Impossible compounds

Comments, OEWG

Synthesizing states’ views of how to address the nuclear threat requires an advanced degree in diplomatic alchemyChemical_reactions.svg

By Magnus Løvold

Several states and observers participating at the First Committee of the UN General Assembly last autumn noted that the international nuclear disarmament debate is becoming increasingly polarized. In the corridors of the UN Headquarters in New York, states and observers had different opinions about this changing political dynamic, and characterizations ranged from clarifying (and therefore good) to divisive (and therefore bad). But few seemed to dispute the initial claim that the states involved in discussions about how to bring nuclear disarmament forward are increasingly divided into two opposing camps.

At the conclusion of the first five-day segment of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on legal measures to attain and maintain a world without nuclear weapons in February, the working group’s chair, Ambassador Thani Thongphakdi, expressed his intention to circulate what he called a “synthesis paper” based on the views expressed so far.

A synthesis is clearly something more than a summary of arguments and proposals. As such, the intention seems to be to draft something that goes beyond the “Discussions held and proposals made” paper produced for the report of the previous OEWG on nuclear disarmament in 2013. But apart from being more than a mere summary, exactly what makes a synthesis?

A synthesis of the views expressed during the first part of the OEWG is the diplomatic equivalent of an impossible compound

Normally, a synthesis is taken to mean the result of bringing two previously distinct elements together into a comprehensive or connected whole. The concept is most frequently used in the field of chemistry, where it signifies a process by which a chemical compound, such as methanol (CH3OH), is produced as a result of a reaction from simpler elements, in this case carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H). While millions of different chemical elements can react to form a compound, some elements, such as two metals, simply cannot be synthesized. Chemists call these impossible compounds.

Ambassador Thani deserves credit for attempting to identify common ground among  states participating at the OEWG in Geneva. But given the current dynamic in the international nuclear disarmament debate, a synthesis of the views expressed during and after the first part of the OEWG seems like the diplomatic equivalent of an impossible compound.

All the nine nuclear-armed states boycotted the first segment of the OEWG. As such, all the states participating at the OEWG in Geneva can legitimately claim to support the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Yet differences abound, and the non-nuclear-armed states and the so-called nuclear umbrella states, i.e. states without nuclear weapons under the supposed protection of the nuclear weapons of another state, present widely different views on at least three crucial strategic questions:

  • Objective: While more and more non-nuclear-armed states have set their sights on negotiating a new legal agreement prohibiting all nuclear-weapons-related activities, the nuclear umbrella states hold that a world without nuclear weapons is best pursued without first negotiating a comprehensive prohibition.
  • Participation: While the non-nuclear-armed states contend that meaningful progress towards a world without nuclear weapons can be made without the participation of the nuclear-armed states, the nuclear umbrella states hold that initiatives without the nuclear-armed states would be meaningless.
  • Sequencing: While the non-nuclear-armed states hold that a nuclear weapons prohibition treaty could—and indeed, should—pave the way for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the nuclear umbrella states argue that elimination of nuclear weapons should precede their prohibition.

As long as two fairly distinct groups of states continue to present diametrically opposed answers to the questions of what needs to be done when and by whom, drafting a synthesis of states’ views seems like an impossible task.

Such a synthesis also carries certain risks. If attempted, it might contribute to a blurring of states policy positions and potentially imply a false sense of agreement. While such fudging might help to make the second part of the OEWG as much of a convivial affair as the first segment in February, it is difficult to see how such an approach would help bring nuclear disarmament out of its current deadlock.

There are (at least) two policy alternatives on the table—each with its own set of political and strategic implications.

The views expressed during the first segment of the OEWG as well as the working papers submitted so far provide a real opportunity to deepen the debate on the key elements of the OEWG’s mandate. The three considerations mentioned above demonstrate that there are (at least) two policy alternatives on the table—each with its own set of political and strategic implications. Highlighting the differences and points of contention between these alternatives could help clarify the strategic and political choices states have to make in their future pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Such a compare and contrast approach might also stimulate a more honest and frank discussion when the second part of the OEWG kicks off on 2 May.