Global multilateral nuclear disarmament has proven over the last 70 years to be a process characterised by stagnation, originating from a series of competing international interests. The UN Open-ended Working Group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament (OEWG) has so far brought together a diverse set of states and civil society organisations who all passionately support the ultimate goal of a nuclear weapon free world. Evident within this multilateral forum is a diversity of perspectives on the best approaches to take in fulfilling the disarmament agenda. Diversity is intrinsic to the process. Handling this diversity in a manner that escapes entrenched dichotomies is critical to success.
Many non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) representatives and most civil society organisations expressed resentment towards the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), which they believed were not keeping their Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI obligations, to pursue disarmament “in good faith”. Their absence, on the basis that decision-making was not by consensus (though this is not a decision-making body), was interpreted as a boycott. The frustration of many only strengthened their support for opening negotiations towards a ban on nuclear weapons. Advocates cite the extreme and indiscriminate humanitarian consequences of even a limited use of nuclear weapons. Discussions at the OEWG focused on specific kinds of legal instruments and norm-setting most conducive to moving in the direction of a world free of nuclear weapons.
However, several states at the OEWG do not share this same enthusiasm, asserting that a progressive approach more closely associated with the NPT is the only effective option. They believe it essential that the NWS willingly engage and that security concerns are considered alongside obligations. This would involve trust building measures between the nuclear armed states.
The OEWG is in danger of being lost in the disagreements between these camps, unable to find common ground.
A key factor that cannot be ignored is the perceived utility of nuclear weapons that underpins states’ attachment to them. Efforts to promote disarmament have to come from within this frame if the case for disarmament is to become more inclusive. Ethical and risk-based arguments made at the OEWG are important but will not be decisive.
Nuclear weapons are seen as bringing influence and status, and their number is seen by some as an indicator of power. The OEWG has an opportunity to surface these assumptions and consider means to puncture or counteract them. Influence and status are fluid concepts, and with the rise of globalisation the role that nuclear weapons plays in contributing to a state’s status is diminishing. China developed nuclear weapons nearly fifty years ago, within the Cold War context, and yet today its influence has little to do with its nuclear capability as opposed to its economic prowess. The status of India or Pakistan has not risen as a result of their possession of nuclear weapons. Similarly, in the context of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, Germany was as legitimate in negotiations as its nuclear-armed allies in Europe, stemming again from its economic ties with Russia.
The security value of nuclear weapons arises from their perceived role as a deterrent and a contribution to strategic stability. Deterrence is ambiguous and psychological, depending upon an intricate web of shared signalling and predictability. This unreliable psychological game can very easily be misread or misinterpreted, presenting a major risk.
All nuclear armed states are engaged in plans to modernise their nuclear arsenals, and efforts to rekindle disarmament amongst them have failed to date. Within this context, the OEWG’s goal to forward multilateral nuclear disarmament is faced with incredible obstacles, which will not be solved by waiting for the right conditions, nor by devising an intricate ban on the weapons based on ethical or legal grounds that the possessor states dismiss outright. The first step for the OEWG will be to re-calibrate itself towards the common goal, rather than proving which way is the right way to get there.
A starting point is to challenge more directly the assumptions about the utility and value of nuclear weapons, focusing on the need for global collaboration to tackle the huge 21st century global challenges we face. Disarmament requires states to understand and engage with each other's security concerns, rather than dismissing them. Therefore the OEWG needs to use the diversity of states and organisations that it has to think of innovative and potent ways to uproot the perceived utility of nuclear weapons and to show that stability and security today is much more complex than making the biggest bomb.
This article represents the views of the author.