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Nuclear Exits – out of the dark, into the light

October 26, 2013

You might have known that South Africa built nuclear weapons and then destroyed them again in the early 90s. But did you know that Sweden tried to get nuclear weapons? Or Switzerland? Countries that have had a nuclear weapons programme and have then chosen to forgo nuclear weapons can be said to have undergone a Nuclear Exit. Nuclear Exits should be examined as examples of best practice when considering how to get countries to forgo nuclear weapons now.

Nuclear Exits were the topic of a conference in Helsinki last weekend. A broad range of speakers, including former President of South Africa F. W. de Klerk, former IAEA Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen, as well as research experts, parliamentarians and activists came together at the underheated Paasitorni Congress Centre to discuss what lessons can be learnt from these positive historical examples. But not only should those countries that have had an advanced programme or even built nuclear weapons be regarded as best practice cases. Also those countries that were or are “Able but Unwilling”, as Sico van der Meer of the Dutch Clingendael Institute describes them, are examples to be followed. He cites 56 countries that have taken the first step on the path to a nuclear bomb, i.e. building a nuclear reactor, and have not gone any further – either by decision or non-decision, which should warrant our examination to ascertain why that is so.

De Klerk describes the South African decision as a window of opportunity that was presented by history – the withdrawal of troops from Angola, Fall of the Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union – and all that it took was a leap of faith to jump through that window. Many say that South Africa was motivated primarily by economic sanctions, wanting them to end. Maria Rost Rublee of Australian National University, however, argues that not only economic reasons but also a desire to be part of the wider international community played a significant role.

Each case of a Nuclear Exit is special, historically and contextually. However, it is worth looking at parallels and even systematically analysing common threads. A decision not to build nuclear weapons or to forgo them usually has three factors that can be identified as being influential: security concerns, norms and domestic politics. Perceptions differ in all three areas. For instance, it may be that the overriding security concern was whether the possession of nuclear weapons would make the country a target or, alternatively, deterrence may be seen as the most effective way of preventing an attack, whether it be conventional or with WMD. Similarly, norms that might come to bear on a decision could be those of international humanitarian law or the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Alternatively, they can be those of status and power, or being a member of the nuclear club. Those already outside the (desired) norm have no compunction to violate that norm.

According to van der Meer, however, most influential in the majority of cases were domestic politics.  By that he means both civil society and political parties. The Swedish example shows that Social Democratic women were significantly influential, says Thomas Jonter, Professor of International Relations at Stockholm University. But also the decision to make the nuclear weapons programme part of the civilian energy programme was, in his view, the real downfall of the Swedish bomb. It was too complicated and time-consuming for scientists involved in the project because there was a conflict of interests between the two goals of making nuclear power and building weapons. Not discussed at this conference (except by Tadatoshi Akiba, Jayantha Dhanapala and myself over breakfast) but equally of interest, is the German example, where scientists took the lead in opposing a German proposal to acquire nuclear weapons.

However, in both the Swedish and the German case, the United States was also influential in preventing those countries from developing the bomb any further. In the case of Germany, the sweetener for forgoing national possession was nuclear sharing which still goes on today, allowing Germany access to nuclear weapons through a dual-key system in wartime. Sweden was offered nuclear and military technology, as well as informal assurances that had a positive effect on their military.

Maria Rost Rublee argues that norms are the most influential factor and that these in turn influence domestic politics. She talked about norm processing and potency, and the use of social psychology by civil society to promote Nuclear Exits. Strategies to assist norm processing are, for instance, linking a desired norm with a norm that is already highly valued (e.g non-proliferation = neutrality and peace), or framing a desired norm in a way to make it consistent with past behaviour (e.g. issuing a positive report card on disarmament commitments). Norm potency deals with the effect of conditions on the strength of the norm. In uncertain conditions, actors are more likely to accept normative influence. An example of civil society use of this is to be found in the UK where emphasis is put on the uncertain financial situation and questioning the value of spending billions on nuclear weapons. Equally, actors are more likely to accept normative influence from those they perceive as similar, and reject those who are dissimilar, so Japanese anti-nuclear activists point out that their country should not be like Pakistan. These are just some examples.

The conference had much food for thought about how much we can learn from social psychology and the historical behaviour of states for our strategic planning. But also of interest was the experience of IAEA inspectors in verifying South Africa’s destruction of its 6 ½ nuclear weapons. Juha Rautjärvi spoke of the need for honourable motives and room for generosity, rather than playing the “declaration-verification” game. Building trust and confidence between the actors was the way to achieve honesty and thereby disarmament. He described his guiding metaphor thus: “Let it be unfolding naturally, like a flower, a feeling”. This kind of sensitivity is a long way away from the relationship we currently see with Iran.

I could not neglect to mention the very important contribution by Emma Rosengren on The Relevance of Gender for Understanding Nuclear Choices. Returning to the case of Sweden, she said that Social Democratic Women’s Organisation challenged gender boundaries in the unexpected context of a military issue. Gender dichotomies were in use, such as relevant versus irrelevant, logic versus emotion. Women were accused of using incorrect terminology and what they said would therefore be devalued. Despite this, they were successful in their challenge. Rosengren also looked at the lack of gender balance both in heads of UN delegations and NGOs to disarmament and non-proliferation fora (the latter having improved, but only in the “abolitionist” grouping). I wonder if the perceptions of security and norms that are in play in any given state might have a relation to the level of participatory democracy in a country or of the active role of women in leadership positions and government sensitivity to gender balance.

A group of Finnish women greeted us at the door at the start of the conference with information on the 6th nuclear reactor to be built in Finland, this time designed by the Russians. I have worked with these women for many years opposing nuclear energy. In the conference itself, the subject of nuclear energy was not explicitly included on the programme, but existed as an undeniable thread throughout. The very nature of the nuclear option means that the civilian use of nuclear energy is central to any discussion about it, since all nuclear weapons’ programmes begin with a nuclear reactor. In the view of many participants, including myself, Nuclear Exits should be expanded to encompass the whole nuclear chain.

In all, the consensus was that both the concept of best practice and Nuclear Exits as a term were useful additions to our toolbox for disarmament work. It was felt that more research and analysis of norm processing and case studies of Nuclear Exits would benefit our strategic thinking for the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.

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