Is the nonproliferation agenda stuck in the Cold War?

October 29, 2013

[Note from Erica Chenoweth: This is a guest post from Francesca Giovannini, an Affiliate of CISAC at Stanford University, and Amy J. Nelson, the Arms Control Fellow at SIPRI North America.]

Photo credit: nyhistory.gov.
Photo credit: nyhistory.gov.

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Some have argued that the current global nuclear governance agenda is overwhelmingly skewed in favor of the nonproliferation goals of nuclear weapons states (NWSs).  While there is some truth to this argument, the notion that this agenda has been crafted by direct design with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in corroboration with NWSs has little merit.  Although an examination of the past 20 years of nuclear institution-building at the global level reveals an increasing tendency toward working to prevent the conversion of existing civilian nuclear programs to military ones and impeding rogue states from gaining access to nuclear weapons, the suggestion that the efforts of the nonproliferation community are in the service of any “Western” global [nuclear] authority is reductive and, most importantly, flawed.

The view that there exists a nuclear nonproliferation complex belies policy recommendations informed by a theoretical perspective that takes little account of actual activities in closer proximity to the Beltway. There are too many articles and op-eds that highlight the fact that NGOs and think tanks are not in collusion with any kind of P-5 hegemonic agenda to count.

Moreover, the global nuclear nonproliferation agenda has been advanced more by regional powers and regional actors than the United States alone.  The tremendous activism and commitment displayed by countries as diverse as Mexico, South Africa, Singapore, Indonesia, and Egypt suggests that nuclear nonproliferation is perceived—and rightly understood—as a global public good worthy of support from the international community as a whole.

We suggest that the current imbalance in the nuclear governance agenda is not necessarily the result of the presence of a U.S.-designed nonproliferation complex that is determined by the priorities pertaining only to the NWSs. Rather, our separate research projects support the notion that this imbalance is rooted in more complex and less well understood bureaucratic, domestic and regional factors that severely hinder the decision-making processes that affect arms control and disarmament policies.

First, Francesca Giovannini, in her research, shows how domestic factors have often hampered the advancement of a global nuclear disarmament agenda. This is because nuclear disarmament engages and fundamentally challenges the interests of a large spectrum of shareholders, who are particularly powerful at the domestic level. The inconsistency in Germany’s position regarding the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from its territory, for example, is driven by intractable domestic factionalism, and not exclusively by geostrategic pressures. Similarly, the future of Britain’s Trident submarines and, indirectly, the decision on the future of its nuclear deterrent, will largely depend upon dynamics of political coalitions, interparty politics, as well as the impending referendum on Scotland’s independence.

Second, Amy J. Nelson finds that arms control and disarmament has been overly guided by a very historically-oriented, rather than forward-looking, perspective. This orientation is not the product of a “hegemonic discourse” per se, but rather the consequence, at least in part, of biases that result from the bureaucracy and institutions that have been built up to meet these goals.  The costs of overriding the goals and infrastructures of these institutions can be too high.  Moreover, it can also be too psychologically difficult to conceptualize either a divergence from past successful arms control and disarmament endeavors or an alternative set of security goals based on modernized security needs.

As a result, contemporary arms control efforts in the United States largely resemble those of the past: bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia that pursue thresholds or limitations to components of nuclear arsenals.  We contend that efforts to modernize the disarmament agenda are faltering now largely because they rely too heavily on frameworks for agreements that were best suited to a Cold War security environment.

How do we move forward? The idea of establishing a “world-government” is as desirable as it is improbable given the emerging geopolitical features of the twenty-first century. Heightened rivalry among great powers on critical global security issues (ranging from a disagreement over how to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria to how to approach and combat global terrorism) have made international organizations the playground for zero-sum power competition, rendering any attempt to reform and democratize them unlikely in the short and medium-term.

We share the opinion of those who argue that that the global nuclear agenda is biased toward the goals of the NWSs, and believe that an increased emphasis on regional cooperation can help forge a path ahead. In her research to identify the drivers of regional nuclear cooperation in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Giovannini shows how, historically, the global nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agenda have been articulated predominantly through regional — rather than global — institution-building efforts that have led to the establishment of numerous regional nuclear institutions. These sub-global nuclear regimes have centered on drafting Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone Treaties that encompass both nonproliferation and disarmament commitments.  For instance, the treaty of Tlatelco in Latin America (1967) and the Bangkok Treaty in Southeast Asia (1995) both sought to constrain NWSs by forbidding the transfer, transit and deployment of nuclear weapons in these regions. At the same time, these treaties also function as confidence-building mechanisms among regional actors by forbidding the acquisition of nuclear weapons or the militarization of existing civilian nuclear programs.

Whereas the China-initiated, closed-door nuclear consultations among the P-5,have an important role to play in fostering trust and confidence-building among NNWs, these consultations must now begin to include NNWSs that are actively involved in both nonproliferation and disarmament initiatives.  One way to facilitate this is for the P-5 to establish regular consultations with regional security institutions, including the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), and the African Union, that continue to play a fundamental role in enforcing the nuclear weapons-free zone treaties in their respective regions.

While this may mean adding more bureaucracy to accomplish these goals, we argue that the way to correct the current imbalance is to develop the cooperative relationships necessary to alter the global nonproliferation agenda and predict that the focus of nonproliferation efforts will follow suit in time.

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