Five Lost Weeks

9 May

Editors Note:   Our hope is to use this space for multiple pieces of commentary motivated by the largely unsuccessful end to both the 2014 Disarmament Commission and the NPT Preparatory Committee. Additional information on both the DC and NPT can be found on the Reaching Critical Will site. 

With applause emanating from most delegates to the NPT Preparatory Committee, five weeks of disarmament commitments from diplomatic missions, Secretariat officials and others was drawn to a close.  The Disarmament Commission. The NPT Review Committee.   Hundreds of government statements.  Many more hours of deliberations.   Millions of dollars in airfare, accommodations, interpreters and more.  The opportunity costs have been staggering, the opportunities themselves largely wasted.

Welcome to spring 2014, a time when some of us anticipated a slight breath of new momentum on disarmament, at least with fingers crossed, but even those modest expectations were effectively suppressed. The Marshall Islands lawsuit in the ICJ was the one glimmer of hope among the many dim flickers of disarmament possibility.

The mood inside the NPT room mirrored some familiar dynamics. On the one hand, diplomatic reverence for the NPT persists, a bit like holding on sentimentally to an automobile that once held promise but is not beginning to show signs of rust.  As Ambassador Roman-Morey wisely noted, we are dealing now with 2014 issues.  The vehicles we employed in 2010 might need a bit of upgrading now.

On the other hand, modifying agreed treaty text within a highly imbalanced and politicized security system allows powerful states to open up pathways to consolidate their own national interests at the expense of others.   And we know that once opened, those pathways are invariably exploited.

The NPT process appears to be caught in a trap of its own making.   A highly political treaty in its own right without independent mechanisms to ensure compliance, the NPT is known by its three pillars as well as its key “essentialist” notions. Foremost among these notions is the NPT’s insistence that the designation of “nuclear weapons states” is not directly tied to the actual possession of such weapons.   This creates needless wastes of energy trying to convince some current nuclear powers to adopt a treaty which, in essence, denies the existence of weapons that everyone knows they have. According to NPT logic, if France were tomorrow to rid themselves of their weapons they would remain a “nuclear weapons state,” while Pakistan, the DPRK, etc. will forever be non-nuclear weapons states regardless of how large their arsenals become. Israel would as well, of course, which makes some modicum of sense, albeit cynical, since they do not acknowledge the existence of weapons that are widely known to exist.  Apparently, there are neither clear points of entry, nor clearly marked exit signs, within the NPT.

The Middle East WMD-Free Zone, a pillar of the 2005 Review Conference, remains a large unfulfilled promise, taking on the character of ‘suggested behavior’ rather than a fundamental, treaty-related commitment.   This is not what was intended in 2005 and is not what is needed now.  After all, we have collectively solved tougher technical and political challenges over the past nine years than getting this conference up and running.

From the outside, the NPT (and its non-outcomes) looks like nothing more than standard UN disarmament politics, disconnected from the public security longings that help inspire state connectivity to the UN in the first place.

In our experience, the good will on the floor of disarmament negotiations is surprisingly sincere, but it also masks deep levels of distrust that play out in multiple policy venues beyond the reach of weapons.  It also hides a diplomatic rotating door that leaves large gaps in institutional memory that new diplomats can only attempt to fill.

Diplomats do their best but then, with few exceptions, they quickly rotate home or to new posts overseas.   For their part, many NGOs parachute in to share their preferences and then go home as well, learning little about how UN headquarters functions including the ways in which their presence is manipulated by states to articulate plausible (but not necessarily successful) outcomes.

Still five weeks of policy attention in a dangerous world should yield more than commitments to revisit commitments.    It is getting harder and harder for those of us who have pretentions to being answerable to global constituents to explain how governments seemingly hold local security needs and aspirations in such little regard.

These constituents can’t experience for themselves the uneven power dynamics and hidden deals that characterize so much of the UN’s disarmament machinery.  They can’t fathom what it takes to create consensus from 194 state positions, all mediated by often extraordinary diplomats who can’t make many more binding policy commitments than the NGOs can.   They can’t grasp why the politics of states, over and over, take blanket precedence over the security needs of communities.

Diplomats will never get this time back again.   The global community, for its part, might never fully regain the confidence that states are truly promoting the community’s best security interests. We’ll have to wait until 2015, it seems, for a full cost accounting of the trust deficits that have only widened during these five long weeks.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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