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Commentary | 15 August 2016

A summer of discontent: the consolidation of nuclear disarmament and deterrence divides

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Jenny Nielsen |Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP)

CTBT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Disarmament Nuclear Weapons United Nations United States Global Security

Nuclear weapons policy—issues relating to deterrence and disarmament—has been discussed this summer in various fora and generated significant media and public interest. The diverging views on the value, role and risks of nuclear weapons, and the increasing polarisation among those promoting nuclear deterrence postures and disarmament, have been evidenced in a number of recent developments. The 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit issued its communique and reaffirmed the value of nuclear weapons and the role of nuclear deterrence for the alliance. On 18 July, the UK’s House of Commons debated and voted overwhelming in favour (with a majority of 355 votes) of the replacement of the submarines (SSBNs) for the UK’s Trident nuclear system. During the debate, many MPs reaffirmed the continued need for nuclear weapons as an ultimate insurance policy in the face of uncertainty, and reaffirmed the value of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence for the UK’s security.

The third session of the open-ended working group (OEWG) to take forward nuclear disarmament negotiations began on Friday, 5 August. The participants are discussing (and some attempting to suppress) starting negotiations on a ban on nuclear weapons as early as 2017. In the U.S., the outgoing Obama administration is rumoured to be aiming to push disarmament priorities including a UNSC resolution on nuclear testing, whilst one of the Presidential candidates is inadvertently reinvigorating media interest and expert discussion on nuclear doctrine and command and control issues.

OEWG: towards a ban on nuclear weapons?

While the NATO Warsaw Summit and the UK Trident vote reaffirmed that nuclear deterrence remains for some states a valued construct and basis for underlying defence and security doctrines, proponents of the humanitarian initiative, are proposing to initiate negotiations of a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. The support base of the humanitarian initiative see no legitimate role for nuclear weapons in security and defence policy and who argue that nuclear weapons should never be used again, under any circumstances. Note the contrast to the view held by NATO member states who collectively reaffirmed in the Warsaw Summit Communique that ‘the circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote’. The divide between ‘extremely remote’ and ‘never, under any circumstances’ remains fundamental.

In Geneva, the third (and final) session of the 2016 open-ended working group (OEWG) to take forward nuclear disarmament negotiations kicked-off last week. The participants (importantly, no nuclear-armed states are present) will discuss and aim to agree on a version of the Chair’s report which should reflect a balanced summary of discussions from the February and May sessions of the OEWG. The paragraphs of the Chair’s draft report which have and will be particularly contested by participants of the OEWG are paras 58 and 59—which notably are two of only three paragraphs on conclusions and agreed recommendations. These paragraphs include reference to the support of a majority of states participating in the OEWG for the need ‘to elaborate concrete effective legal measures’ and to convene a conference in 2017 ‘to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination’. In a working paper to the May session of the OEWG, a group of 10 cross-grouping and cross-regional states, specifically called for a conference in 2017 to start this negotiation process.

The momentum being consolidated in the OEWG, builds on the humanitarian pledge, a voluntary unilateral commitment taken by states to fill the “legal gap” vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and aim to stigmatize and launch negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. The pledge, now supported by 127 states, originated as a unilateral effort by the Austrian government at the conclusion of the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons.

Many of the states under nuclear extended deterrence who highlight as equally important the security and humanitarian considerations in debate on nuclear weapons, have rebranded their collective disarmament pathway recommendations as the progressive approach to a world free of nuclear weapons. These “progressives”—which includes many NATO states plus Australia and Japan—are promoting the pragmatic building block approach to progress on nuclear disarmament in the OEWG (as they did in the 2015 NPT review cycle). With no nuclear weapons possessors participating in the OEWG, these nuclear umbrella states, are also bearing the pressure of defending the role and value of nuclear weapons for security and defence doctrines. The progressives are being accused by some participants of obstructing efforts of the adoption of a balanced report, but also of desperately filibustering during the first day of the August OEWG session.

Exactly what text or provisions a ban will constitute in an eventual conference in 2017 is yet unspecified by the proponents of such a legal instrument. How a non-inclusive negotiation of a normative and legal measure will actually impact and affect nuclear policy and defence doctrines of nuclear weapons possessors (and their allies)—including perhaps more worryingly the DPRK (a regime defiant of international law and norms)—also remains a challenging question. Despite optimism by proponents of the negotiation of a ban, it could be argued that the dislodging of deeply entrenched postures and institutional strategic cultures vis-à-vis the value and role of nuclear weapons won’t happen in the short-term, even if a normative and legal ban is attained in 2017 by a group of like-minded NNWS. Agreement within existing enclaves could lead to consolidated statements, but without a broader inclusivity, it remains doubtful that such efforts will effect actual policy change.

The evolving momentum and consolidation for the negotiation of a legal instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons beyond the 2016 OEWG will continue to fascinate observers of multilateral nuclear diplomacy. The emerging divisions and contradictions within the support base for the humanitarian initiative and the momentum for the ban negotiation should be illuminating to follow. Of particular interest are those traditional “champions” of disarmament —such as Switzerland and New Zealand—who have not endorsed the humanitarian pledge but are not under extended nuclear deterrence arrangements. Noteworthy, Iran—which has previously signed the humanitarian pledge—joined the progressives in the August session of the OEWG, questioning the paragraph on the start of negotiations for a nuclear a ban. Such inconsistent actions may allude to policy incoherence or ambivalence and put into question the merit and value of a state endorsing the humanitarian pledge.

U.S. nuclear policy: Prague Agenda legacy and the Trump card

While the disarmament enclave in Geneva deliberate the draft report of the OEWG, in Washington D.C. media reports indicate that President Obama is planning on consolidating his legacy vis-à-vis his 2009 Prague Agenda visions before he leaves office. These rumored policy actions include: a doctrinal shift to the adoption of a no-first-use policy; an extension of New START; and a UNSC resolution on nuclear testing. Some members of the Senate are also weighing in on the rumored presidential review of nuclear policy, encouraging the adoption of a no-first-use policy, among other actions concerning the Pentagon’s modernization plans for the U.S. arsenal.

The efforts by President Obama to push forward a politically-binding UNSC resolution on nuclear testing which would call on states no to test and support the CTBT’s objectives’ can be the low-hanging fruit. As explained by the Arms Control Association, the proposed UNSC resolution would be politically-binding but not legally-binding, and would serve to reinforce the global norm against testing. It would not interfere or ‘“cede with the Senate’s constitutional role” on advice or consent’ of the CTBT, as had been argued by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). The CTBT was signed by President Clinton in 1996, but has yet to enter into force due to pending ratifications by Annex II states. The Obama administration’s efforts to highlight and reinforce the testing taboo on the 20th year of the CTBT’s existence would be a positive boost and high-level reaffirmation of the non-testing norm and aim to elevate the issue on the international agenda of policy priorities.

Although other suggested actions, including a change in nuclear doctrine, would be favorably received in the disarmament community—and may improve atmospherics in the 2020 NPT review cycle—the ‘last minute’ moves such as an announcement of a no-first-use policy by the Obama administration could be rapidly overturned by its successor administration. The U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has reportedly expressed she would be personally “concerned” if the US implemented a formal no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons.

To complete the picture of U.S. situation, Mr Trump’s alleged comments on nuclear weapons policy and use have generated interest in command and control issues surrounding nuclear weapons in the U.S. The experts have generated timely analysis of no first use and U.S. deterrence policy. A useful and informative timeline explaining launch on attack policy has been posted on the NTI website.

After busy summer, the autumn of reflection?

To what extent the deep and growing polarisation that exists between nuclear disarmament and deterrence enclaves within the broader nuclear policy community can be bridged, remains an open question. Whether the appetite exists at this time for bridging efforts—particularly with the growing momentum (formalised through the OEWG) to convene a conference in 2017 to negotiate a ban instrument on nuclear weapons—is more doubtful. It would behove states and analysts to engage in timely and constructive discussions on what viable alternative and options for maintaining strategic stability (as well as providing security assurances and insurance against uncertainties)—beyond the contested reliance on nuclear weapons—exist. This is particularly prudent in light of emerging technologies, which may offer both challenges and alternatives to strategic stability based on nuclear deterrence. Left unbridged, the polarised views on the role and value of nuclear weapons won’t bring positive contributions towards reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use and a secure world free of nuclear weapons.



The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.