Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 28 June 2007

Grapes, apes and the world's fate

The two-day bunfight that was the 2007 Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference concluded yesterday with a fascinating discussion in the Ronald Reagan Center ampitheatre with Mark Hibbs, the legendary reporter for 'Nucleonics Week'. According to Joe Cirincione and Matthew Bunn, who were tasked with quizzing Hibbs for his insights, he's broken more nuclear stories than anyone else on the planet in his long career.

There isn't space here to recount in detail what Hibbs said. But in 3 or 4 weeks from now a transcript of the discussion should appear on the Carnegie Endowment's website (a summary might appear in the next day or two).

Hibbs, a North American, has lived in Europe for many years, and has traveled throughout the world in the course of researching and breaking stories related, for instance, to the A.Q. Khan illicit nuclear smuggling network. He was quizzed on this and other subjects.

One observation Hibbs made was that, in his view, U.S. standing in the world on nuclear non-proliferation in recent years has been reduced. He said he believed there was a perception in many parts of the world that Washington is willing to make exceptions to suit its friends that undermine the global non-proliferation regime - the U.S. nuclear deal with India, which is not a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, comes to mind - and that it and the other nuclear weapon states lack commitment to nuclear disarmament.

Now, of course, it can be (and is) argued that the five NPT nuclear-weapon states do take their obligations seriously, and it is geopolitical conditions - not lack of political will - that explains their lack of progress in nuclear disarmament efforts over the last decade. They have only to point to Iran and North Korea. Certainly, this sort of reasoning in public underpins the recent British decision to renew its Trident arsenal.

However, as I pointed out in my last post, "disarmament" has fallen out of favour in Washington, Paris, and to a lesser degree in London, in the last few years both as a word and a concept. This has been noted by the nuclear weapon have-nots and resentment about it has simmered in the NPT review process itself (See "The NPT: here we go again?") Dismissing this gathering discontent would be perilous. For the NPT regime to dissolve in acrimony would be incredibly damaging to the nuclear weapon states' interests beside everyone else's.

So it's welcome that, if the Carnegie Conference is any guide, re-exploring disarmament may no longer be taboo in the broader U.S. arms control community (only time will tell). And while the tough official line from an administration skeptical of the 'D' word is not likely to change much in substance for the time being, the recent NPT preparatory meeting in Vienna shows it's softening in tone.

Often, there's an assumption among Western policy analysts and policy makers - one that goes back at least as far as Hans Morgenthau - that "hard" forms of power govern how the world works and that it's a coldly rational place. Sometimes this is even true.

But even weak countries can collectively thwart what, on the face of it, are actions that would benefit everyone if carried out diligently (for instance, extra nuclear safeguards) if they're burning with a sense of inequity. They can do this simply by dragging their feet. Not even UN resolutions like UNSC 1540 designed to shake the stick on national compliance may be enough.

I saw an example of the powerful effects of inequity on behaviour a few weeks ago at a Disarmament Insight initiative symposium we hosted in Geneva. Primatologist Frans de Waal showed assembled diplomats and others a video of an experiment his researchers had performed with two monkeys over pieces of cucumber and grape. While both monkeys were given cucumbers for simple tasks they were each content. When one was switched to yummier juicy grapes, though, the other monkey became increasingly upset and angry and eventually threw away its perfectly good cucumber in protest at not getting a commensurate reward for its efforts.

Everyone at the workshop understood immediately why the cucumber monkey was annoyed, even though its actions were apparently irrational because it was giving up perfectly good cucumber. (Indeed, the grape-eating monkey was happy to appropriate the unwanted cucumber pieces.)

No-one should argue that nuclear non-proliferation efforts aren't vital. But it's worth nuclear weapon states reflecting on how their continued possession of nuclear weapons looks from the cucumber-eating side of the shop, especially when they rely on it for cooperation. This was a perspective that Hibbs served to highlight in a different form of words.

John Borrie


Carnegie's Conference website is here.

The podcast we prepared of Frans de Waal's talk on "War and Peace and Primates" at our 25 May workshop is here.

Sarah F. Brosnan & Frans B.M. de Waal, "Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay", Nature, vol 425, pp. 297-299, September 18, 2003.

Photo courtesy of author.


Miles Pomper said...

I love it--Monkeys and Disarmament! Perhaps you've found the appropriate successor to Warnke's Foreign Policy article,"Apes on a Treadmill."

Anonymous said...

fantastic points altogether, you just gained a new reader