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2018 No. 5

Editorial: The myth of the middle
5 November 2018


Ray Acheson

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If one had to pick a single word to describe this year’s First Committee, contentious would be a reasonable contender. The increased volume—in all senses of the word—of accusations and denials has descended as close to name calling as diplomatic forums get. Amidst all this tension, it’s no surprise that appeals for a “middle ground” are also on repeat. It sounds rational: so many cracks and fissures have begun to split wide open, and a number of delegations are keen to “build bridges”. But this impulse for the middle is misguided and dangerous.

“What is halfway between moral and immoral?” author Tayari Jones asks in a recent article about US politics. Looking at historical events, she suggests the middle ground on slavery would be indentured servitude; the middle ground on interning Japanese-Americans during World War Two would perhaps have been to return their property after they were released.

What is the middle ground on nuclear weapons? What is in between those who categorically reject the bomb and those who say it is instrumental to (their) security and for maintaining “stability” in the world?

Those calling for a middle ground are mostly those who do not possess nuclear weapons themselves but include them in their security doctrines. Perhaps for these governments, this is the middle ground. In which case, should all non-nuclear-armed states buddy up with a nuclear-armed overlord for protection? This doesn’t seem to be what these governments mean when they call for middle ground. They don’t advocate for other countries to introduce nuclear weapons into their security doctrines. So what are they calling for?

They call for more transparency, and yet some of them are not transparent about hosting nuclear weapons on their territories. They call for a treaty to stop the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, but refuse to promote a version of this treaty that could have an impact on existing stockpiles. They say the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) must enter into force, yet they won’t join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which includes a ban on testing.

The steps they suggest are not really the middle ground. They are steps that allow the nuclear-armed states to maintain their arsenals, and even to modernise them. They are steps that entrench the status quo rather than challenge it.

The middle ground as described by these countries is one that tries to completely accommodate the interests of nuclear-armed states. Much like the “bros” who enable rape culture by laughing at sexist jokes or stories of sexual assault, or by warning survivors of sexual violence against reporting these crimes, these governments enable the nuclear-armed states to remain nuclear-armed states. Calling for a middle ground on nuclear disarmament enables the continued possession, and thus the use and threat of use, of these weapons of mass destruction.

As we enter a world now in which the US is tearing up arms control agreements, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, or the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, what are those advocating a middle ground saying? In First Committee and beyond, some of them have expressed concern. Some have called for respect of international law. Some have tried to articulate, in the case of the JCPOA, how they will maintain the deal regardless of the US government’s position. Yet at the same time, these middle-ground governments continue to reject the TPNW. They say that those who outlawed nuclear weapons are being “divisive”. They still ask countries that have completely rejected nuclear weapons to “compromise”.

Diplomacy and negotiation are of course largely based on compromise. It’s rare that everyone gets what they want in situations of polarisation. But what are nuclear-supportive governments saying when they ask those who have prohibited nuclear weapons to compromise?

This obsession with the middle ground is what led Japan to destroy its annual resolution, United action with renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Not that this resolution was previously a masterpiece of progressive action for nuclear disarmament, but what Japan has accomplished through its remodeling of this text over the past two years is to trash hard-won, long-held commitments and agreements. Perhaps the most egregious in a litany of problems, this resolution has rewritten the unequivocal undertaking of the nuclear-armed states to totally eliminate their nuclear weapons. They made this promise at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, and it has been a touchstone for measuring their efforts for nuclear disarmament since then.

And what does Japan get for its efforts? Votes on thirteen separate paragraphs, a boatload of abstentions and explanations of vote expressing concern with this text, and not even the support of the United States. As was reported by the Japanese press in 2017, the government watered down the resolution under diplomatic pressure from the United States. Now, even this mangled interpretation of NPT commitments is too strong for the current US government.

In an explanation of vote on this year’s draft, the US ambassador said that while Japan’s resolution “remains the most realistic and practical of the nuclear disarmament resolutions,” it is also a “step back from the baseline set in 2017 in some important ways,” including a return to language that dates from a different time and a different security environment than we currently face. He emphasised that to make progress we need to look forward, not backwards—we must not fixate on historical language that is out of date and out of step with the current prevailing security environment.

This is an incredible statement, the importance of which should not be underestimated in the context of the forthcoming NPT review conference and US commitments—rhetorical or otherwise—to nuclear disarmament. It can be read as a signal that the US no longer accepts the agreed outcomes from the 2000 or 2010 NPT review conferences. By describing language from those consensus-based outcomes as backwards and out of step, it seems the United States is saying it will not agree to this again in 2020—let alone any steps or measures that could help achieve nuclear disarmament.

It would seem, then, that Japan’s attempt at “bridge building” has actually enabled the US to justify its walk back from decades’ worth of multilateral and bilateral agreements.

That’s the thing about the middle ground. Rewriting documents to suit the interests of the nuclear-armed states is not building a bridge—it’s burning existing bridges down.

This isn’t just about the United States, of course. Russia’s delegation, in an explanation of vote on the resolution related to the CTBT, criticised comments from the US government that may signal a resumption of explosive nuclear testing. In this context, the Russians seemed to be asking what the relevance of the CTBT would be if this happened. And, while these long-held instruments are under threat, the nuclear-armed states continue to categorically reject the newest one. Almost all of the nuclear-armed states have at one point or another during this First Committee leveled their “consistent objections” against the TPNW, emphasising that the Treaty does not bind them and will not constitute customary international law. France went even further, saying that the “emotional and divisive” approach to nuclear disarmament (note the gendered, patriarchal language) represented by the TPNW is disconnected from credible work. It said the Treaty is aimed a “discrediting deterrence,” which it argues will undermine international security.

The Treaty is aimed at discrediting deterrence. That is indeed one of its objectives. But the states supporting the TPNW do not see this as undermining international security. They see it as essential to enhancing security. Deterrence is the theory that justifies the continued possession, modernisation, deployment, and possible use of nuclear weapons. Challenging deterrence theory is critical to the project of nuclear abolition—take away the justification for nuclear weapons, and take away one of the key pillars sustaining their continued existence.

But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle that needs addressing. As scholar Jonathan Hunt writes, the continued exaltation of nuclear weapons is not just about deterrence but is about the “culture and conceptions of power tied to understandings of national security.” Nuclear weapons “are the ultimate guarantors” of primary and privilege. He argues that nuclear arms control will remain under threat until we change how we think and talk about national security.

This is another of the main objectives of the TPNW, and the process of considering the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons that led to it. The Treaty mounts a challenge to the idea that nuclear weapons afford national security. It also mounts a challenge to the notion that arms control, as reflected by the step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament endorsed by the middle-grounders, is sufficient to deal with the problem of nuclear weapons. There are “inherent contradictions in the project of arms control as a way to control the threat of nuclear war,” physicist Zia Mian argued recently. The US government is using arms control as a way to justify nuclear build-up, saying it wants to have something with which to bargain. Historically, arms control “was designed to preserve a nuclear striking power.” Thus this project of managing nuclear weapons through piecemeal arms control and non-proliferation initiatives has led us to where we are today, and to where those calling for a “middle ground” seem to want to keep us.

In this context, why should nuclear abolitionists compromise? Where would we be without a strong majority calling for the total elimination of nuclear weapons and taking concrete actions to promote this, including by outlawing nuclear weapons, discrediting deterrence, and divesting from the production of weapons of terror? Does compromising on any of these steps make the world safer? Lead us closer toward a world free of nuclear weapons, which is the stated goal even of the step-by-step approach demanded by those seeking a “middle ground”?

The world has changed, and we are operating in a different international security environment. This much is true. But this understanding does not mean that those rejecting nuclear weapons need to compromise. As Mian writes, “Accepting the need to face the world as it is and the logic of changed circumstances leads in another direction, one that does not involve accepting the dominance and impunity of nuclear states and the continued existence of nuclear weapons.” This is the path those governments supporting the TPNW have taken, and it is the path that will lead to positive change, even over the objections of the nuclear-armed states.

Appeasing the nuclear-armed is not the answer. They objected to the development of the NPT, calling it “potentially dangerous,” just as they object now to the TPNW. They will always resist limitations on their power and privilege. Protecting them will not make the world safer, it will only get you burned. Standing up for what is right—morally, legally, politically, and in terms of security, human, collective, global security—is what will make the world safer.

“Compromise is not valuable in its own right,” notes Tayari Jones. “And justice seldom dwells in the middle.”

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