Outrunning a bear is a relative thing: US and UK participation in the Vienna conference

Comments, Vienna

Why did the United States and the United Kingdom attend the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons? And did it pay off for them?

There was plenty of media interest in US and UK statements at the Vienna conference.

There was plenty of media interest in US and UK statements at the Vienna conference.

Last week’s conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in Vienna caused an outpouring of commentary and analysis from think tanks—including oursacademics, and civil society campaigners. Most commentators agreed that the Austrian government delivered a solid and substantive Chair’s summary of the discussions. Beyond that, views differed about what the conference signified. And, as to the question of where the humanitarian initiative is ultimately leading—including its prospects for contributing to the emergence of “effective measures” on nuclear disarmament—assessments also vary. Rather than try to offer a comprehensive analysis of those views here, we’ll come back to them in 2015 in later posts.

It’s notable, however, that commentators of various stripes placed importance on the fact that fairly late in the lead-up to the Vienna conference, two of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states, the United Kingdom and the United States, each decided to participate. This was the first time any of the so-called P5 states attended a humanitarian impacts conference.

Certainly, there was pressure from civil society and independent experts for the UK and US to attend the Vienna conference, most visibly in open letters, opinion editorials and lobbying through national parliamentarians. However, there were other factors too, and it’s worth considering these briefly with a view to the question of what the UK and US really got out of the conference. After all, in Vienna it fell to the British and American delegations to defend the “step-by-step” approach to nuclear disarmament—on which there has been a lack of progress lately. (France and Russia did not attend, and China apparently participated only in a quasi-official capacity through an academic.) Moreover, the UK and US delegations weathered some withering criticism, for instance in the testimonies of people affected by nuclear weapons use in places such as Australia, the Marshall Islands and Nevada due to production and testing of these arms. So, did the benefits of attendance outweigh the costs for the US and UK?

I believe the answer is yes, for four reasons. The first was the snowballing effect of the humanitarian initiative. P5 attempts to starve it of political oxygen by shunning the Oslo and Nayarit conferences and claiming that any processes the P5 didn’t anoint would detract from the NPT clearly haven’t worked. In fact, the number of states attending the humanitarian conferences has grown, and among them are military allies of the UK and US. Defending the record of, and importance of continued adherence to, the ‘step-by-step’ approach to nuclear disarmament and not any other potentially complementary actions is a more plausible prospect when representatives of nuclear-armed states actually show up.

Related to this, the concerns of the nuclear-umbrella states like those in NATO, along with Australia and Japan, was a second factor. These states are clearly more comfortable having their nuclear-armed allies in the room when nuclear weapons are talked about in a critical manner. The US, in particular, may plausibly have also felt that its official presence and statements in the Vienna conference would offer a steer for its allies to follow. Moreover, the November US announcement that it would attend the Vienna conference almost certainly influenced the UK’s decision to come. Nevertheless, Paris pointedly did not share Whitehall’s affinity for Washington’s views on this occasion. France, which is trenchantly critical of the humanitarian initiative, chose (again) to stay away.

The upcoming five-yearly NPT review conference was undoubtedly a third—and major—factor in UK and US calculations about attending the Vienna conference. The NPT is a crucial part of the nuclear weapons control architecture, but as we’ve pointed out before, prospects for its stewardship don’t look especially bright for 2015. The P5 are likely to have little to show for their efforts to implement the 2010 NPT Action Plan, including on transparency and delivering a Middle East conference in which Israel participates. In the absence of such progress, engaging with the concerns of much of the international community about the risks and consequences of nuclear weapon use benefits the US and UK in terms of the political optics of demonstrating their commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Such engagement risks little for the US and UK since the Austrian government was so explicit before the Vienna conference that the outcome would be a chair’s summary under its “sole responsibility”. This reasoning extends to parliamentary and media debates in those countries since UK and US government non-participation in the Oslo and Nayarit conferences had resulted in some domestic criticism and pressure, as mentioned earlier. Both governments can currently weather this easily, but preserving a narrative that they’re “good” or “responsible” nuclear-armed states is desirable—including for underpinning their non-proliferation priorities in the NPT and elsewhere.

Russia was a fourth factor. If P5 solidarity manifested itself in the March 2013 statement in which the five jointly explained why they didn’t attend the Oslo conference (although two other nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan, did), it is much less in evidence now. Events involving Russia and Ukraine this year, as well as issues such as alleged Russian non-compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, have caused international consternation. Russia’s boycott of the Vienna conference meant it was not present to counter the narrative by Ukraine and delegations from some NATO states, including the US, that was critical of it. “Progress requires a willing partner, and a conducive strategic environment,” US Ambassador Adam Scheinmann said: “we have made clear to the Russian Federation that we are prepared to engage on the full range of issues affecting strategic stability and that there are real and meaningful steps we should be taking that can contribute to a more predictable, safer security environment.” In other words, the US could be seen to be saying, “Hey, Vienna conference, we’re not the nuclear disarmament obstacle here—Russia is.”

The Vienna conference in effect offered the US, in particular, the chance to promote its relative nuclear disarmament credentials. This is something the US Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Robert Wood, also sought to do in a public briefing at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy this week, entitled “US perspectives on the opportunities and challenges for nuclear disarmament”. At the briefing, Wood told the audience that the US decision to participate in the Vienna conference occurred after “some internal debate”. But the US felt it needed to make its views known on nuclear disarmament, he said—especially the continued necessity of the step-by-step approach, and not other possibilities. The US went to Vienna to listen, and to show its recognition of the importance of humanitarian impacts as an issue.

All of this underlines that the US and UK decisions to participate in the Vienna conference were calculated decisions, as one would expect. And, for the UK, this of course also meant trying to balance the approach of its trans-Atlantic ally, the US, with France, an important European Union partner that sees the humanitarian initiative as delusional. And there is the Scottish dimension. In this case, the UK’s answer to the equation was to engage, at least in a limited way, in Vienna with the humanitarian initiative.

In my view, this apparent change in US and UK postures does not signal a deep changing of minds about the pursuit of nuclear disarmament measures in Whitehall or inside the Washington Beltway. The US and UK are positioning themselves for a difficult 2015 NPT review meeting, a looming event on which all of that Treaty’s member states are now beginning to focus their expectations. Criticism of various kinds their delegations endured at the Vienna conference was outweighed by the fact that they were actually present while other NPT nuclear-weapon states pointedly were not—something not lost on the non-nuclear-weapon states.

Taken together, it reminds me of an old joke about two hikers who encounter a hungry bear in the woods. “Run!” cries one of the hikers. “But we can’t outrun a bear!” cries the other. “I don’t have to outrun the bear,” replies the first hiker, “I just have to outrun you.” The US and the UK appear to understand this principle.

John Borrie