Talk is cheap: Washington attends the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons impacts

By Sharon Squassoni | December 5, 2014

Woody Allen has been famously quoted as saying something to the effect that “80 percent of success is showing up.” The positive results of mere attendance may be what US diplomats and scientists are hoping for when they appear at the third international conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna December 8 and 9.

It came as a surprise when the State Department announced in early November that Washington would send representatives to the conference. The United States had skipped the first two conferences, held in Norway in 2013 and in Mexico earlier this year. The Vienna conference will focus on the health and environmental dangers of nuclear weapons use, testing and production, as well as international legal norms related to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use.

Why is the United States now participating in the humanitarian initiative after having previously declined to do so? The simplest answer may involve the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, scheduled for mid-2015. For the United States, success in Vienna is likely to be measured by how well the NPT conference goes. But there are also higher stakes.

The US decision to attend the Vienna conference comes at a delicate time for nuclear arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. The afterglow of the 2009 Prague agenda and the successful 2010 NPT Review Conference have faded. Instead, the US-Russian nuclear arms control agenda is stalled, multilateral initiatives—including the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and fissile material treaty negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament—have lost momentum, and negotiations with Iran continue without resolution. It almost makes one forget that North Korea tested another nuclear device last year. 

Even before Russia’s annexation of Crimea dimmed the prospects for further US-Russian nuclear weapons reductions, the slow pace of nuclear disarmament frustrated many non-nuclear weapon states, spurring them to try different approaches to reinvigorate action toward the disarmament promised by the NPT. After the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, eight states formed the New Agenda Coalition for that purpose; just four years ago, another handful of states coalesced under the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative. The humanitarian initiative is the latest in a line of such efforts to give nuclear disarmament a nudge, but it has gone viral; the number of member countries has swelled to 151.

The hope, for some, is that the conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will lead to negotiating an international agreement that would ban possession of nuclear weapons. At the second conference earlier this year in Nayarit, Mexico, the chairman’s summary said, “The broad-based and comprehensive discussions on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons should lead to the commitment of states and civil society to reach new international standards and norms, through a legally binding instrument.” Mexican Deputy Foreign Minister Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo said, “It is the view of the chair that the Nayarit Conference has shown that time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to this goal. Our belief is that this process should comprise a specific timeframe, the definition of the most appropriate fora, and a clear and substantive framework, making the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons the essence of disarmament efforts.”

The fear, for others, is that these conferences will become the forum for negotiating a nuclear weapons ban. And that is at least one reason why the nuclear weapon states have declined to participate until now. In the words of one State Department official,  “the U.S. won’t join any effort to negotiate nuclear disarmament.” 

Still, US attendance at the upcoming Vienna meeting is a brave and welcome step, a shift in policy from the conspicuous absence of the United States at the first two conferences. It is unlikely that the Russians, French or Chinese will join the United States, but apparently their attendance (or lack of same) was not a factor in the US decision to go forward. At a minimum, the US break with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, or P-5, could be seen as a positive (if potentially fleeting) signal to nuclear disarmament advocates that there is some room for maneuver in terms of moving disarmament along.

That said, there is no indication Washington will go along with a nuclear weapons ban arising from the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons movement. The United States supports the goal of a world without nuclear weapons—President Obama told Prague in April 2009 that he would seek a world without nuclear weapons—but prefers an incremental approach. US Ambassador Robert Wood told the UN First Committee on October 20, 2014 that “real and lasting disarmament will take sustained effort and commitment, requiring us to proceed in a deliberate and step-by-step way,” and that “unrealistic calls for immediate and total disarmament distract from and ignore more achievable and sober efforts.” 

Ban-the-bomb advocates are unlikely to take heart from this practical, go-slow approach. While important, sober efforts like the annual P-5 conferences on technical aspects of nuclear weapons and disarmament yield few concrete results. And the concrete results they do produce—like the creation of a glossary of nuclear weapons terms for the P-5—are painfully small steps. After all, next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the creation and use of nuclear weapons. 

The Vienna conference will focus, once again, on some of the technical repercussions of nuclear weapons use, including how some states are thinking about and preparing for emergency response. It will also cover the waterfront of international humanitarian law. While the United States may be able to recover some lost diplomatic good will by attending the Vienna conference, merely showing up may not be enough to avoid the game of diplomatic dodgeball that nuclear weapon states will have to endure when the 2015 NPT Review Conference convenes in the springtime in New York.

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