Abandon fantasies about multilateral nuclear disarmament, embrace what is possible and powerful

Last week we submitted a possible working paper (“Progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament requires a treaty prohibiting the possession, threat, or use of nuclear weapons“) to the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) established by the United Nations this past December. The paper isn’t everything it ought to be, and there are some important issues which were not included.

One of these is the potential impact of a nuclear weapons ban on nuclear weapon state policies. By that I mostly mean U.S. policies, since that’s the only country I know well.

As I said to international colleagues in a note yesterday, perhaps something should be said about that right now, as the OEWG approaches.

There is no indication from history, or from logic, that U.S. will EVER allow multilateral disarmament negotiations to create disarmament obligations, under any treaty whatsoever. The U.S. will not participate in good faith in such negotiations. It never has and it never will. Given U.S. internal political formations, this country can’t participate in such negotiations, not for the foreseeable future — which is to say, not until sovereign non-nuclear states stand up and create an anti-nuclear weapons norm. I think this incapacity applies for most if not all nuclear weapon states.

ALL foreseeable future disarmament that might result from multilateral processes will occur indirectly, not directly from some positive disarmament treaty. Nuclear weapon states won’t negotiate or sign any such positive treaty. No “convention,” no “framework,” no “stepping stones,” no “foundation,” no whatever will EVER be signed by the U.S., let alone ratified. (And lest we forget, the ratification process for the CTBT and New START resulted in MORE, not FEWER, financial and nuclear modernization commitments.)

Hypothetical, imaginary disarmament approaches — which might work in some other more ideal universe, just not in ours — are a confusing waste of diplomatic time and attention.

The ONLY way for multilateral processes to have an impact on U.S. (or any) nuclear weapon state policies is INDIRECTLY, through international norms and laws that are set by states that actually DO want disarmament. In other words, a ban.

Trying to compare the hypothetical effectiveness of various multilateral disarmament approaches, some of which are about as possible as flying pigs, is useless. The only disarmament strategies which bear examination are those which do not require the participation of nuclear-armed states and their nuclear umbrella allies.

This is exactly the opposite of what many people think, or used to think. A lot of people may still be looking to negotiate some new positive law, that (eventually?) forces disarmament.

Since that is not going to happen, ALL multilateral “effective measures” (quoting NPT Article VI) for nuclear disarmament will be effective ONLY because of their indirect, normative effects, and need to be evaluated and compared on that basis.

Anyone who believes in civil society believes in the power of strong humanitarian norms, because that is how civil society works. Parliamentary work, for example, would benefit dramatically with a strong, fresh norm against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. We don’t have that, as the inability (or refusal) of the International Court of Justice to rule on nuclear use showed. Conferences don’t create that norm. Treaties do.

So those states which actually want disarmament, and which actually want to follow Article VI of the NPT, had better decide to do it without the “help” of the nuclear weapon states and their nuclear allies.

Occasionally we read that nuclear weapon states and nuclear umbrella states on the one hand, and non-nuclear weapon states on the other hand, are “talking past each other,” or that “gaps” between these categories of states are preventing progress. That is not the problem at all. Unity of purpose or strategy between nuclear and non-nuclear states will not be found and should not be sought.

Part of the genius of ICAN has been to leave behind the hobby-horse of “unity” and focus on what certainly COULD be done by most states in the world — and done powerfully and relatively easily, without new obligations to themselves.

We shouldn’t be looking for unity. There are two competing and opposite ideas about the legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons at work in and around the OEWG, and in diplomacy in general. One of them will win.

If nuclear weapons continue to be valued, they sooner or later will be used (again). In that case, the only “unity” we will find, now or then, with nuclear weapon advocate states is in the mushroom cloud. Then, “we will go together when we go.”

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