Disarmament Insight


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