NPT News in Review, Vol. 16, No. 3

Editorial: Creating the environment for "new thinking"
6 May 2019

Ray Acheson

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On Thursday, the Canadian delegation began its statement quoting the manifesto published by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein about the risks of nuclear war. Back in 1955, Russell and Einstein called on folks to think in new ways about nuclear weapons, which the Canadians echoed at the end of their statement. But what does it look like, this “new thinking”? What makes it new? And most importantly, what would make it seem “credible” to those whom we are told that we have to engage/change/convince? Plenty of thinking about nuclear weapons is rooted in analytical frameworks and approaches that might be considered “new” by the nuclear-armed states and some of their allies, but that is rejected by them as “radical or ridiculous” when measured against their own worldviews. Thus the question isn’t so much about how we think or what we think about nuclear weapons. It’s about who articulates this thinking, and how seriously they are taken by those who have dominated the discourse for so many decades.

In the land of the NPT, or of pretty much any nuclear weapons related forum in which representatives of the nuclear-armed states actively participate, only the voices of the nuclear-armed or their closest allies are treated as credible. Their thinking is all that matters. The room is quieter when they speak. When the ambassadors of the United States or Russia take the floor, you can hear a pin drop. When a representative of Equatorial Guinea is speaking, it sounds like a mosh pit on the conference room floor. The representative of Lebanon had to stop her own intervention last week to ask the Chair to bring the room to order because she was being talked over even though she had the microphone. This might just sound like typical, albeit rude, conference room behaviour. But it is not. It has meaningful implications—about who is listened to, who is respected, who is taken seriously on these issues. Whose perspective, voice, and engagement matters.

Those who participated in the negotiations of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) had a different experience in this regard. While not a perfect process, there was legitimate, respectful exchange amongst all states in the room. Everyone was heard, everyone listened. Debates were serious and extensive. Formal exchanges with civil society experts opened up space for voices and perspectives that added value to these discussions. Survivors didn’t just give testimony, they offered policy. Young diplomats from the global south led their delegations and even their regions; women, including women of colour, chaired working groups.

Yet this process is shamed as being “not inclusive”—because the nuclear-armed states boycotted it and ordered their allies to boycott, too. The negotiations are ridiculed for only including “not really serious states”. Every time a small island developing state or an African nation signs or ratifies the TPNW, jokes erupt on Twitter about how much safer the world is now that such-and-such insignificant country has renounced nuclear weapons.

The same happens when certain civil society groups speak to or write about traditional nuclear weapon forums and processes. Certain groups and individuals are acceptable—mostly those who are accustomed to operating within the corridors of power in Washington, DC or other capitals and keep their requests as minimalist as possible; preferably those who formerly held high-ranking government or military positions. People within these positions tend to come from similar backgrounds, identities, and experiences, and those who do not tend to toe the line so as to be granted or maintain their privileged positions, as reports like the Consensual Straitjacket show. The thinking of these actors is normalised within the empowered discourse and the rest of us are “terminally unserious,” dismissed as radical, irrational, emotional, or silly.

In this context, “new” ideas are whatever the empowered discourse says they are. The US delegation is positing its Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative as new thinking. On Thursday, the US ambassador explained that CEND “grew out of an effort to think creatively but realistically about how to move forward on nuclear disarmament.” He argued that the “traditional, numerically-focused ‘step-by-step’ approach to arms control has gone as far as it can under today’s conditions.” Reductions have run their course, he said, and now the security environment is too unfavourable to go any further.

The idea that the nuclear-armed states have done what they can is of course not actually a new idea. They have been saying this in various ways since at least the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The idea of looking at what motivates the acquisition and retention of nuclear weapons, as the US is calling for, is also not new. There are endless studies, theories, and articulations of this—many of which have found that what motivates states to possess nuclear weapons is power. “States keep nuclear weapons because political leaders in nuclear cultures want to, not because the ‘international security environment’ demands it,” argues British academic Nick Ritchie. “Displacing agency for change to abstract structures that somehow ‘impose’ nuclear choices on reluctant leaders is a diversion.”

The nuclear-armed states, of course, don’t agree with answers like this. They say it’s about security—but they only have in mind their own narrow version of what that means, lacking imagination or will to understand why the vast majority of governments in the world, and their own citizens, demand nuclear disarmament. The nuclear-armed want our answer to be the same as theirs—that they are justified in their retention of nuclear weapons. They want the world to understand that they have to have nuclear weapons, to protect themselves and to keep the rest of us from starting another world war. Like an abusive partner, they want us to understand that their violence is for our own good. They know best, they are in control, and we are at their mercy. If we disagree with their approach, or challenge their analysis about why they do what they do, we are ridiculed, dismissed, ignored; intimidated and berated until we become more accommodating and understanding.

The idea that the “security environment” is not doing so well is also not new. In some places in the world you only have to look outside your window to know this—if you are fortunate enough to have a window, or a house. But this is precisely why nuclear disarmament is such an urgent matter. “The current security environment allows no room for further procrastination,” warned South Africa’s representative. “Humanity cannot afford to wait for the ‘right time’ to come to do away with nuclear weapons.” Similarly, Sweden’s delegation said that disarmament should not be reduced “to playing the role of a passive observer awaiting the arrival of better times,” while Ireland noted that a “utopia of a perfect security environment” does not exist.

Mexico and Ireland both pointed out that the NPT was negotiated amidst a difficult international security environment precisely to create conditions to free the world from nuclear weapons. As Ireland said, the NPT shows “what is possible through effective multilateralism” and “recognises that increased security for one state does not have to come at the cost of security of others.” Likewise, seeking to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in today’s “security environment” is not about ignoring that environment—it’s about recognising how fraught it is and trying to make the situation a bit less intense. It seems to many of us that dialing down the capacity for mass murder by getting rid of nuclear weapons should help improve the security environment.

As it stands, this current “security environment” has been massively profitable for the most powerful arms producers in the world, as Daniel Högsta of the International Campaign to Nuclear Weapons noted in reference to a new study on nuclear weapon producers and the economics of mass destruction. US withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been lucrative to companies such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon; its threats of nuclear war with North Korea sent weapon producer stocks soaring.

Perhaps this is why the nuclear-armed states are back at each other’s throats, provoking each other and some new “foes” back to the Cold War arms race—it’s more profitable that way. This would explain the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran—which no other government in the world (other than Israel) thinks was a good move. Virtually every single delegation taking the floor at the NPT last week, including all of the United States’ allies, expressed grave concern with the US withdrawal from the Iran Deal and re-imposition of unilateral sanctions. If the US is really trying to create a better international security environment, it’s definitely going about it the wrong way—its actions seem geared toward inciting nuclear weapon proliferation and starting new wars.

The US is not alone amongst the nuclear-armed states in bad behaviour, of course—one needs only to take a glance through our most recent update on nuclear weapon modernisation programmes to see the extent to which all of the nuclear-armed states are investing in death and destruction. But the point is that it is the nuclear-armed states themselves that are damaging international security by refusing to disarm while walking away from multilateral agreements that actually accomplished a great deal in terms of “strategic stability”—which this whole mainstream approach to the “security environment” is supposed to be about.

The problem is not the countries without nuclear weapons. The problem is the ones wielding their capacity for massive nuclear violence at each other, and over all of us.

“Nuclear weapon states feed on each other’s threat perceptions,” wrote Alexander Kmentt five years ago when he was an Austrian ambassador helping drive the humanitarian impact on nuclear weapons process. The nuclear-armed states “provide the rationale for one another to retain nuclear weapons,” and “have proven themselves to be unable to make this mental switch in the 25 years since the end of the Cold War.” This inability to operative constructively in the modern age helps explain the French ambassador’s comments, for example, including his assertion that the TPNW sets up norms that are contrary to the NPT and his demand that those who have joined the TPNW “must explain how they are going to preserve stability and security without a nuclear deterrent, in the face of resurgence of threats, without risking high scale conventional warfare.”

The answer from many of us living outside of the nuclear-armed state cyclical thinking on nuclear weapons goes something like this:

First of all, the NPT does not establish a “right” to a “nuclear deterrent”. It actually includes a legally binding obligation to which France and four of the other nuclear-armed states have signed up, stipulating that they must disarm. Furthermore, the UN Charter also does not contain a “right” to nuclear deterrence. France insisted its nuclear deterrence doctrine is in accordance with the right to self-defence in the UN Charter. But the Charter does not give the right to possess or use nuclear weapons. Its goal “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” speaks directly against nuclear weapons, which have catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Second of all, a “nuclear deterrent” is not an object. Nuclear weapons are weapons. Genocidal weapons. City- and even world-destroying weapons. We should not talk about them in abstract terms. Nuclear weapons do not bring security, they make us all less safe. They do not diminish threats, they make them worse.

Third of all, most of the world does not believe in nuclear deterrence, as is said clearly by most governments at every NPT meeting and through the negotiation of the TPNW. Nuclear deterrence is a theory purported by certain political, military, and academic folks within nuclear-armed and nuclear-enabling states. It’s a theory that can be and is constantly disputed, debated, and dismantled. As Patricia Lewis and others wrote ahead of the 2010 Review Conference, nuclear deterrence is a faith-based theory: it “works as a construct in which simply the belief in the power of nuclear weapons to deter is—in fact—the deterrence.”

In the spirit of new thinking, we should also step outside our sector to think about the concepts we debate here. One of the best articulations I’ve read against nuclear deterrence comes from Gwen Benaway, an Annishinabe/Mètis trans woman writing about traumatic childhood abuse and what it revealed to her about the concept of “deterrence”:

"I know a knife can sometimes stop violence from happening through the threat of further violence. There are moments in life where a knife is all you have. A sharp edge can mean the difference between suffering immense harm or walking away alive. Of course, the trouble with a knife is that once you pick it up, you can never put it down without fearing retaliation from the other party. You look for bigger knives and sooner or later, someone’s blood is on your hands."

But this brings us right back to who gets to be heard in those debates. Whose perspectives and arguments are listened to by the orthodoxy. Who gets to change discourse. Who gets to have any kind of influence over normative thinking. When the Austrian ambassador suggests deterrence theory is a “chimera” that “takes a big risk with the future of all humankind,” is he taken seriously? When a feminist scholar like Carol Cohn writes about the power dimensions inherent in the technostrategic discourse of the self-described nuclear priesthood, is she listened to? When Benaway speaks about her experience with violence, is her perspective even allowed in the door of nuclear weapon discussions?

As nuclear anthropologist Martin Pfieffer noted last week, the “‘security environment’ is one of those things that we collectively make—though not equally.” He urged that nuclear disarmament “needs to be tied to a larger rethinking and restructuring of power, violence, and human relational obligations.” Is this the kind of thinking that countries like Canada and others that have invested good faith efforts into nuclear disarmament, only to see it be thrown in their faces by the nuclear-armed states over and over again, could get behind? It is not necessarily new, at least not to those who have been thinking, writing, and acting outside of the dominant discourse, but it is new in spaces like NPT meetings. Engaging with ideas about power, violence, and privilege is as important for the nuclear weapon debate as it is for any social, political, or economic issue we face in the world today. Given the massive backsliding from the nuclear-armed states on past commitments, rising investments in the weapons for nuclear war, and mounting disparagement of multilateralism, it seems like a good time for the purported “bridge builders” to start rethinking their positions and working to normalise some of the ideas and actors who have so far been kept out of the landscape.


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