

The objective must be to reduce nuclear dangers, and we have international agreement in principle for disarmament – this is enshrined in Article VI of the NPT and in the UN Charter. This initiative is about exploring cooperatively how we actually go beyond positions and implement disarmament, bringing all relevant states with us. This requires a combination of vision with a broad and flexible approach because detail and choreography of future disarmament steps is shrouded in uncertainty. Individual governments, even nuclear weapon states, do not have the control they would like. If we hold on tightly to the shared vision, but lightly to our particular proposals knowing that they will evolve in contact with others’ perspectives, we stand a better chance of success.

2. Inclusive

A railway bridge close to my house in London has the words, ‘If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together’. We must involve a wide variety of perspectives, from those committed to fast-tracking disarmament to those reluctantly attached to nuclear deterrence they see as necessary for strategic balance. As is commonly understood by any travelling group, for sustainability we have to go at a pace that accommodates many of the cautious, particularly those that hold most power in the system. It involves respecting their concerns and talks their language, including political and military leaderships. But they too have a responsibility to participate in good faith.

3. Tackling supply reduces demand

The US State Department has launched an initiative, Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND). Mirroring the Israeli position on regional security before disarmament, it assumes we do not have a favourable strategic context to see disarmament, and therefore we need to reduce demand by improving international relations first. The Stepping Stones Agenda looks for disarmament steps that can be taken now without improvements in the security environment and without demanding strategic sacrifice from the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS). It is designed to improve trust and the strategic context and so contributes to CEND but does not require it. Each action signals intent towards agreeing further (undefined or adaptive) stepping stones on the journey in the right direction.

BASIC and the Swedish Foreign Ministry have identified four areas in which such stepping stones can be identified.

Reduce the Salience of Nuclear Weapons

The NWS promise a discussion on nuclear doctrines amongst themselves in the P5 Process and at the next NPT Review Conference. This is to be warmly welcomed, and will offer the chance to better explain their positions and to acknowledge the price to international diplomacy and international security. In particular, it ought to be possible to reduce ambiguity over Negative Security Assurances (promises not to threaten non-nuclear weapon states), and to expand stronger legal guarantees given to members of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. There may also be a chance to update the Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Rebuild Habits of Cooperation

Cooperative approaches require a deepening of transparency and confidence-building between states parties. Signals of positive intent from NWS, and respect for past commitments even whilst there remain challenges of implementation, are important.

Reduce Nuclear Risks

Nuclear risk reduction has become an important focus within the NPT. There are many ideas for how risks might be reduced, though for them to work states need to discuss more openly the relationship between nuclear deterrence and risk. This may mean avoiding dual-capable systems, shoring up vulnerabilities to cyber-attack, shared understandings on the threat of emerging disruptive technologies on stability, and extending decision-times.

Enhance transparency of capabilities

Opacity over arsenals harms trust and confidence in good intentions. NWS could improve their reporting on numbers, modernisation plans, force structure and on stocks of fissile materials. There has been some progress on disarmament verification and the establishment of an international monitoring system supporting the test moratorium.

It is encouraging that British diplomats have welcomed the Stockholm Initiative in principle. Britain has a critical role to play in providing leadership, particularly as it is this year chairing the P5 Process of Nuclear Weapon States’ discussions on their disarmament responsibilities prior to and at the May 2020 NPTReview Conference. We look forward to a progressive and encouraging dialogue.

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