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)