Managing Complexity: Three Possible Models for a Future Non-proliferation and Arms Control Regime

6 November 2020
Managing Complexity: Three Possible Models for a Future Non-proliferation and Arms Control Regime

After decades of relative success in containing WMD proliferation, the international non-proliferation and arms control regime today faces unprecedented strains and criticism. After prolonged stagnation – and partly as a consequence of it – the regime has entered a new phase of deep institutional erosion, as we can see from the recent termination of some of its key instruments, such as the INF, and questions surrounding the long-term viability of others, such as New START. 


Among the disarmament community there is widespread consensus that, as Lampedusa described it: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. This has led to a number of recent diplomatic initiatives to explore possible ways forward on nuclear disarmament. Two of these processes are the Swedish ‘Stepping Stones Approach’ and the US-led initiative on ‘Creating the environment for Nuclear Disarmament’ (CEND). 

A key theme in discussions in the inaugural meetings of these initiatives in Stockholm and Washington in early summer 2019, was that the international environment was becoming increasingly complex and that the frameworks for nuclear disarmament, in particular the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), need to be reinvigorated. It is indeed increasingly difficult to assess the overall state of the global nonproliferation and arms control institutional framework, as new initiatives come into being and overlap with existing arrangements. Universal agreements are being gradually displaced in political agendas by more bespoke arrangements that are not necessarily ruled by the consensus rule nor seek to become fully universal. 

The way in which this growing variability in arrangements can be incorporated into the multilateral arms control and nonproliferation regime itself will define its future. The following three avenues –not necessarily mutually incompatible- could shape the future arms control and nonproliferation regime by allowing some degree of symbiosis between older conventional instruments and newer initiatives.

A. The nonproliferation regime as a “toolbox” that includes like-minded states’ initiatives.

The last decade of the 20th century witnessed the proliferation of different initiatives and platforms, mostly in the field of humanitarian disarmament. These were oriented towards giving new momentum to arms control and countering the lack of progress in traditional intergovernmental frameworks.

One example is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC), and its failure to adopt a “sixth protocol” regulating antipersonnel landmines at the beginning of the 1990s. This failure was the origin of an entirely new negotiation process, out of the UN frameworks, which led to the adoption of the Ottawa Convention. The CCWC was also unable to agree on an arrangement for the efficient regulation for cluster munitions, which led to a new like-minded states convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, also known as the Oslo Convention. 

In the current world, marked by a revival of cold war rhetoric against a backdrop of heightened global tensions, achieving progress in universal conventions ruled by consensus has become almost impossible.  In this context, the commitment and leadership of limited groups of states should not be viewed as a threat to multilateral frameworks, but as legitimate efforts to find much-needed alternatives to the paralysis. Instead of ignoring them, classical non-proliferation and arms control conventions should try to find common grounds with some of these proposals. 

B. The nonproliferation regime as a “clearing house”: enabling partnerships between donors and recipients.

Very few initiatives in the nonproliferation and arms control regime can claim to be genuinely universal. One of the rare examples is the Programme of Action on Small and Light Weapons (PoA on SALW) adopted by consensus in 1997. If the PoA’s consensual adoption was a real success, its implementation has since lagged behind expectations. Many countries, particularly those suffering the effects of high rates of armed violence and criminality, claim that the programme has so far led to no tangible result. 

Increasing frustration and fatigue led a number of states parties to suggest that this framework could be transformed into a completely different animal[1]: a sort of “clearing house” where donor countries could get in touch with potential beneficiaries and their actual needs, instead of spending most of their energies on negotiating sterile final documents. While the practical implementation of this initiative has yet to be considered, it does offer the perspective for other multilateral conventions to allocate part of their annual meetings to direct contacts between assistance donors and recipients. 

This could help states parties –in particular developing states- to regain confidence on the usefulness of taking part in multilateral non-proliferation meetings and go some way, for some members, to restore the credibility of the whole non-proliferation regime.     

C. The nonproliferation regime as a platform for interaction between science and diplomacy. 

For many decades, arms control expert communities were able to survive amidst hostile political atmospherics. Technical and working groups, as well as groups of government experts, have the advantages of relatively limited exposure to the political limelight and a shared scientific language and approach. As a result, they can help to craft practical responses to nonproliferation challenges, especially when diplomats showed few signs of getting anywhere close to consensus.

Let’s take the case of nuclear nonproliferation: over the last decades there has been substantial progress in technical matters, such as nuclear risk reduction, transparency or nuclear disarmament verification. There is ongoing research and discussion at expert level on matters such as unmanned aerial vehicles, artificial intelligence, ammunition and stockpile management in conventional arms control fields. 

These initiatives and working groups should be given an increasing space in traditional non-proliferation and arms control conventions.  “Soft law” proposals developed as a result of their reflections (such as draft codes of conduct, decalogues or political declarations) could enlighten ways forward and pave the road for future diplomatic negotiations. 

The nonproliferation and arms control regime will continue to face a scenario of mounting complexity. A plethora of new initiatives is already taking the lead against the backdrop of increasingly petrified and dysfunctional institutions, particularly those ruled by a strict interpretation of consensus. 

If not well managed, complexity could lead to the disconnection between new proposals and already existing ones. An atomized regime would be, by definition, even more dysfunctional and prone to paralysis than the current one.

This is why new instruments need to find some institutional anchor in existing multilateral frameworks. Cornerstone conventions, such as The Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Convention for Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC) could become such an anchor. 

Traditional frameworks could keep a central role by providing the new ones with an inclusive multilateral space to present their achievements and discuss possible ways forward. Being open to new proposals and working methods –instead of ignoring them- could in turn provide classical nonproliferation and arms control conventions with the political momentum they have lacked over the past two decades. The three options above could help frame this interaction, necessary for the survival of the non-proliferation regime in a time of increasing complexity.

Ignacio Cartagena Núñez Consul General, Consulate General of Spain in Edinburgh

[1]See Report and Outcome Document from the Sixth Biennial Meeting of States on the Programme of Action with the Ambassador E. Courtenay Rattray of Jamaica acting as Chair (New York, 6-10 June 2016).