Tag Archives: Weapons Of Mass Destruction

Bucket Shop:  The Security Council Tries Again to Inspire Confidence, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jan


All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.  Mark Twain

Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.  Spinoza

Time heals all wounds, unless you pick at them. Shaun Alexander

The fight against this age is in no small measure a fight against the apocalyptic criticism of the age.  Peter Berkowitz

This week provided many moments of hopefulness and regret.  In the US, the squabbling of our erstwhile leadership and the shutting down of many government operations had as its counterpoint the massing on streets within and beyond the US of women (mostly), men and children calling for, among other things, an end to violence, to deportations, to racist and sexist jargon emanating from our highest political levels, to inequities of access in our systems of economics and politics.

Of all the photos from the diverse marches, perhaps my favorites were from Whitehorse, Yukon where even the dogs donned sweaters to protest the complicity of so many in  violence that must no longer be allowed to demean our values and undermine our collective resolve.

At the UN Security Council this week, another dimension of confidence building was on display, with typically mixed results.  At the behest of January’s president Kazakhstan, a group of high level representatives – led by the Polish and Kazakh presidents as well as Foreign (and other) Ministers from Russia, Kuwait, the Netherlands and elsewhere – came together to discuss measures to build “confidence” in efforts to stem the tide of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including nuclear weapons.

“Confidence-building” is no new concept when it comes to the possession and proliferation of weapons, and as such appears regularly on the agendas of the UN’s Disarmament Commission and the UN General Assembly’s First Committee.  But neither is it a concept that generally inspires significant, practical movement.   In that regard, the presidential statement (PRST) issued on Thursday in conjunction with the discussion in Council chambers said some practically helpful things, including recognition of the “profound need” to engage all tools of preventive diplomacy and, where necessary, “measures to rebuild trust.”

But the statements within the packed Council chamber, most (as is typical) written in advance of the briefings by SG Guterres or Kazakh president Nazarbayev, fell collectively short of the sentiments in the PRST.  There were to be fair a few good moments:  the Kazakh proposal to make it more difficult for states to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is worth considering further.  The Netherlands wisely noted that successful “confidence building” requires reflection and action by a wider range of multilateral actors.  China (as often) called for an end to “double standards” on security that erode interstate confidence.  Ethiopia and Sweden both called directly for Council “unity” as a pathway to promoting disarmament, easing global tensions and minimizing risks from “human error.”  Peru offered direct support for the SG Guterres’ priority on preventive diplomacy and urged more transparency in our “crisis resolution mechanisms.”  Bolivia made clear that grossly excessive military spending undermines the ability of the international community to overcome “coercion” and guarantee our best-faith effort to honor our Sustainable Development Goals promises.

Unfortunately, though, the lasting “take away” from this event, might well have been the squabbling among the US, Russia and the UK regarding blame for the failure (so far) to properly name and then hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.  There is no space here to recount the stages that led to what has become for the Council a bit of an open “wound,” but that permanent Council members would use this session to “pick at” that wound rather than focus more broadly on what might need to change in the culture and working methods of the Council to avoid new breeches of international law and security was discouraging to many onlookers.

As this Syria diversion reminded us, the entire notion of “confidence” has taken on a distinctly self-referential tone in recent times, especially in the west.  It is now associated primarily with overcoming personal limitations, achieving personal goals, fulfilling personal desires.  It is considered by many to be an indispensable accessory for building either a career or a social life.  Many report being especially attracted to confident people who appear to “know what they want” and can navigate personal and logistical obstacles to ensure that they “get it.”   The notion (mostly faux, in my view) of people “becoming anything they want to be” is both a symbol and a symptom of cultures (including my own) that assumes an outsized role for personal confidence in the logistics of impact and success.

For multilateral settings, the building of confidence takes a somewhat different track, taking the form of an often-uncomfortable balance between national interest and what Thursday’s PRST upholds as the “striving for sustainable peace” that involves “managing shared challenges and opportunities along the way.”  It also involves another balance – between the well-documented urgency of the times and the need to communicate the will and resolve of our policy centers to face challenges squarely and insist that the resolution of those challenges – and not our national policy preferences or personal anxieties — be the focal point of our collective energies.

It also requires us to assert the importance of human agency in these difficult times. Despite our melting glaciers, widespread ethnic and gender-based violence and threats from newly-modernized weapons, all in this age is not doom and gloom.   If it were otherwise, there would be little reason to spend our days fussing in Security Council and other policy chambers.   Given that hopeful options still present themselves, part of “confidence building” for our times must be in part to remind others (and ourselves) that there are still viable alternatives to “fiddling while Rome burns,” and then invite us all to pick up our buckets and help put those fires to rest.  This is not quite the same track as “nailing” a job interview or “scoring” a date with someone “out of your league,” but it is so much more relevant to the future of the planet.   One only had to scroll through yesterday’s photos of so many streets swelling with engaged women or hear the confident testimony in another Council session last Wednesday from young Libyan activist Hajer Sharief to appreciate once again how many women and men worldwide stand ready and able to pick up their own “buckets” and inspire others to do likewise.

This requires a less self-referential type of confidence, one based on a belief that people of energy and good will still matter, that getting out of our homes and on the streets (even in the frigid Yukon) can turn the tide of hatred and self-interest from which many of our current global challenges stem. In these times, this belief is more likely to be a gift from people to their leadership than the reverse.

Despite the seemingly habitual clumsiness of the Council’s efforts at confidence building, there is value in their growing, collective recognition that the remedial energy of states and constituents is indispensable to effective multilateral governance in times of excessive stress that is in no small measure related to WMD threats.   If the Council expects states and citizens to “do more” of the heavy lifting to address this and other global challenges, we at the erstwhile center of global governance must lift heavier as well.  Indeed, a key message from this week is that sustaining peace requires a more benevolent, cooperative and (especially) determined disposition — especially by those residing in policy chambers — towards sustaining confidence.



A Papal Pilgrimage:  Ramping up Hope at the Center of Global Governance, Dr. Robert Zuber

27 Sep

As the Pope’s FIAT pulled up to UN Headquarters last Friday, it slowed just a bit so that Francis could wave at a group of children dressed in white and sitting on the stairs of (ironically perhaps) the Trump Building.  This was only the beginning of an outpouring of attention, enthusiasm and even yearning, the likes of which most of us have never seen at UN Headquarters.

Many have written about the Papal visit to the UN.  Twitter literally exploded with comments of all sorts, almost all of the ones I saw falling anywhere from cautiously positive to positively gushing.  The newspapers proclaimed that “hope had come to New York.”  (God knows we need it.) These reactions cannot be attributed to our embrace of celebrity or fame; neither are they a function of the rarity of papal visits.

This outpouring of positive energy was more likely related to a long-suppressed search for meaning as well as for the encouragement to abandon cynicism and despair, to recalibrate our emotional depth, to provide a genuinely viable future for our children, not merely an education, an IPad, and an allowance.

The Pope said some very helpful things from the podium in the UN General Assembly.   He took up the challenges of healing our climate and eliminating our weapons of mass destruction.   He spoke about us as biological beings that need to stop soiling the beds that we still need to lie on.   He reminded us that no policy, regardless of its textual nobility or comprehensiveness, is likely to succeed unless we recover the practices of listening and caregiving, while committing in policy and practice to the pursuit of fairness and an end to inequalities.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Francis on the substance of issues, it was clear from his speech that he sees in those many souls clamoring to hear his words what most of the rest of us at the UN cannot.   Francis was not trying to be clever or even strategic.  He was not “purchasing the surfaces” of things nor was he caving in to political expediency.   His words were largely measured, urgent, kind.   But most important, it was clear that he is looking at the world and its people differently.  His vision seems to penetrate deeper – deeper than our pretense and personal branding, deeper than our compromises and our rationales for each, deeper than our professional titles, entitlements and immunities.

This ability to see differently is extraordinary and most worthy of emulation. And to my own eyes, the speech was not the only extraordinary aspect of the Papal visit. Watching Francis move from one responsibility to another inside the UN, navigating the crush of well-wishers including political dignitaries seeking a momentary ‘audience’: the press of flesh and the multiple distractions of noise and perpetual movement seemed overwhelming.

And yet the Pope maintained his attentive gaze.  He didn’t look as tired as he must have been.  If he has any vestiges of claustrophobia, he found the grace to overcome them.   If he found all of the noise and crowding annoying, he never let on. Perhaps Francis throws things around his prayer room to re-establish his emotional equilibrium and vent his frustrations.  His time at the UN gave no evidence that he has this urge.  (His visits to both Harlem and Philadelphia have seemed downright joyful.)

Amidst the diplomatic chaos, Francis even made time to thank UN staff for their dedication and service, paying special attention to peacekeepers and members of UN country teams who lost their lives in the service of the institution, its values and constituents.

In some important ways, this demeanor of Francis was even more telling than his words.   If anything, the latter made the former more believable, more compelling.  There is a lesson here for all of us.   As our colleague Annie Herro reminds GAPW often, all of us at the UN are in one way or another “norm entrepreneurs.”   As such the success of our work, perhaps ironically, has less to do about money and status and more to do with trust building and other character concerns – the ability to be where we say we’ll be, to resist unthoughtful policy solutions that are destined to unravel, to practice courage and kindness so that we can get better at both, to be willing to give to others what we expect from them in return, to communicate hope to persons and communities in ways that do not excessively raise expectations to levels that we know are unlikely to be fulfilled.

Character issues are largely out of fashion, but they are not beyond relevance for good policy. At the UNGA on Friday, we had an example of someone whose demeanor prior to his UN speech – as well as the “depth” at which he routinely casts his gaze – gave added power to the words that eventually came out of his mouth.   The “social fragmentation” to which Francis pointed with alarm is closely related to a fragmentation of personal character that manifests itself as a proclivity to “dispose” of things and people, as well as to horde what we should share and destroy what we cannot easily replace.  These are some of the implications of our current policy and personal choices that Francis, by virtue of the quality of his living and his seeing, was particularly well placed to highlight.

The hope displayed by Francis at the General Assembly podium is imperfect. It does not by itself resolve political differences and logistical challenges, nor does it guarantee that we will find the courage to turn away from our predatory and self-interested actions to save this planet – and ourselves along with it.

But the thousands waiting for hours for a glimpse of the Pope in the Fiat, not to mention the many diplomats who rose to their feet to celebrate a man who presides over a faith often not their own, if these are any indication, then the hope of Francis is truly a hope we can believe in.

Sounds of Silence: Low Level Energy for a High Level Opportunity

2 Jul

On July 2, the GA president’s office and UNODA conferred a preparatory session for diplomats whose governments are expected to attend the high level summit on nuclear disarmament to be held on September 26 at UN headquarters.

The briefing included discussion of efforts to attract “regionally balanced” heads of state to headline the gathering, the need for time constraints on delegate presentations, and the possibility of having short presentations from civil society near the close of the day-long discussions.

Responses from the delegations who attended (there was limited P-5 involvement) were few and far between.  Speaking on behalf of the NAM, Indonesia made welcome reference to the possibility that the event will send a “strong political message” on the need for continued scrutiny and movement on nuclear disarmament.  The Nigerian delegation, speaking on behalf of the Africa Group, reminded delegates that the “only solution” to the threat of nuclear weapons is their elimination and complete disavowal of use.   The Nigerian delegate also mentioned the need to promote more WMD-free zones (such as in the Middle East) and to strengthen those zones that already exist.

After these statements, the room fell silent.    The briefing was adjourned in less than 25 minutes much to the surprised of onlookers – and even the security guards!

In our many presentations here at headquarters and in the field, we have learned to interrogate audience silence.  There are times when silence means satisfaction.  The audience has gotten what they need from the event and energy is now shifting to their next responsibilities. Silence might also indicate some confusion about expectations, specifically regarding the need for delegations to respond directly to specific proposals from the GA president’s office.  If indeed there was some confusion about expectations, the silence in the Trusteeship Council Chambers would then seem more appropriate.   Diplomats, after all, rarely speak out in situations where they are not prepared to adequately represent the policies of their respective missions.

Silence can also indicate disinterest, a polite but disengaged response to what is being shared or proposed.  At the UN, especially, it is highly unusual for delegations to publicly question the relevance of a briefing or other event, even if they were hoping for or expecting more.   Diplomats are skilled at endurance through multiple events – even on disarmament – that they might otherwise interpret as not of personal interest nor relevant to their missions.   The fact that this meeting was virtually bereft of inspiration contributed to our concern that the energy of the room might reflect something more troublesome than polite attentiveness to high level logistics.

Those of us who are deeply involved with First Committee diplomats and issues certainly hope that this last interpretation of ‘silence’ is not pertinent here.   Despite some understandable frustrations with the UN’s disarmament machinery, most participating diplomats understand well the stakes of September 26 for international security.   While none of us know when we will reach the breaking point on resistance to nuclear disarmament, a high level event such as this can certainly move us closer.  It must be given every opportunity to do so.

The silence in Tuesday’s briefing was deafening.   The volume needs to be turned up much louder in September.

Dr. Robert Zuber