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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 47, June 2000

Owning our Successes

The NPT Conference did not fall apart in acrimony as widely feared. In fact, such fears may have helped focus high level political attention on the dangers to the NPT, thereby becoming a factor in the successful outcome. Nor was the agreement merely a diplomatic fix with lowest common denominator language signifying nothing. Notwithstanding the sour comment of one NGO quoted by the New York Times as complaining "too little too late", the final document was substantially more explicit in requiring that the nuclear-weapon states recognise their disarmament obligations, undertake to eliminate nuclear weapons, and commence work forthwith on further practical steps towards that goal.

The enormity of the disarmament task can sometimes make it difficult to own our successes. There is always so much more to do. Every advance seems to be accompanied by a condition, a caveat, a slip back somewhere. Yet it is important that we acknowledge the steps forward. Also important is to give credit to governments when they take positive actions that make a difference. This is about credit and incentive, for both nuclear and non-nuclear states.

Perhaps we don't think the nuclear powers deserve much praise for getting rid of a small proportion of their overall nuclear weapon holdings; or we know that the main reason for closing Pierrelatte and Marcoule was that the facilities were getting old and it made more sense for the French government to dismantle than to pour in the finances which would be necessary to keep them going effectively. Even so, such moderate steps will have had vociferous opposition among government and bureaucratic hawks. Giving due acknowledgement for positive developments helps strengthen the hand of the constructive elements within governments and bureaucracies. Withholding our approval, or carping that the measures are inadequate, will have the opposite effect, robbing the advocates of arms control and disarmament progress of incentives and political leverage.

Of course progress since 1968 has been far too slow and meagre. All measures short of full disarmament are by definition not enough. But progress insufficient in itself can nevertheless play a necessary and valuable role in moving us on. Sometimes we need to take stock and survey the terrain from the new angle, maybe changing tactics or adjusting direction.

When the INF Treaty was being concluded in 1987, women at the Greenham Common Cruise Missile base prepared to celebrate and move on. Around the peace camp fire, however, one woman kept repeating "They won't get rid of Cruise" over and over again like a mantra. She wasn't warning against premature optimism, but terrified of losing her raison d'etre in the peace movement. Sadly, a decade later and long after the 501st USAF Tactical Missile Wing had left, she was still camped outside what had become the Greenham business park, stuck in the rut of her own fear of success.

Similarly, as many applauded the successful strategy of the seven-nation New Agenda Coalition, diplomats from some of the countries whose proposals had been passed over were heard to complain that the NAC had weakened their positions in getting the disarmament agreement with the weapon states. Yes… and? Would they have preferred the NAC to stay pure and get nothing?

Disarmament is a complex process requiring multiple interventions on several levels: political, cultural, military, diplomatic and economic. Each successful development influences and intersects with the other categories. We hope for a cumulative effect or positive cascade. Sometimes we get a pathetic fizzle or even obstacles thrown up as a backlash.

The diplomatic outcome of the 2000 Review Conference was indubitably the best obtainable in the circumstances, and more than was anticipated even by the optimists. It will serve to reinforce the non-proliferation regime and its core obligations, but it is limited by its nature. It is more than just declaratory, but less than a binding timetable. It can help to keep up the pressure for disarmament, but it does not mean that disarmament will happen. In the absence of such agreements, it is far harder to exert political leverage on governments. Much hard work went into getting this far with the NPT. So let's own this success, take stock of where we are now, and work out what will generate the political will to implement the undertakings.


© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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