While painful for some, the disappearance of the middle ground in the international nuclear weapons debate is not necessarily a bad thing
The international debate on nuclear weapons has always, in a sense, been polarized. Ever since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1970 divided the world into nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states—between a group of five “haves” and a vast majority of “have-nots”—the nuclear weapons debate has oscillated between two fundamentally incompatible ideas: the notion that nuclear weapons somehow provide national security and/or increase global stability, on the one hand, and the notion that these weapons are unacceptable, destabilizing and must be eliminated, on the other.
From this perspective, the claim that discussions between states during the First Committee of the 2015 United Nations General Assembly are polarized appears as a rather obvious one. As long as the principle of sovereign equality enshrined in the UN charter continues to be challenged by a two-tier nuclear regime—where some states are “more equal than others”—the nuclear weapons debate is bound to remain polarized.
Yet, as the First Committee is coming to a close in New York, one is left with the feeling that something has been different this year. After the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in May, the nuclear-armed states have appeared more exercised than usual, with the United States hitting out at the call for a nuclear weapons prohibition, and Russia criticizing the humanitarian initiative in fairly strong terms for creating an “illusion of progress”. Armed with a body of evidence presented at the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear-weapon states have for their part come across as increasingly assertive.
As a result of this changing atmosphere, the states that have previously claimed to occupy the so-called “middle ground” in the nuclear disarmament debate are now being forced to choose sides.
Armed with a body of evidence presented at the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the non-nuclear-weapon states have come across as increasingly assertive during the First Committee.
To the extent that this “middle ground” exists, it has in recent years taken the form of nuclear umbrella states presenting their policy positions as a reasonable compromise between the quixotic members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the intransigent nuclear-armed states. Usually highlighting the need for transparency and dialogue, calls for a world without nuclear weapons are, when coming from these states, belied by their own reliance on nuclear weapons. As a result, their potential bridging role is compromised and they have never really enjoyed the kind of middle ground carved out, for example, by the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) at the NPT Review Conference in 2000.
For some states, and in particular the humanitarian-minded allies of the United States, the disappearance of this “middle ground” during the 2015 First Committee has no doubt been a fairly painful experience. Faced with their unique historical legacy and the ever-watchful eye of their own national broadcaster, the NHK, Japan have tried to maintain the “middle ground” for as long as possible by presenting an updated version of its “United action towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons”-resolution—a strategy that ultimately failed, according to the Japanese themselves, after the United States and the United Kingdom chose to withdraw their support. To the surprise of many, Norway hasn’t even tried to maintain its former broker position, but stitched up its partners in the humanitarian initiative and snapped back into the NATO fold—a move that led to strong reactions amongst Norwegian parliamentarians and civil society back in Oslo.
The middle ground has mainly served as a procedural rationalisation for states unable to reconcile their short-term foreign policy interests with their national values.
But in the big scheme of things, the disappearance of the middle ground in the international nuclear weapons debate might not be such a bad thing. For far too long, the realization that nuclear disarmament represents a distinct political choice has been blurred by a discourse of ultimate ends where highlighting the importance of dialogue and consensus around a common “vision of a world without nuclear weapons” has been more important than discussing the means that could realistically take us towards that vision. In this sense, the middle ground has mainly served as a procedural rationalisation for states unable to reconcile their short-term foreign policy interests with their national values.
The fact that states are now increasingly being smoked out of the chambers of contradiction and forced to choose—and let the world know—whether they support or oppose the continued retention of nuclear weapons, should lead to a more honest, and therefore more promising, debate about nuclear weapons. If a genuine desire to compromise is to develop between the two camps, the current focus on effective measures for advancing nuclear disarmament offers a practical way forward.
The views set out in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).