Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Getting the ball rolling in the Conference on Disarmament

I first attended a CD meeting in 2003. I was fresh out of university at the time and assumed, rather naively, that I would require a large sheaf of papers to fulfil my note taking duties. I needn’t have bothered, however, as the meeting began 20 minutes after the stated time closed less than 5 minutes later. What a contrast to the first session of the 2007 year, which ended last week. I’ll forgive the delegates (and interns) for looking a little tired. I’d be too if I had to follow such an unforgiving meeting schedule for 10 weeks.

It’s encouraging to see the CD finally shaking off its apathy. Prior to 2006, delegations would usually meet on a Thursday morning in a formal plenary meeting with private group consultations held at various times through the week while the CD was in session. Often, delegates’ speeches to the Conference lacked focus and direction. Not surprisingly a few capitals began to question the financial and political value of maintaining a full time delegation in Geneva. In many ways these were wasted opportunities for a Conference that allowed delegations to hold up to 10 meetings a week with full translation services and still paid to retain them, despite CD deadlock.

Some analysts have argued that the CD is simply a ‘talk shop’ and that increasing the frequency with which delegates interact with each other on substantive issues is not a wholly valuable way to build trust and enhance cooperation. I believe, however, that increasing the meeting frequency of diplomats over the past 18 months has been a strong factor in the current level of movement in the CD. Why? Because it has given diplomats an opportunity to study their negotiating partners and allowed them to better assess the others’ intentions.

Economist Catherine Eckel and political scientist Rick K. Wilson believe that the ability to read the intentions of others is an important method used by humans in the process of cooperation. One way that humans assess intention, for example, is through facial expressions. Eckel and Wilson argued recently that “Although social cues are culturally derived, the capacity to pick up and process those cues is part of an evolved cognitive structure. The fact that we pay attention to others, that we try to infer intention behind another’s action, and that we conditionally respond, provides new insight into strategic behaviour”. They’ve further argued that “repeated play is crucial, even when identities are anonymous” in order to better assess the intentions of your opponent.

This has important implications for the arms control and disarmament community in Geneva. On average a diplomatic representative there represents his or her country in the CD for a period of 4 years. The question is: how do diplomats know to trust one another? Although altruism comes into play in human behaviour, it’s clear that we don’t act altruistically toward everyone. As we’ve noted in the DHA project, cooperation will fail to thrive if one can’t differentiate between those who are likely and unlikely to reciprocate cooperation over the longer term. Increasing the meeting frequency in the CD may have actually aided the process through which negotiators learn to trust (or not) their negotiating counterparts. Intensified social interaction in the CD has supplemented other contacts between multilateral practitioners in the disarmament community in Geneva, or enabled it between some delegations (say, the U.S. and North Korea) when very little would otherwise occur.

Eckel and Wilson’s paper entitled “Why fairness? Facial expressions, evolutionary psychology, and the emergence of fairness in simple bargaining games” provides some interesting insights into the way we interact with each other and what this mean for international cooperation. They concluded that such perspectives help to conceptualize ‘human decision processes differently from what is usually done in political science’. Seems like another way of “thinking outside the box” in multilateral disarmament to me.

Vanessa Martin Randin


C. Eckel and R. Wilson (1999) "Why Fairness? Facial Expressions, Evolutionary Psychology and the Emergence of Fairness in Simple Bargaining Games." (paper presented at the 1999 Workshop on the Workshop II conference, Bloomington, IN)

Monday, 26 March 2007

ORG-anising Human Security

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a workshop organised by the Oxford Research Group (ORG). The meeting was held in beautiful Oxfordshire countryside at a place called Charnley House Manor, which reminded me a lot of my home town on the other side of the world in New Zealand.

The workshop's theme was extremely topical, the vote scheduled that week in the British House of Commons on the United Kingdom's Trident nuclear deterrent, and MPs from each of the three major parties in the Commons joined us at the meeting after the vote to explain their positions. The meeting was also a good opportunity for informal trust building, something that in the DHA project we're always banging on about as important. For my part, it was good to be plonked amongst a largely different crowd to that of the Geneva disarmament community.

Mary Midgely was one person at the ORG meeting with insights that impressed me deeply. Mary modestly describes herself as a "free-lance philosopher", but she has many decades of deep thought and experience in pressing issues as diverse as nuclear disarmament and the ethical treatment of animals. On the first evening of the workshop, she was asked to briefly share with us a few of her general observations about human security. The meeting followed the Chatham House rule, which prevents me quoting precisely what she said, but fortunately she furnished me with a couple of different texts that capture the flavour of a couple of the many fascinating points she made. For example:

"There is an immense difference between what may be called the front view and the back view of any weapon. Weapons are not just tools. They are powerful symbols carrying messages that go far beyond the conscious intentions of those who carry them. This is why what is meant as deterrence often turns out to act as provocation. The owner, who is, so to speak, sitting quietly behind his machine-gun sees it merely as a comfortable defensive shield. He just innocently puts it (as it were) in his front window and sits down behind it to read Proust. But the passers-by who come within the range of it don't see it in the same way at all. They tend to assume that, if he has taken the trouble to buy the thing, he probably has a use for it, and that he may already have some idea what that use will be. The owner can, of course, tell them reassuringly that the gun actually doesn't mean anything at all, that it is just a harmless, neutral umbrella of a kind everybody needs. But, in so far as the passers-by believe this they are liable to imitate him. They may then go off and order umbrellas for themselves, thus giving rise to a lot of misunderstanding.

"Part of the trouble here stems from the awkward fact that human beings, unlike other animals, put their threats in permanent form. They use weapons, buildings, written words. Unlike the noises and gestures used by other species, these things don't go away when the occasion of anger is past. They stop around and continue to send out menacing messages to those around them."
(Mary Midgely, "What do we mean by security?")

Understanding the profound importance of the impact others have on our perceptions and behaviour, as well as vice versa, is deeply relevant in a world in which we're told from many quarters of the need for various umbrellas, whether against nuclear attack, ballistic missiles or germ warfare.

Mary highlights the risks involved in environments in which the signals we send and receive take on an institutional dimension. NATO's pain in recent years has been in part due to the challenges in reinventing a role for an institution founded to repel a Soviet invasion during the cold war, when perceptions of threat have since changed so much. It's understandable that Russian suspicions persist.

Moreover, it's doubtful that if nuclear weapons had only been invented recently in a post-cold war world that the powers with this technology would see the need to produce the huge stockpiles the United States and Russia possess today thanks to an earlier superpower rivalry. But these huge stockpiles continue to send threatening signals, and - worse - have become badges of prestige and even bargaining chips.

As someone who has lived in Wellington, one of the windiest capital cities in the world, I'd add the observation that there are situations in which the best umbrellas only provide a false sense of security and are rendered useless by conditions. Or worse, you could find yourself carried Mary Poppins-like, into the air and swept out over Cook Strait.

Maybe, in a turbulent world, umbrellas aren't our best protection.

John Borrie

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

What do gangsters and cowbirds have in common?

Apparently more than one might think! In a recent Washington Post article, I read about some research done by an avian ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. The researcher, Jeffrey Hoover, noticed that female cowbirds leave their eggs in the nests of other birds. These eggs and, eventually, the hatchlings were taken care of by the “host” birds.

Out of curiosity, the researchers removed some cowbird eggs from the nests of the other birds. Strangely, these nests were subsequently destroyed. Come to find out, the female cowbirds were keeping an eye on the nests where they placed their eggs and, if anything happened to them, they would destroy the nest in retaliation. The “host” birds raised the “foreign” hatchlings because this ensured some of their own chicks would survive – otherwise, “mobster” cowbirds killed all the chicks.

Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, says that the difference between humans and cowbirds is that the cowbirds aren’t thinking through their nest-trashing strategy. Gangsters like Laurence Fishburne as “Bumpy Johnson” in the movie Hoodlum certainly do: “You've been warned. Get ready for your final thrill. It's curtains, Dutch. The jig is up.”

It’s hard to know whether cowbirds think “the jig is up” before they destroy the nest of another bird or not. Nevertheless, this is an interesting example of how human behavior is not fundamentally different from animal behavior. In fact, De Waal argues that much of human behavior may have been hard-wired into us through evolution. That some behavior is “built-in” helps to explain how certain “intuitive” (and not necessarily effective) behaviors like tit-for-tat are used the world over and influence many aspects of social interaction and perception. If, as some behavioral researchers now think, we’re hard-wired to use intuitive (and potentially inefficient) strategies like tit-for-tat, we need to make an extra effort to get beyond our constraints and pursue more effective ways to interact – something relevant to thinking about negotiating.

Ashley Thornton


Vedantam, Shankar. “Behavior May Suggest We’re Not Only Human.” Washington Post, March 19, 2007, via Washington Post online, http://www.washingtonpost.com/.

Photos by Pete Baer show three speckled cowbird eggs in the nest of a red-winged blackbird and the same nest after the blackbird eggs were pushed out. Retrieved from www.flickr.com.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Paradigm shift in the negotiation chamber

Multilateral disarmament and arms control negotiations have achieved scant success in recent years. Based on this observation, a few questions come to my mind: Can we get beyond blaming political will and find innovative ways to shift today’s approaches towards more productive strategies? How can multilateral negotiations be made more effective? In particular, how can new insights about the dynamics of cooperation help us tackle complex negotiation dilemmas?

I recently read an interesting report published by the Institute for the Future, an independent, non-profit strategic research group based in California, whose aim is to identify emerging trends that will transform the global marketplace. This report, entitled “Toward a New Literacy of Cooperation in Business: Managing Dilemmas in the 21st Century”, is in my opinion highly relevant to the practice of disarmament and arms control multilateral negotiators. One point stressed in this paper is that it’s necessary to develop our understanding of cooperation by looking at it through the lens of various disciplines:

“In the last decade, scientists and social thinkers in a range of fields have independently discovered cooperation at the heart of a number of important phenomena. Evolutionary biologists, for example, have revealed how symbiosis plays a key role in everything from cellular evolution to speciation and ecosystem complexity. Mathematicians are revealing basic patterns that underlie synchrony and swarming at all levels of nature, informing our understanding of how cooperative actions and institutions can emerge from distributed actors. Sociologists have revisited the “tragedy of the commons,” illustrating how various commons have been transformed into successful cooperative ventures in different industries and environments.” (see reference below)
An interdisciplinary approach, including insights from physics, psychology, evolutionary biology and behavioural economics shouldn’t aim at developing recipes to insure success of negotiating processes. In fact, when it comes to understand social groups’ dynamics, there are no recipes or magical algorithms. However, it seems to me that these studies have a lot to teach us about complex problem solving. And I like to think that in 20 years, I’ll be able to say that I was among the first to believe in this paradigm shift.

Aurélia Merçay


Saveri, A. et al., available at http://www.iftf.org/docs/SR-851A_New_Literacy_Cooperation.pdf

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

The Best Club in Town?

Multilateral diplomacy is a cautious business in its working methods. Governments and their diplomats are usually reluctant to break with established precedent. This conservatism is now deeply ingrained. The UN’s committee-style negotiating structures operate pretty much now as they did 60 years ago when it had one-quarter of its current membership and international diplomacy was largely a gentleman’s club.

But the world has changed. These changes are more than rhetorical – they present new risks and opportunities for states people and diplomats, and most of all to the security of people and communities they are often psychologically distant from. The issues stemming from intuitions like Tit for Tat are still poorly understood, especially in very large group dynamics like UN negotiations. The brute reality is that if diplomats don’t consider the pros and cons of these types of intuitive strategy, they’ll be handicapped in dealing with problems of cooperation central to multilateral decision-making.

These are some of the things our project, entitled Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: Making Multilateral Negotiations Work, has been thinking about. The project examines how disarmament and arms control can be infused by humanitarian approaches, which (in contrast to orthodox arms control processes over the last decade) have encountered greater success. While one could quibble about the extent of these negotiating successes, they've nevertheless been real. Achievements include an international treaty to ban anti-personnel mines in 1997 and more recent efforts to reduce the post-conflict effects of abandoned or failed explosive munitions, as well as greater international efforts to curb the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons.

Just last month I was present in Oslo when 46 countries agreed to commit themselves to an international process to negotiate a treaty addressing the hazards of cluster munitions to civilians. Early days and still a long way from new global rules ... but it shows how the reshaping of perceptions through the infusion of humanitarian perspectives can help create traction on a hitherto intractable problem at the multilateral level.

That's because humanitarian approaches put greater stress, in practice, on the individual and local community as referent points for security than orthodox international security diplomacy. Another hallmark is that they harness the insights of many different disciplines to meet practical challenges and recognize that widespread phenomena often have local origins. For instance, situations of armed violence differ, as will potential solutions, because individual perceptions of insecurity (and resulting actions) vary between different locales.

It also pays, then, to ask what being human – being of humanity – actually means for multilateral negotiators. Many relevant insights from the natural sciences already exist and could be turned to use. By focusing on understanding and alleviating individual perceptions of insecurity that can lead to armed violence, responses to problems of insecurity of more practical use to multilateral negotiators can be framed.

And, by helping negotiators understand the role of intuitive constraints in their interactions (like Tit for Tat) and how these are affected by structure, negotiations might be improved in practical ways. The clock is ticking….

John Borrie

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The West Wing

I argued in this blog's previous posting on 7 March that in multilateral negotiating situations, ‘nice but retaliatory’ strategies like Tit or Tat run into difficulty because it’s very difficult to discriminate against non-reciprocators (See "You scratch my back ...).

One reason for this is that groups are much more prone to defectors and free riders the larger they become. It’s hard to identify those we should retaliate against. A recurrent theme in The West Wing, an American television series about the life of a fictional U.S. President, is the difficulty, not so much in retaliating militarily against terrorist attacks, but in identifying and locating the perpetrators without killing lots of blameless civilians. Israeli military forces encounter this problem each time they retaliate against attacks by the many Palestinian factions and splinter groups pitted against their occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. In real life it’s hard to come up with strategies that strike the right balance between punishing defectors and maintaining effective cooperation. And it’s the problem in every multilateral negotiation in which some countries hitch their pet prerogatives to its coat tails, however marginal in relevance or unhelpful their riders prove to be.

The second problem is that multilateral negotiations aren’t iterative in the sense that, say, a game of Monopoly is, in which each player takes a consecutive turn repeatedly until the game is over. Negotiators almost always face uncertainty. They’re continually trying to assess not just their relationships, but the level and reasons for cooperation or defection between others at the same time. There are no neatly divided turns.

A third issue is that players aren’t equal in relative importance. Their defection or cooperation with us or, indeed, to each other, varies in significance. We may take a more (or less!) tolerant view of an ally defecting, for example, than of an adversary doing likewise. Moreover, how does one reliably tell between defections that are tactical (and perhaps stepping stones in the longer run to greater cooperation) from those that are profoundly bad for our interests?

It’s easy to see how misperception and errors can occur among negotiators, even if we set aside political will or a negotiation’s substance. The irony is that, at the same time, the rational intellectual difficulties created by uncertainty inherent in multilateral negotiations make the prospect of falling back on intuition more attractive. But intuitions may just compound matters if, say, you listen to your gut instinct to punish another negotiator or delegation and you’ve misread the situation.

All of this sounds difficult to overcome – and it is. It highlights the skill and experience necessary to negotiate effectively in multilateral situations. In other words, it’s what diplomats, the supposed experts in navigating this headache-inducing environment, are for.

John Borrie

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

You Scratch My Back...

All humans, regardless of culture or other differences, appear to have certain common perspectives (or ‘constraints’) in dealing with the world. One relates to ‘reciprocal altruism’ or ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. It’s an instinctive strategy that lies at the heart of human collective endeavour from the building of the Egyptian pyramids and the atomic bomb to the International Criminal Court. And, it’s the basis for our urge to detect and punish cheats or free riders in our everyday lives.

Tit for Tat. Do unto others. Whatever we call it, mutual reciprocity is an urge with a deep basis in our nature in common with many other species, some as simple as bacteria and viruses. Primate behavioural expert Frans de Waal recently observed, “Humans and other animals share a heritage of economic tendencies – including cooperation, repayment of favours and resentment at being short-changed.”

So what? The key is the ability to discriminate against non-reciprocators by withholding future aid. Let’s consider that. A wide range of scientific evidence reveals Tit for Tat and other intuitive strategies can work great in a two person ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’ situation. It even works well in a group of other people if we can keep track of their individual intentions, along with our past record of cooperation or defection with them. We have social brains, and they’re nicely adapted for just this kind of social exchange.

But multilateral negotiations are harder. They involve many different actors at the state and individual level. The United Nations has 190 or so member countries. It means hundreds of delegates may be involved in a negotiation (although, obviously, some matter much more, in practice, to the outcome than others). Hundreds – or even thousands – more people may exert influence or issue orders from capitols to their delegates, although invisible to most other negotiators at the seat of the negotiation.

It’s hard for negotiators to keep track of all of these relationships, even just the ones they consider significant. There’s also potential for individual negotiators to confuse reciprocity at the personal level with the broad balance of interests between their governments. This is a line that fades from the fuzzy to the invisible if negotiators aren’t aware that the potential for crossing it exists.

The upshot is that in multilateral negotiating situations, ‘nice but retaliatory’ strategies like Tit or Tat run into difficulty because it’s very difficult to discriminate against non-reciprocators.

John Borrie

Monday, 5 March 2007

Tit for Tat and the Diplomat

It’s been a pretty dismal decade for international disarmament and arms control diplomacy. The review meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2005 failed to agree on any meaningful steps to curb and roll back the spread of nukes. India and Pakistan – and now Iran and North Korea – pose challenges to the existing nuclear order that may stretch it beyond breaking point. The nuclear test ban flounders in limbo although a fragile moratorium holds pending its entry into force. The treaty banning biological weapons still lacks a verification regime although it did manage to get through its review meeting in late 2006 without breaking up in disarray like in 2001. And, although talks there have gained a new lease of life there this year, efforts to commence negotiations on screening fissile material production, or prevent an arms race in outer space, remain stillborn after almost a decade of talks in the fading splendour of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

Explanations for these failures usually revolve around ‘political will’ and geopolitics, characterizations that are generally valid. But they don’t convey the full picture.

A missing element is how the multilateral system itself works or, rather, fails to work. Multilateral diplomats aren’t merely the messengers of governments. Their perceptions and skills matter to the success or failure of international diplomacy (just think of John Bolton). The problem is that, as the examples above show, diplomatic “business as usual” seems maladapted to solving contemporary challenges, or of adopting new ways of doing things that will better achieve international security objectives.

The accuracy of negotiators’ perceptions or the relevance of their skills to multilateral arms control processes has received scant attention until now. One reason why is that they regard diplomatic negotiation as a black art. To this way of thinking, intuition and persuasion are unknowable x factors, opaque to rational analysis or double-checking. They’re seen as the advantage a good negotiator has over a mediocre one, and a source of professional mystique to boot.

“Trust us – we don’t understand how we do what we do, but we know what we’re doing.” It’s a risky premise when the stakes for humanity’s welfare are so high and depend as heavily as they do on cooperative activity across cultural and political divides.

It’s also a view that’s mistaken. Intuitions are important in the hothouse of multilateral negotiating. But advances in understanding human nature based on the natural and behavioural sciences show that some intuitions can be wrong – even when they feel right. If negotiators don’t recognise this, they increase their chances of failure.

John Borrie

Welcome to Disarmament Insight

This blog site is aimed at negotiators, policy wonks, activists, researchers and anyone curious about disarmament and human security.

Every few days we'll be adding new thoughts about our research, including how it relates to current events, future trends and other things we feel excited about on disarmament-related issues.

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