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Building a security framework for a nuclear weapon-free world

May 8, 2012

It is hard to imagine a nuclear weapon-free world from where we stand today. It reminds me of early 1989 in Berlin, when the editor of an english-speaking magazine that I wrote for suggested that we run a feature on “After the Wall”. No one took the idea seriously, we laughed and went on with our lives, not knowing that only months later the Wall would actually come down. We did not anticipate, nor did we believe it would happen. But that did not stop Germans wanting it or calling for it to happen. Indeed, much of the ground was prepared for it to happen.

History is like that. All of a sudden, the conditions are ripe for a change to occur, sometimes only coincidentally. If that change is desired, then we have to prepare for such a precipitous moment thoroughly beforehand so that nothing stands in the way when the time comes. In order to arrive at a nuclear weapon-free world, we have to give some thought to how we can achieve the right security conditions necessary for it to happen.

Conference on Security and Cooperation

Take the example of the Middle East which is uppermost in our minds because of the Conference in Helsinki this year that aims to bring together all the countries of the region to discuss a zone free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction (hereafter referred to simply as NWFZ). Israel says that they cannot get rid of their nuclear weapons until there is peace in the Middle East. At the same time, there cannot be peace while there are nuclear weapons in the Middle East. It’s a “Catch 22”. The answer is, of course, a parallel mutually reinforcing process. It’s a no-brainer.

A good example of this was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE, in the 1970s that was the basis for today’s OSCE. The CSCE negotiated agreements to reduce tension and build confidence during the Cold War at the same time as talks on nuclear weapons took place – first SALT and then START. The CSCE negotiated the Helsinki Final Act, the Paris Charter, Vienna Document and, most importantly, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty which is presently experiencing problems. I’ll come back to European security in a minute.

A group of NGOs led by IPPNW have begun a civil society process called the Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME). The goal is to encourage governments, through bottom-up pressure from civil society, to adopt a similar diplomatic process. There have been two meetings so far: Bad Boll in January 2011 and London, at SOAS, in October 2011.

The first meeting brought together 27 experts and NGO representatives from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine (including Gaza), Syria and Turkey, as well as Kurdish representatives from Turkey and Iraq. Just bringing together these 27 people was a major achievement in the same way as just holding a conference in Helsinki on a NWFZ would be an achievement in itself. The meeting in Bad Boll identified the need for a mutually reinforcing parallel process on nuclear weapons and peace. The London meeting discussed the impact of the so-called Arab Spring, and the role of Iran and Israel in the 2012 Conference on a NWFZ, as well as concrete steps to achieve it.

Horizon 2012”, a Peace Boat project which seeks to advance the NPT resolution on a NWFZ in the Middle East, also recognised the need for a mutually reinforcing parallel process at their March 2012 meeting. However, they reject emphatically the idea that the peace process must precede the discussion on a NWFZ. There will be no peace without discussing the nuclear problem.

Weakening of security architecture in Europe

This truth applies also to other conflict regions where nuclear weapons are based: South East Asia, North East Asia and Europe. I will now return to the problem in Europe.

The OSCE has been severely weakened and neglected since the war in Kosovo. There has been a shift in emphasis back to collective defence and away from common security. This shift has caused and is causing tension. The legacies of the Cold War are being dealt with inadequately. There is no other suitable forum for negotiating new problems such as missile defence in Europe, imbalances in conventional force capabilities, the expansion of one military alliance (despite the abandonment of the other) and disagreement about the right to intervene.

Negotiation through a position of strength causes asymmetry, whereas common security is based on the equality of partners. This is where nuclear deterrence is counterproductive to creating security, despite claims to the contrary. Nuclear weapons can be used to achieve more parity against a strong conventional counterpart, so are clung to even when they are old and of no real military value. Or: the possession of nuclear weapons by only one negotiating partner is so threatening to the other, that there is little or no chance of building confidence between them. And the amount of secrecy necessary to maintain nuclear ambiguity undermines any trust that is needed to negotiate successfully. Transparency is key to trust.

It would make sense to reduce the role of collective defence in Europe in favour of common security. For example: we won’t get rid of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe by increasing conventional forces, but rather by creating the conditions to be able to further reduce them. The security environment is most important in what NATO calls the “appropriate mix” of capabilities at their disposal. Moreover, collective defence and common security are competing for resources.

We also need legal instruments to regulate delivery systems, missile technology, conventional weapons, cyberwar and space-based systems, either internationally or regionally or both.

Taking conflict resolution seriously

Real conflict resolution requires innovative methodology in negotiations. It would be helpful if we would start – and I speak here as a British citizen – by recognising that we are part of the problem, not just certain countries that have recently become difficult to deal with. History has played a major role in all existing conflicts. The major powers were involved in the colonisation of, intervention in the internal affairs of, or wars with, these countries. Therefore, major powers should not be mediators as they are themselves parties to the conflict.

For instance, one idea for the talks with Iran would be to try perspective transformation. The negotiators might try swapping roles for an hour or two and try to negotiate from the other’s point of view. This has often helped to break a deadlock in mindsets and creates a certain empathy for the other.

To conclude: Parallel mutually reinforcing processes for resolving conflicts is vital to achieving a nuclear weapon-free world. We should subsume such regional negotiations into a larger framework, such as the Nuclear Weapons Convention, like the resolution on the NWFZ in the Middle East is part of the NPT. (It would be difficult to subsume the whole process under the NPT because it is not universal.) And last, but not least: civil society can help to kickstart such processes.

Xanthe Hall is the Disarmament Expert for the German affiliate of IPPNW. This article is based on a talk she gave at the side-event of the Middle Powers’ Initiative “Building a Framework for a Nuclear Weapon-Free World” at the NPT PrepCom in Vienna on May 1, 2012 which was attended by representatives of 24 governments. The event is the first in a series of discussions that seeks to explore with governments and experts from civil society what the conditions for a nuclear weapon-free world are and how they might be fulfilled, as preparatory work for a process to negotiate a “Framework” for complete nuclear disarmament.

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