Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 26 February 2009

Biden’s speech in Munich: “Press the reset button”, and then what?

From 6 to 8 February 2009, more than a dozen heads of state or government, ministers and scores of international experts met for the 45th Munich Security Conference in Germany. There, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden presented a much-anticipated indication of America’s foreign policy under President Barack Obama’s new administration.

As Russian officials hope that U.S.-Russian relations will improve under Obama’s presidency, the Biden speech would have been keenly examined in Moscow. So what signals did the U.S. Vice President send to Russia from Munich? Actually, nothing very reassuring.

It seems that Vice President Biden in Munich was purposefully vague on many important international issues. His speech contained many hints and some colourful but not too meaningful rhetoric, like this now famous line:

it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.
If only world matters were as easy to reset as a personal computer! His remarks provided little reassurance on three issues that represent Moscow's main security concerns today: missile defence, NATO expansion, and the aftermath of the Georgian-Russian conflict.

Firstly, Biden said that the U.S. “will continue to develop missile defense”. Even if the rumors are true that President Obama may for some reason postpone the deployment of the third missile defence site in Poland and the Czech Republic, that would in any case not change the equation much: the Eastern European site is not important by itself, but only as an integral part of the whole U.S. missile defence system being developed and fielded, an open multi-tiered system already including land, sea, and space-based components. If, as Biden said, the U.S. will continue to develop this system, it is going to enhance and expand, and today nobody can say how this system will look in 15 or 20 years. Eventually the U.S. missile defense system may reach a level of capability sufficient to seriously undermine the deterrent capability of diminishing Russian nuclear forces. That is why Russian politicians and the country’s military are not reassured: they simply cannot afford not to think about what impact this system may have on Russian security.

Secondly, Biden said, “the United States rejects the notion that NATO’s gain is Russia’s loss [...] We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” To many Russians, this resembles a double standard. It seems as if Biden’s message was taken from George W. Bush’s playbook, which had strongly advocated further NATO expansion, including admission of countries in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. In Moscow, NATO’s advance to its borders is seen as a direct threat to Russian security.

Biden’s speech signals that the new administration in Washington is not likely to remove its support for further NATO expansion - NATO’s boundaries being viewed by many Russians and others as Washington’s own primary sphere of influence. Perhaps decision makers in Moscow can draw some relief from the realization apparent among some European leaders that, having witnessed Georgia’s military campaign in South Ossetia, which prompted a strong response from Moscow last August, and the latest gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia that left European countries without fuel this January, Ukrainian and Georgian membership of NATO in the foreseeable future may not be such a great idea.

Thirdly, the U.S. Vice President said “the United States will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states”. Nobody is going to dispute the sovereign right of the United States to recognize those states it so chooses. But, in my view, hearing from Washington a balanced political assessment of the conflict between Georgia and Russia last August (that is, one more sympathetic to Moscow’s interests) would substantially contribute to “resetting” U.S.-Russian relations.

So, is there a bright side? Biden proposed “to negotiate deeper cuts in both our [nuclear] arsenals.” This is a good idea that should only be welcomed. But nuclear disarmament cannot, and does not, exist in a vacuum. It is a part of a broader political picture, and negotiating partners should take into account their differing security concerns. Otherwise disarmament processes are either doomed to failure, or come to resemble Gorbachev’s disastrous policies of perestroika and “new thinking” in which the Soviet Union made one major concession after another, but got nothing in exchange but ephemeral talks about “new world order”, “globalization” and “acceptance into the club of civilized states”. The size of Russian and American nuclear arsenals were slashed at the end of the Cold War, but in my view no long-term gains in security were achieved by Russia in this process. The U.S. even violated a gentlemen’s agreement that NATO wouldn’t expand to Russia’s borders if the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern Europe.

It still remains to be seen what the foreign policy of the Obama administration will be and how U.S.-Russian relations will develop. As the saying goes, “hope dies last”, so maybe the Biden speech was not a declaration of future policies simply perpetuating the ones of the previous U.S. administration, but a prelude to more innovative strategies to build better relations between the two countries.

This is a guest post by Dr. Yury Yudin. Yury is a Senior Researcher at UNIDIR and manages the project ‘Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle'.

Photo Credit: 'Reset' by Tomás Rotger on Flickr.

Monday, 23 February 2009

CCW: The Sounds of Science...

"Now here we go dropping science, dropping it all over
Like bumping around the town, like when you're driving a Range Rover
Expanding the horizons and expanding the parameters
Expanding the rhymes of sucker MC amateurs

"Naugels, Isaac Newton, Scientific EZ
Ben Franklin with the kite, getting over with the key
Now rock shocking the mic, of the many times times the times tables
Rock well to tell dispel all of the old fables"

- Beastie Boys, Sounds of Science"
Last week I postulated Borrie's third law of CCW diplomacy (I'll tell you about the others some time - but it will cost brave readers at least a drink, and perhaps some sanity). The hypothetical law states that the CCW process will expand to fill all available time, and is based on my empirical observations of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons process over a long period - especially when the CCW is held over a steady flame and shaken, for example by proximate precipitation of a weapons ban treaty like a Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).

I invited falsification of my theory by observation or physical experiment. Yet, the theory still stands for now. On Friday, the Argentinean Chair of the 2009 CCW Group of Governmental Experts, Gustavo Ainchil, adjourned the meeting after he quickly gavelled through a procedural report that included agreement for a further four days of meetings in April in Geneva, based on an agreement in late 2008 that:
"The GGE will meet for up to two weeks in 2009, from 16 to 20 February 2009 and subsequently, if required, from 14 to 17 April 2009".
As explained in the preceding blog post, although the atmosphere at last week's GGE was significantly improved over a testy November Meeting of CCW States Parties, there are no firm signs anything will come of the extra sessions. The positions of states still seem to be too far apart. An annex to Friday's procedural report containing the Chair's take on a "consolidated text" of a draft protocol appeared to display the same characteristics that caused substantial disagreement over November's text. Implicitly, this is recognised in the new Chair's text, with various footnotes noting delegations' "expressions of concern" and that "discussions continue".

This should not detract from Mr. Ainchil's efforts, which appear to have been exemplary so far. Argentina is really giving the negotiation its best shot and most of last week's allotted time to the GGE was mostly taken up with various Chair-faciliated bilaterals and other informal meetings, and it was a clearly tired Mr. Ainchil who adjourned Friday's session. But few in the room envy him his rather thankless task - of achieving a protocol that looks as far from agreement as in November, or of winding down the process in as face-saving a manner as possible, thus sparing the CCW regime any damage.

April will tell whether the CCW's work will be a Solid Gold Hit, or or the end of the road for the GGE work. And, of course, another test for the hypothetical third CCW law....

John Borrie

Papers from the CCW GGE meeting should eventually turn up on the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs' website here.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Look into my eyes: CCW and the kinetic theory of gases

In my preceding post, I posed the question: has anything really changed since last year's difficulties in the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)'s efforts to negotiate a protocol on cluster munitions in the wake of agreement by 107 states in Dublin in May on a Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) that comprehensively prohibits the weapon?

As the CCW Group of Governmental Experts meeting this week approaches its end, the answer looks like 'No'. As foreshadowed, the incoming GGE Chair, Argentina, has focused his efforts on informal consultations at the bilateral and small group level, and there have been few meetings in Plenary, except for an hour on Monday morning and a few minutes yesterday. In each case Argentina distributed "elements for discussion papers". Monday's paper contained textual options on general "prohibitions and restrictions" for a putative agreement, "storage / and destruction" and "transfers". On Wednesday morning the Chair's second discussion paper was circulated, this time on "Protection of civilians, the civilian population and civilian objects" - previously the purview of the Japanese Friend of the Chair on these issues, who has now left.

Where does this leave us? Pretty much where we were in November, in my view. The Chair's "elements for discussion" do not differ significantly from what was put on the table by the previous Chair, Ambassador Wigotski of Denmark, in November, and which was unacceptable then to a significant proportion of the CCW's membership . Nor are there really any signs of significant shifts in position since: if anything, the more issues of ratification and practical implementation loom for CCM signing countries, the less keen they will be on weaker restrictions being agreed in the CCW. Russia has made noises that it is now willing to go along with agreeing a protocol in principle, but really this confirms the hunch most operated on previously. The US has reiterated its position, and unlike the other major users and possessors of cluster munitions outside the CCM, has explained in clear terms what the implications of its proposals (as taken up in the Wigotski draft and new elements papers) would have for its national arsenal. But it is unclear whether there actually is anyone at a senior policy level to give them further instructions right now in Washington D.C. with the change in administration.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) perhaps put it best. The ICRC has noted its surprise to the Chair that what is in effect the Wigotski package is still on the table since it is hard to imagine it being either effective or agreed upon. At best, the package is a menu of things countries might do, and would have the effect of legitimising for decades a weapon type that the majority of the international community have now specifically prohibited. The ICRC (again) urged a very different approach: a comprehensive transfer ban on cluster munitions and a prohibition on use of the weapon in populated areas - as has been argued previously on this blog, these would have real humanitarian impact.

It is a very peculiar situation. As several colleagues (who shall remain nameless) put it to me; if the CCW were working on, say, torture issues rather than cluster munitions, it would never be acceptable to negotiate a package of weak restrictions allowing the continued use of torture by the biggest culprits after the establishment of a standard prohibiting it. It would be seen as an egregious double standard and there would be outcry. Yet it seems to be acceptable to many in the CCW on the assumption that weak restrictions capturing non-CCM likely candidates is better than nothing. I'm not convinced of that: those countries would be better (as the Cluster Munition Coalition has argued) to take national level actions until such time as they're in a position to join the CCM.

Meanwhile, in side meetings and lunchtime events, the members of the CCM along with international organisations and NGOs such as the CMC have been getting on with the task of figuring out how to bring the treaty into force as soon as possible and position the new regime for implementation.

I would be very surprised if the CCW Chair - despite his patient, best efforts, which are to be commended - is in a position to present a protocol package tomorrow that can command agreement among the CCW's membership, which operates on a consensus practice. The question remains whether, then, use will be made of the CCW GGE's optional four days of further talks after Easter from 14 to 17 April.

Borrie's third law of CCW diplomacy (itself derived from the kinetic theory of gases, naturally) states that the CCW process will expand to fill the available time. In this way, it will be compelled to award itself its short week in April, just as this session was awarded by the CCW despite its undertaking to "negotiate a proposal" by the end of 2008.

Like any Popperian I invite falsification of my theory. Come on CCW, this is your chance to prove me wrong ... ;-)

John Borrie

Image of the 19th century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (who developed a kinetic theory of gases), aged 31 with his wife, Henrietta, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

CCW: From pause to play?

Next week, the big bag of diplomatic hurt the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) process on cluster munitions seems to have become will resume again in Geneva, for the first of what might be two sessions to see if something can be salvaged from last year's fraught efforts to "negotiate a proposal" on restrictions or prohibitions on the weapon.

At the end of 2008, Argentina bravely stepped up to the plate to chair the CCW's Group of Governmental Expert (GGE) sessions in February and (optionally) April 2009, and to try to fashion a consensus in that timeframe. This week, the incoming Argentinian Chair, Mr. Gustavo Ainchil, shared his views in consultations with states and others here in Geneva about how he intends to proceed.

In sum:

  • - Next week's agenda remains the same as the previous Group of Governmental Experts' meeting in November 2008;
  • - The Friends of the Chair (FoC) on various issues have been re-confirmed in their roles for next week's session, although the Japanese FoC (who was dealing with thorny international humanitarian law questions) has departed;
  • - The Argentinian Chair will not present any new papers before next week's meeting starts.
In effect, next week's GGE presses the play button after a three-month pause. Will the message on the tape now sound sweeter, or will it self-destruct? Mr. Ainchil's task of consultation to identify where some forward progress might be achieved on the contentious issues in the paper put forward by the 2008 GGE Chair, Ambassador Wigotski of Denmark (which was one basis for last November's talks and which looks set to continue for now) will not be easy.

The Argentinian Chair also stressed that he doesn't want to re-open issues for which he already considers there is consensus, preferring to focus only on contentious ones. But such delineations may not be easy to maintain in view of the nature of these negotiations in which "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". He looks willing to take a shot at trying his hand at some compromise text, in any case.

So, we'll see what happens. Personally, I'm not hopeful anything will be achieved, especially as the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) has now been signed by 95 countries and the tactical importance of negotiating work in the CCW may have passed, both for those strongly supportive of the new CCM, as well as those unfriendly toward it.

But, of course I've been proven wrong before. Nevertheless, it's a pretty safe bet that if clear evidence of a consensus doesn't emerge in the course of next week's CCW GGE, the likelihood of a new, sixth CCW protocol on cluster munitions will be considerably diminished.

John Borrie

Image of 'Tape' by Ronald K, sourced from Flickr.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Patterns of explosive violence

The shelling of a hospital in North East Sri Lanka has brought the battle that the government armed forces wage there against the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) back into international headlines. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated to the point of being called ‘nightmarish’ as hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped between the front lines, in an area now quite inadequately named ‘the safe zone’.

Like the recent events in Gaza, the situation in Sri Lanka is another sad illustration of the severe humanitarian harm that the use of explosive force in populated areas consistently causes. A recent Policy Brief by Landmine Action emphasizes the direct link between the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and the civilian harm that predictably results from it.

The policy brief notes that media coverage and policy analysis on the Gaza conflict tended to focus on the use of white phosphorous (including on this blog) and other ‘unusual’ weapons, a focus which risks to ‘normalise’ the use of explosive force generally. It should, however, be recognized that explosive weapons caused ‘by far the greatest number of deaths and injuries’ in the Gaza conflict, that explosive force in general is ‘particularly associated with psychological harm’, especially among children, and that in an armed conflict it is usually explosive weapons that cause most damage to infrastructure, such as houses, hospitals, schools, and the electrical power, water and sewage systems. Moreover, unexploded explosive ordnance presents ongoing health risks to the civilian population for years after a conflict has ended.

Landmine Action calls in its policy brief for more explicit recognition of the humanitarian impact of the use of explosive force in populated areas and encourages humanitarian organizations to challenge the prevailing attitude towards this ‘technological pattern of force’ as ‘normal’ or ‘conventional’. In order to further stigmatize the use of explosive force in populated areas ‘a collective and explicit recognition that explosive weapons used in populated areas tend to result in a predictable pattern of indiscriminate and severe humanitarian harm’ can help to ‘shape the public and political discourse about what is right and wrong’.

Maya Brehm

Photo Credit: 'p012877' by Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA, available at: PhotosNormandie on Flickr.

Explosive violence: Israel and Gaza, Landmine Action Policy Brief, 30 January 2009.
Explosive Violence blog by Richard Moyes.

Monday, 2 February 2009

The Value of Diversity in Multilateral Disarmament Work

Although 2008 was a busy year on other fronts, we also completed the final publication of the current 'Disarmament as Humanitarian Action' series, which is entitled The Value of Diversity in Multilateral Disarmament Work.

Although there have been recent stand-out achievements like the new 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), success has been hard to attain in recent years in other areas of multilateral disarmament and arms control work. Political problems exist, to be sure, but they're not the sole problem. Professional diplomatic or journalistic shorthand like "lack of political will" can take on the mantra of an explanation that obscures specific underlying problems - problems that also differ across processes. However, to quote Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2) in this regard:

Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves ...
In our third volume, Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations, we explored some of the potential obstacles that are worth considering with a view to improving negotiators' performance that aren't often noticed by many of those in the thick of disarmament work. For instance, obstacles to progress can be the unintended consequences of past practice, or they can stem from the complex challenges those involved must deal with.

It's also likely that aspects of multilateral disarmament practice compound cognitive challenges individuals face in managing their perceptions and interactions with others. This has been an abiding theme of some of the posts on the Disarmament Insight blog, as some readers know.

We were keen to examine some of these aspects in greater depth, and to try to give form to some of the disparate observations and insights we've gathered within the project over the last few years that weren't included in the first three DHA volumes or other published work we produced. And a key catalyst was a workshop we held as part of the Disarmament Insight symposium series in September 2007, when two of our speakers on the topic of complexity and arms control, Philip Ball and Paul Ormerod, discussed Scott Page's book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

Page's book contains a lot of useful generic insights about group prediction and problem solving - often in conditions of conflict, as well as cooperation - that prompted Ashley Thornton and I to consider how this might link up to some of the DHA project's research and observations about disarmament negotiating environments.

Drawing on the work of Page and many others from a range of disciplines, our little book makes the argument that while there is no way to ensure success in multilateral disarmament endeavours, practitioners can improve their chances by recognizing and harnessing cognitive diversity (or 'perspective diversity', in Page's parlance). This is effectively what humanitarian perspectives in disarmament processes such as the Ottawa process leading to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Oslo Process resulting in the CCM have shown.

And progress in multilateral disarmament needn't stop there. The Value of Diversity in Multilateral Disarmament Work discusses practical suggestions to help achieve this.

John Borrie