Three Shibboleths of Nuclear Disarmament: Insights from a Negotiation Exercise

In March 2019 the participants in this year’s UK PONI Table Top Exercise [TTX], GORDIAN KNOT, managed what the global nuclear disarmament complex has been struggling to achieve: an agreement on nuclear arms reductions.

Conditions were anything but perfect. Alliances ‘accidentally’ voted against their nuclear armed protectors, diplomats of the same country sent contradictory signals and NGOs were more concerned with having a voice than sending a message. Still, the day ended with a shiny ‘Whitehall Declaration’ that committed state parties to reduce their arsenals. So why did twenty young professionals and early career researchers achieve what the global nuclear disarmament machinery has failed to produce?

As a participant in this year’s exercise, I observed attendees ignoring three established ideas about nuclear disarmament diplomacy during the negotiations. Although exercise conditions are clearly artificial, there may be lessons here for those who pursue analogous goals in reality.

Idea #1: Perfect conditions for nuclear disarmament can be created

From the start, nuclear disarmament negotiators deemed it necessary to create a favourable environment that would enable them to disarm their nuclear weapons. In 1946, the U.S. Baruch Plan stated that the U.S. could only reduce its nuclear arsenal when international control of atomic energy had been established. During the Cold War, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union needed to be addressed before arsenals could shrink. From the early 1960s onwards, increasing fears about rapid nuclear proliferation pushed nuclear weapons’ abolition into the background of negotiations in multilateral forums (such as the Eighteen Nation Committee). Even the end of the Cold War failed to convince negotiators that conditions had become favourable for nuclear disarmament. Nuclear weapon states claimed that in a post-Cold War international system plagued by uncertainty, nuclear arsenals had to be kept as an ultimate insurance against nuclear armed rogue states and terrorists. Recently, renewed great power competition and North Korea’s nuclear programme have created a sense of a deteriorating security environment unfavourable to disarmament.

The idea that perfect conditions for nuclear disarmament can exist incentivises actors to postpone nuclear arms reductions until a more favourable environment has been created. Initiatives, such as the ‘Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ initiative, thus constantly work towards nuclear disarmament while nuclear arsenals continue to exist, expand and undergo modernisation.

Mirroring reality, participants in the TTX created an expert commission to improve the conditions for nuclear disarmament. Although this commission held several meetings, it produced nothing that incentivised the exercise’s nuclear powers, Astea and Barland, to commit to arms reductions. The ‘Whitehall Declaration’ was neither advanced nor restrained by discussions in our commission. It was crafted by the political will of the nuclear armed states.

Idea #2: Multilateralism matters

Global nuclear disarmament negotiations take place in multilateral forums and the disarmament of nuclear arsenals has become imagined as a multilateral process. Supposedly, unilateral steps do not matter. The idea that nuclear disarmament has to be multilateralised appears in NPT nuclear armed states’ statements, disarmament activists’ proposals and non-nuclear weapon states’ disarmament approaches.

The TTX consisted of both multilateral and bilateral negotiations. While the multilateral forum included all actors (i.e. NGOs and different groups of states), and produced declaratory commitments towards nuclear disarmament, it resulted in no concrete action. An agreement was only reached through bilateral negotiations between two nuclear powers. A similar trend can be observed in real- life. While multilateralising nuclear disarmament scores high in terms of equal representation and inclusive cooperation, its record in leading to arsenal reductions pales in comparison to its unilateral and bilateral alternatives (i.e. Presidential Nuclear Initiatives or bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Soviet Union/Russia). In fact, some go as far as claiming that not a single nuclear warhead has been disarmed as a result of a multilateral process. A multilateral vision towards global nuclear zero becomes an obstacle to arms reductions if it fails to assign clear responsibilities, time lines and reduction steps. As long as states’ responsibilities remain undefined, state parties can evade individual responsibility to disarm while assigning the blame for a lack of progress to other states – if only they moved, so would we, states can claim. Everyone remains committed to a world without nuclear weapons, while no-one takes the first step to reduction.

Idea #3: Working towards global nuclear zero takes a long time

The global nuclear disarmament machinery operates with long time frames. Disarmament has been discussed for decades and working groups are often ‘open-ended.’ Commissions and conferences might change their name but are rarely altogether discontinued, and it is hard to imagine anyone declaring that the 2020 NPT Review Conference will be the last chance to negotiate nuclear disarmament. The time to continue discussing the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament never runs out and repetitive failures to reach agreements seem to be no reason to worry. The UN disarmament calendar is full of meetings during which global disarmament actors will get together again to continue talking.

From the start of the TTX, the teams were kept in the dark about the duration of the negotiations. This had one simple effect: the participants were urged not to wait around. If it were a two-day simulation, we would have needed two days to reach an agreement. Since we only had one day, we needed to make every negotiation turn count. This might be one of the most important lessons to draw from the TTX. Global nuclear disarmament negotiations take a long-term approach but this is unsustainable because the effects of nuclear war materialise in an incredibly short time. The catastrophic destruction caused by the use of nuclear weapons, be it accidental or deliberate, would not unfold in slow and controlled processes that could be stopped to renegotiate. It would be immediate and irreversible.

The TTX only simulated how nuclear disarmament negotiations could take place. Its participants were not tied by the same structures of responsibility and accountability that state representatives, disarmament initiatives and experts face when they discuss nuclear disarmament in international forums. Nonetheless, the TTX revealed what can be achieved if these three established truths of nuclear disarmament diplomacy are disregarded. These lessons might prove useful for the development of innovative responses to the current crisis of global nuclear disarmament diplomacy.

Jana Wattenberg is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and the Deputy Director of the David Davies Memorial Institute of International Studies. She is working on research projects surrounding ideas about nuclear weapons and disarmament, nuclear stigmatisation and women in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.


Explore our related content