International negotiations: an arms control perspective

By Andreas Persbo
FIELD, London, 24 March 2010

Arms control negotiators faces as many problems as those grappling with environment issues. There are strong groupings, that hold most of the cards, and there are coalitions of weaker states, usually standing outside the mainstream with little opportunity to make practical changes. The former often aspire to maintain the status quo, for instance by keeping on to a weapon system that gives them a military edge, whereas the latter wants the powerful to relinquish part of their power.

An analogy to the environment field could be made, where a minority of very influential high-end polluters would strive to retain its industrial edge, for as long as possible. Developing nations would want to catch-up economically, to even the financial playing field.

As in the arms control field, those in a disadvantage often argue that the international system is unfair. It is not uncommon to hear governments accuse others of trying to constrain an inherent right to development. In the arms control field, states that do not possess nuclear weapons argue that they bear all the obligations while the nuclear weapon states are not upholding their end of the bargain. They have pledged not to acquire the Bomb, and the nuclear weapon states have pledged to get rid of theirs. However, nuclear weapon states show no sign of carrying through on their promise.

In the environment field, states in a disadvantage argue that the developing world has acquired wealth on the expense of the climate. Why, they ask, should they not be allowed to prosper as the countries of the West?

In the following slides, I would like to elaborate on four points that I think are relevant from the nuclear diplomatic arena.

Bigger may not be not better
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has 189 state parties. That makes for exceptionally large and complex review processes, where the five-yearly review conference may have about a thousand delegates along with another couple of thousand non-governmental observers and press. The logistical strain is palpable. Even the largest venue quickly runs out of meeting space, and the conference sometimes feels like an exercise in crowd control.

The Non-Proliferation Review Conference suffers from agenda overload: states are trying to read too much into the treaty. It is often said that the treaty consists of three pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In the treaty itself, the non-proliferation pillar is clearly defined, whereas there is little substance on nuclear energy or disarmament. Despite this, I sometimes get the impression that states see the treaty as a disarmament instrument or as a framework for the development of nuclear energy. Naturally, this leads to a fractured, confusing, and at times confrontational debate.

Trying to forge consensus among that many disparate views is difficult in a treaty regime that has only a handful of parties, and it is nearly impossible in a treaty regime that has near-universal adherence. At the heart of this lies the concept of agreement by consensus. It would be easier to vote on the issues, but that would weaken states adherence to the norms. After all, why sign up to something if you’re barred from forming the norm itself?

On the other hand, having a treaty with near-universal adherence is a desirable thing. The fact that review conference become a torturous affair should not detract you from the fact that the world is better off with the regime than without it.

Poorly defined goals leads to poor preparations
I think it is natural for humans not to put effort into something which has poorly defined goals. After all, if a negotiator does not know what he or she is supposed to achieve, why invest the effort in the first place?

I have seen a tendency to do this for the present review cycle. States are generally pessimistic about the prospects of success (despite many of them not having a clear idea what success is). Therefore, several civil servants I talk to seem reluctant to really push for strong statements and constructive positions. Rather, they adopt a ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude to the conference. This, of course, means that they’re coming to the conference without having prepare for it.
By extension, the lack of preparation means that the delegation may not be able to maneuver as the conference progresses. Issues are raised that they haven’t considered, or concessions are made without the delegation realizing their significance.

The solution is, of course, to attempt to define the goals beforehand. And to strive to forge consensus around them. There is no point getting on a boat and taking on the high seas without a map or a compass.

Sometimes though, the goals are truly unattainable. This must be recognized by delegations. Idealism is a good thing, idealism is the genesis of policy. But ideas has to mature before they can form part of negotiation strategy. One example here is the Nuclear Weapons Convention. This is a proposed treaty that will ban all nuclear weapons for all time, and it’s often pushed forward by nuclear activists, the abolitionist movement in particular, without any regard to the hard-nosed and often paranoid policies of the nuclear weapon states.

The abolitionists yell loudly, with energy and conviction, but they only manage to solidify the resolve of the opposition. At all times, diplomats need to remember that diplomacy is the art of the doable, nothing more and nothing less.

When ideas do mature, however, there is ample of room to reach for the grandest goal. The key is to recognize opportunity when it comes your way, and of course to act on it by careful preparations.

Poor preparations lead to poor results
Preparations are likely to suffer unless there is a clearly defined goal to prepare for. I think it is clear that unless you come prepared, you’re likely to fail in your endeavors.

So there is a self-fulfilling prophecy in this. State parties come unprepared because they’re skeptical about the prospects for success, and that unpreparedness leads to conference failure, as so many expected. It’s a negative feed-back loop that is very difficult to get out of, unless proper work has gone into preparing the ground for the conference.

I have often urged civil servants in this country to start preparing for 2015, the next review conference. I say this not to make them dismiss this conference, but to use it to lay the first bricks for a successful 2015. And when I say successful, I mean a conference that leaves something behind. A legacy, a measurable improvement in state security.

High expectations lead to spectacular failures
The final lesson relates to expectations management. A target must be possible to reach. Otherwise, striving for it in negotiations will be futile, and possibly counterproductive. The negotiator therefore must have a clear sense for what is achievable.

If expectations are raised too high before an international conference, it risks being viewed as a spectacular failure no matter what the outcome was in reality. To some degree, this was the fate of the Copenhagen conference, and this outcome may also await the non-proliferation treaty review conference. Copenhagen was portrayed as a make-or-break moment. Unless agreement was reached, the entire climate change regime would collapse, and this would surely mean the end of the world.

A similar mindset can be found in the nuclear world. The review conferences are often portrayed as ‘breakthrough or bust’ moments, turning-points or cross-roads, often without justification and cause. Diplomats assemble with the mind-set that if they cannot reach a deal, the regime may in fact not be worth preserving. Any negotiator that goes into a negotiation with that mind-set has already put him or herself in a corner that will be difficult to get out of. In reality, few moments are ‘breakthrough or bust’ like. Most dire situations can be salvaged, and fall-back positions can often be found.

This is a serious thing. If a conference fails in the minds of people, it’s not likely to energize or enthuse them in the future. And this is why it’s important not to portray a certain event as a make-or-break moment, and not to dismiss the results of a conference out of disappointment.

So as I said, I believe my three lessons from the nuclear field is:

  • Bigger may not be better;
  • Poor preparations leads to poor results; poor results lead to poor preparations; and
  • High expectations lead to spectacular failures.

In that sense, things are not looking good for the review conference. It is very big, expectations have been turned up to a fever pitch by a forward leaning stance by the US government. However, very little preparatory work has gone in to this. It’s a poor recipe.

But then again, poor recipes sometimes turn up unexpected results.