Polarized diplomacy

The WMD Blog

There is a sense among many that the international community is more polarized than ever over the issue of nuclear disarmament. It is not. And even if it were, there would be no need to panic. 
UN General Assembly

By Kjølv Egeland
14 April 2016

Since the institutionalization of ‘modern’ diplomacy in the renaissance, the vocation of the diplomat has been to build (metaphorical) bridges, craft deals, and maintain ‘good relations’ with foreign powers. The core function of diplomacy—multilateral and bilateral—is to generate agreement. In everyday usage, the adjective ‘diplomatic’ describes the art of ‘dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way’ or ‘acting in a way that does not cause offence’.

No wonder, then, that the sharpening of the tone in the multilateral debate on nuclear disarmament has left some diplomats perturbed.

Over the last few years, the international community has separated into two camps, largely over the question of whether or not it would be a good idea to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons. While representatives of one camp argue that a ban should be negotiated as soon as possible, representatives of the other camp argue that banning nuclear weapons can only be done when nuclear weapons ‘no longer fulfil a function in the security of states.’ Diplomats call this disagreement ‘polarization’.

Over the last few years, the usually drudging debates in the NPT review process and UN General Assembly First Committee have seen spontaneous outbursts of applause, delegations walking out in protest, and the application of cunning diplomatic tactics. Although the debate has, for the most part, been ‘sensitive and tactful’, delegations on both sides of the isle have occasionally resorted to emotional or sharp language. Certain states have taken offence at this development. Germany, speaking on behalf of 27 aligned states at the First Committee session in 2015, complained that the debate was not ‘constructive, open, inclusive, and genuine.’ The five permanent members of the UN Security Council similarly alluded to a lack of ‘mutually respectful dialogue’.

Many seem to believe that the current ‘polarization’ is unprecedented. But this is not the case. In fact, elements of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime that seem uncontroversial today were in fact outcomes of excruciating conflicts between states.

The language of the 1960s and 70s make today’s rhetoric seem cautious and scraping. For example, UN General Assembly Resolution 1653, adopted in 1961, declares that the use of nuclear weapons ‘would be contrary to the spirit, letter and aims of the United Nations and, as such, a direct violation of the Charter’, and that any state using nuclear weapons would be ‘acting contrary to the laws of humanity’ and ‘committing a crime against mankind and civilization’. The Outcome Document of the 1978 First UN Special Session on Disarmament (UNSSOD-1), notes the ‘massive accumulation of armaments and the acquisition of armaments technology by racist regimes’, the obstacles the arms race posed for the ‘elimination of colonial rule’, and the incompatibility between enduring peace and ‘accumulation of weaponry by military alliances’ and ‘a precarious balance of deterrence’. The Special Session, which was organized on the initiative of the Non-Aligned Movement after the ‘deeply disappointing’ 1975 NPT Review Conference, where, in the view of the Group of 77, the non-aligned states ‘had been served with complete indifference’ by the nuclear-armed states, went on to create the ‘disarmament machinery’ in existence today. Many consider the First Special Session a high point in the history of disarmament.

As the Special Session, the resolution requesting an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice on the threat or use of nuclear weapons generated an intense, highly polarized, debate. A resolution to request an Opinion was first floated in the General Assembly in 1993, but withdrawn after sustained pressure by nuclear-armed states. ‘During my 20 years’ experience as a UN delegate, I have never seen such supreme power politics openly being used as during the Fall of 1993’, was the comment of the former Swedish Ambassador for Disarmament. In 1994, the supporters of the resolution were successful. But only after a barrage of highly negative statements from opponents: Germany, on behalf of the EU, asserted that the resolution ‘might adversely affect the standing of both the First Committee and the Court itself. It could also have wider adverse implications on non-proliferation goals which we all share.’ In a turn of phrase that rings with familiarity, the United Kingdom argued that an Advisory Opinion would ‘distract attention’ away from more important things. The United States said it could not ‘fathom the purpose’ of an Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons. Of the Western Europe and Others caucus in the UN, San Marino and New Zealand were the only states to vote in favour of the resolution. According to the Canadian Ambassador (along with Norway, Canada was the only NATO state to abstain), ‘hysteria is not too strong a word to describe the nuclear weapon states’ point of view.’

In fact, most of the outcomes of any value or consequence in the non-proliferation and disarmament regime have come about after periods of harrowing ‘polarization’. The First Special Session on Disarmament, the ICJ Advisory Opinion, the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty in 1996, and the 2000 NPT Review Conference were all preceded by sharpening rhetoric and deep-running differences of opinion.

Practitioners of multilateral nuclear disarmament should not fear polarization in and of itself. On the contrary, polarization has often preceded progress.


The views set out in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).