Almost 160 states have gathered in Vienna for an international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons – the third on this subject within two years. Speaker after speaker has underlined the extraordinary danger of keeping so many nuclear weapons – the current tally is around 16,000 – when the detonation of just one, by accident or design, would be catastrophic. Recent scientific research demonstrates how much worse the impact of nuclear use would be than even that previously anticipated on every level: economic, medical, environmental, climatic, existential. All this has been drawn on by the participants, together with the expectation that the changing security context means an increased likelihood of acquisition and use by non-state actors.
In some respects, none of this is very surprising. For decades the majority of states have backed nuclear disarmament while a small number have held out in support of their own arsenals. This has been the essential dynamic at the five-yearly Review Conferences of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and their attendant (almost annual) preparatory committees. Diplomatic corps have perfected the art of the talking shop, on nuclear weapons as much as anything else. So one can understand the frustration within the NPT process, which is why, presumably, so many states have opted in to this additional non-UN dialogue on nuclear weapons.
The real question is whether the Vienna initiative can go anywhere, or whether it will just get mired in debate as differences emerge. It was clear after the last conference in the series that some states believe a global ban treaty should be put on the table now and opened for signature, irrespective of the positions of the nuclear weapons states; others believe that a step-by-step process is necessary. That question remains. But the problems posed by having a third conference without a unifying road map may have been avoided by a new factor in the dynamic.
What’s different this time is that the US and UK have both attended the conference in Vienna. Both had previously, alongside the other P5 states (Russia, France and China), boycotted the conferences. Both now hope, it seems, to engage in constructive dialogue, whilst not being willing to take part in any discussion about disarmament. Much as I would like to think that the two governments have bent to popular pressure to attend and are genuinely open-minded about the process – and there certainly has been widespread public pressure – maybe there are other factors at play too.
Some are concerned that the US and UK are participating to put the brakes on any process towards a global ban treaty. No doubt other participants will be alert to that. But what is particularly interesting is what this means for relations with the rest of the P5 group, now that their unanimity on this question has been shattered. There is bound to be speculation that it reflects the tense relationship between the US and Russia over events in Ukraine and talk of a new cold war. The P5 states are due to hold one of their regular nuclear discussions in London in February 2015 in the run up to the NPT Review Conference later in the spring. Presumably this will still go ahead, as none of them are converts to disarmament, whether or not they have been in Vienna this week. But even if the difference over attending is just a tactical question, it may make their previous bloc unanimity a hard act to recover.
It’s not clear yet how any of this will impact on the NPT Review Conference, where this issue may well be little more than a sideshow. The ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme may figure, but the central issue may well be the continuing demand for progress towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. This issue has the capacity to derail the Conference altogether, following Egypt’s walk-out over lack of progress in 2013. Israel is the real hold-out here – a state which was also absent from discussions in Vienna.
There are many opportunities for the US and UK to make a difference globally on nuclear disarmament. Participating in the Vienna conference, if genuinely motivated, is a start. Getting Israel to the table over the WMD-free zone would be a huge step forward, and presumably not outside the bounds of what its major ally is capable of achieving. The real prize, of course, would be a recognition that British and US nuclear rearmament – which is certainly in government sights here in the form of Trident replacement – is not in anyone’s interests and will merely serve to expedite that outcome that we most wish to avoid: nuclear catastrophe.