Opportunities for effective strategic dialogue: bridging the nuclear deterrence and disarmament constituencies

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In times when evidence-based policy making approaches are under assault, along with the international consensus on nuclear non-proliferation, communities that devote themselves to managing the dangers of strategic competition and nuclear arms racing need to come together to consider ways to realise their common objectives. Those that see national and international security as currently rooted in established nuclear deterrent arrangements, but realise these hold severe risks and are not indefinitely sustainable, need to join the current discussions around how best to achieve stable paths towards nuclear disarmament and global zero. Those currently engaged in diplomatic negotiations to establish legal mechanisms and international regimes need to welcome into the process those engaged in maintaining and evolving such deterrence arrangements if they have any hope of affecting the disarmament they seek. The two communities need to actively talk.

The end of the year is often a moment for reflection. The annual Wilton Park conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament—affectionately referred to as ‘nukes at Christmas’—reviews the nuclear non-proliferation regime and assesses its future. This was its 20th anniversary, a fixture in the diaries of key non-proliferation officials and experts since 1996. Many of the themes discussed in that first year remain with us today, so that, despite the extraordinary efforts and achievements of the conference organiser, Mark Smith, in attracting talent and experience, regular attendees may sometimes be forgiven for sensing a certain deja vu in the agenda and the nature of the discussions each year. This last year we had two particular shocks to the system, the unexpected U.S. presidential election results and the scheduled 2017 negotiations for a nuclear weapons ban fuelled by frustration with the lack of progress on disarmament, leading to speculation and uncertainty over the atmospherics at the forthcoming 2017 NPT PrepCom in May. Things were out of sorts, not normal.

Increased polarization within the non-proliferation regime: diverging views on disarmament pathways

The diverging views on the pathway towards nuclear disarmament previously played out in the multilateral fora of the 2015 NPT Review Conference and in the three 2016 Open Ended Working Group (OWEG) meetings at the United Nations in Geneva. At the 2016 First Committee in October, and as a result of the OEWG, states parties adopted a resolution mandating the commencement of negotiations in 2017 over a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Representatives of Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and those Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) relying on extended nuclear deterrence are voicing their apprehension with this scheduled negotiation process which they see as premature and based upon a confrontational approach. They fear possible unintended consequences for the 2020 NPT review process—not least a more deeply polarised international community and unrealistic expectations for rapid disarmament. Several interventions from those with these views at Wilton Park stressed the need for 2020 NPT review process discussions to involve security concerns and strategic realities, and to continue the patient construction of an international step-by-step process whereby states can safely relinquish their nuclear arsenals in a controlled and coordinated manner, ensuring that there is no loss of security or unstable transition leading to conflict. The increasing polarization vis-à-vis disarmament pathways within the multilateral fora has potential implications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It is in the interest and gift of all states to have a robust and effective nuclear non-proliferation regime, which will require positive atmospherics within the multilateral fora as well as continued international cooperation on non-proliferation and counter-proliferation initiatives.  

The mood amongst those states advocating for the negotiation of a nuclear weapons ban is diverse, but springs from a widespread frustration with the lack of progress and pessimism in the future, since the failure to agree a final document at the 2015 NPT Review Conference. It’s not clear how easy it would be to bridge the divides between constituencies at this stage of proceedings. It is wider than it has been for some while. Those promoting the negotiation of a nuclear ban in 2017 will resist deviating from this objective at this time. The negotiation of nuclear ban without the broader participation and engagement of states with nuclear arsenals—as well as states who rely on extended nuclear deterrence—will have limited or possibly no actual impact on nuclear policy. Without explicitly addressing the security concerns of those states which still rely on nuclear weapons as central to their defence doctrines, a nuclear ban will not engage constructively with these states. Given the momentum for the nuclear weapons ban—and the likely pressures some of these democratic states will face domestically and within the multilateral fora—there may be more interest within some of the states relying on extended nuclear deterrence to seek venues and pathways for bridging divides. The decision of the Netherlands to participate in this year’s nuclear ban negotiations is indicative of such pressures.

A fundamental challenge to progress: differing views on global security and the value of nuclear weapons

But these divisions are not just between states. They reflect two distinct groups that see the management of global security and the role and value of nuclear weapons in very different ways.

The task-focused nuclear deterrence mission is supported by an active international community of deterrence experts, with its own language, well-established assumptions and worldviews that value deterrence (particularly the nuclear variety) as a positive contribution to stability and security. It largely sees the world in terms of strategic signalling based upon capabilities and intent. If there are negotiations to constrain the worst successes of nuclear deterrence, these involve careful arms control, designed not to replace nuclear weapons but rather to manage them and preserve deterrence against its own self-destructive tendencies (in terms of fiscal limits and crisis stability). There is no serious consideration given by national defence decision-makers to strategies that fall outside the established national security framework, though these frameworks often do undergo review at regular intervals with the possibility of incremental change. The frameworks describe the broader security context, but are heavily influenced by existing defence interests and established practices.

The deterrence community rarely communicates directly with the diplomatic disarmament community. The latter has its own frame of reference, dominated by the agenda of developing norms of peace and stability achieved through treaties, containing power through developing international law and governance, and mutual state restraint through consent. This community responds to the scepticism of the deterrence community by pointing to the successes of past treaties that have gone beyond arms control, achieved disarmament of whole classes of weapons and established cooperative regimes involving verification and confidence-building. Many within this school of thinking are taking heart from the energy that has been raised by the Ban Treaty process, seeing the risks of the existence of nuclear weapons as a threat to human security.

Disarmament and nuclear ban negotiations need to account for security concerns. Deterrence and nuclear policy decisions need to account for disarmament commitments.

Whilst many foreign ministries are clearly within the disarmament school, those of the NWS and their allies are uniquely placed within official circles to bridge the divides between these constituencies. Their governments, and in particular the ministries of defence, continue to depend upon nuclear deterrence for their national security strategies and appear set to do so indefinitely. Yet they are also committed, by policy and by international law, to find the means to escape this trap and to abandon nuclear deterrence by negotiation. Generally speaking, when it comes to the tension between disarmament and deterrence, these foreign ministries will reflect the posture of their governments and favour deterrence and non-proliferation. But they would do well to see beyond this, accept the reality that the Ban Treaty negotiations will proceed in 2017 (whether they take part of not), and put more effort than they do currently into processes that bring the two communities into more effective dialogue, requiring a little more honesty about the tensions at the heart of their approaches. This ought to be seen as one of their primary tasks.

Why is this important? Because, despite all the effort and willpower applied by those states with the most to lose from a move away from the status quo, there is no sustainable option to stand still. Deterrence may look like an attractive option, but its salience dwindles with time, as sand moves through a timer. It depends upon the credible threat to use the violence at one’s disposal, but the reliability in communicating this credibility to opponents weakens with every year that such threats are not exercised. The attachment to deterrence (as well as the apparent status nuclear possession brings) acts as an attraction to other states that may face their own acute strategic threats. The continued buy-in to the NPT requires progress (or at the very least hope) in disarmament. Buy-in is essential to maintain the necessary momentum in building up the non-proliferation architecture as the evolution and proliferation of technology requires tighter and tighter controls. The relevance of the international regimes that contain the nuclear genie could weaken if these communities continue to talk past one another.

So much of this truth is recognised within the policies of states dependent upon nuclear deterrence. Deterrence and non-proliferation today, with the possibility of disarmament in future. There is an implication that over a long period of transition and when the conditions are right they will be able to let go of deterrence. But at any one moment disarmament is in direct tension, perhaps even contradiction, to deterrence. To believe in the possibility of disarmament is to believe it possible and desirable to transition away from deterrence. Any such transition will have to be driven by those currently responsible for nuclear deterrence policy and delivery. But these people tend to stay away from disarmament discussions, partly as they believe them to be idealistic and partly because they are explicitly designed to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons. Those convinced of the need for disarmament view those responsible for deterrence systems as in clear opposition to their objectives.

Establishing dialogue between deterrence and disarmament constituencies

One way forward to addressing the clear frustrations over lack of progress would be to tackle the challenge openly and at source by convincing key stakeholders of the two disparate policy constituencies of the need to discuss how these disparate approaches can be merged. For instance, the participants of Wilton Park’s December non-proliferation conference (diplomats) need to communicate more successfully with those—mainly from the defence establishment—of the its summer nuclear deterrence conference. To bridge the deepening divides within multilateral disarmament fora we need honest debate over the fundamentally different views on the role and value of nuclear weapons, and how we bridge them. Stakeholders should at least be aware of the possible implications of decisions taken in one realm for the other constituency. Policy contradictions undermine trust and confidence, and destroy good-will. The break-down of global cooperation more broadly threatens the health of the international system. This is one area, amongst several, that need fresh ideas and new approaches to rescue the possibility of strengthening essential regimes. Dialogue between these communities is essential.

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About the author(s)...
  • Paul Ingram, Executive Director has been with BASIC since 2002 and been executive director since 2007. Paul has authored a number of BASIC's reports and briefings covering a variety of nuclear and non-nuclear issues..
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