Introducing the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities

This is a write-up of the virtual event to launch the report: ‘Nuclear Responsibilities: A New Approach for Thinking and Talking about Nuclear Weapons’, originally published by BASIC. A full recording of the event can be found on the BASIC website.

On 2nd November 2020, BASIC and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham hosted a virtual event to launch the report: Nuclear Responsibilities: A New Approach for Thinking and Talking about Nuclear Weapons. The event was chaired by Alice Spilman, Researcher within the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities and ESRC-funded PhD student based in the ICCS.

The report summarises the main aims, objectives, and achievements of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities. Professor Nicholas J.Wheeler (ICCS, University of Birmingham, and co-author of the report) and Sebastian Brixey-Williams (Co-Director, BASIC and co-author of the report) outlined the details of the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach and Method as set out in their report.

The Nuclear Responsibilities Approach is a new way of thinking and talking about nuclear weapons policies and practices that puts consideration of responsibility at its heart. It responds to the heightening nuclear risks in the world today and the deep polarisation in global politics over how to reduce them. The approach is centred on the need to shift the nature of the contemporary global conversation on nuclear weapons away from one characterised by rights, blame, and suspicion towards one framed by shared and plural responsibilities, empathic cooperation, and even trust.

The Nuclear Responsibilities Method puts the approach into practice, by inviting stakeholders to reflect upon their own and others’ responsibilities in relation to nuclear weapons and engage in productive dialogues with each other. The method is composed of two related stages. In the first stage, critical introspection, parties are invited to critically reflect on how they perceive and understand their own nuclear responsibilities. In the second stage, empathic dialogue, parties are brought together and given the opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of others, and as a result, look to develop new shared understandings of responsibilities that can lead to policies and practices reducing the risks of nuclear conflict.

Sarah Price (Head of the UK Government’s Counter Proliferation and Arms Control Centre) and Zahid Rastam (Principal Assistant Secretary to the Multilateral Security Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia) gave insightful comments and feedback on the report and the wider Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities, on the basis of their active involvement as participants in both national critical introspection dialogues and a five-way empathic dialogue in January 2020.

Sarah Price explained that the UK government became a sponsor of the Programme’s work because they recognised the ‘negative spirals’ and ‘tramlines’ that discussions around nuclear weapons had got into, especially in some of the UN bodies. These both feed into and are an obstacle to improving the worsening global security environment.

She drew parallels between the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities and other efforts to ‘break out of the tramlines’ in order to create a virtuous cycle in the run up to the Tenth NPT Review Conference. These included the US’ Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative and the 16 state Stockholm Initiative, the latter of which has been supported by BASIC’s conceptual work to develop the Stepping Stones Approach to Nuclear Disarmament. In addition, Ms Price explained that the UK government saw value in the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach because it offered the possibility of conversations with non-NPT possessor states, which can be difficult to do without appearing to legitimise nuclear possession in those countries.

Ms Price emphasised that being involved in the Programme had directly helped the United Kingdom critically reflect on its own position in relations to nuclear weapons and how such position was in turn perceived by others. As a result, the UK government decided to no longer include the phrase ‘responsible nuclear weapons state’ in their official statements and publications, but instead to redouble their language on the United Kingdom’s commitments to taking seriously its ‘responsibilities’.

Ms Price added that the Programme had helped the UK government recognise the need to communicate even more with non-possessor states about the steps they were taking to fulfil their own responsibilities. This became clear when preparing to take over the chair of the P5 Process in 2019-2020. In that context, the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach had helped the UK government realise that several ‘responsible’ policies and practices that they had considered to be self-evident, and even prided themselves on, were in fact little-known outside of the United Kingdom.

Zahid Rastam explained that the Malaysian government was intrigued by the Programme because it suggested an innovative approach towards multilateral disarmament. Mr Rastam emphasised that involving a range of nuclear possessor and non-possessor states had resulted in a wide, multifaceted and inclusive understanding of nuclear responsibilities. One dimension that had been drawn out in Malaysia was that a commitment to nuclear responsibilities should impact not only specific policies (e.g. disarmament) but also how states relate to each other in civil and diplomatic ways – a habit supported by the practice of empathic dialogue.

Mr Rastam made clear his government’s position – shared by other parties to the Programme to date – that thinking about nuclear responsibilities should not become a substitute for, or distraction from, legal obligations such as those set out in Article VI of the NPT. As long as this remains so, he felt that his experience of the empathic dialogue in London ‘took away the politicisation – not the politics, but the politicisation’ between nuclear possessors and non-possessor states.

The Q&A session raised important points and remarks that will contribute to orient the future developments of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities. These can be broadly summarised as follows:

Rear-Admiral John Gower, a participant in the Programme and author of Improving Nuclear Strategic Stability through a Responsibility-based Approach (2019), asked whether and how the Programme is going to engage with other nuclear possessor states, such as the US and Russia, that might be more reluctant in attending multilateral dialogues over nuclear responsibilities. Mr Gower noticed that the Programme has so far engaged with countries located at the ‘softer end of the responsibilities scale’, i.e. Brazil, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The report authors acknowledged that this is a challenging, yet imperative, task for future works. The Programme has already started to engage with other nuclear possessor and non-possessor states through a variety of channels, such as private conversations with key experts and officials, roundtables, and workshops. Furthermore, the Programme is gradually expanding to include nuclear possessor states that are in relationships of active distrust with one another (see the report). The next phase of the Programme will explore possibilities for reducing distrust and mistrust and promote nuclear risk reduction in the Asia-Pacific. The Programme will also expand its engagement in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Cecili Thompson Williams, Executive Director of Beyond the Bomb, asked whether and how the concept of nuclear responsibilities align with the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P). Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler, who is also author of Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society, pointed out the two concepts overlap to some extent around the idea that it is important to focus on the responsibilities of states rather than an exclusive focus on state rights in this sphere. However, it is important not to overstate the relationship, bearing in mind the negative politics that swirls in some quarters around R2P today. Given this, we are mindful that the language of nuclear responsibilities should be treated carefully and on its own terms.

Natalya Samoylovskaya, Junior Research Fellow at the School of International Relations – MGIMO University, asked what the main characteristics of responsible behaviour among nuclear states are. The co-authors re-emphasised that the Programme’s aim is to discourage states from using the concept of nuclear responsibilities in a way that charges others with behaving ‘irresponsibly’ whilst claiming their own behaviour in relation to nuclear weapons as ‘responsible’. Rather, it invites policy-makers and non-governmental experts to critically reflect about how they see their own and others’ nuclear responsibilities. However, what has emerged from our past dialogical engagements with both nuclear possessor and non-possessor states is that parties generally agree that they bear common responsibilities towards promoting nuclear risk reduction.

Paul Schulte, Honorary Professor at the ICCS, asked a set of questions about the current status and future ambition of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities. Why should we expect it to work between active nuclear rivals? Why should we consider the Nuclear Responsibilities Method to be different or more effective than other existing conflict resolution methodologies? The authors outlined their belief that the Programme has the potential to change the nature of discussions between nuclear rival states from one based on mutual blame and suspicion towards one centred on empathic dialogue, shared responsibilities, and even trust. The strength of the Method, moreover, lies in its gradualism and in its experimental and interactive nature. The officials and non-governmental experts involved in the responsibilities dialogues are committed individuals with whom the Programme aims to build trusting relationships. The Programme’s interactions with them will further permeate the Approach and Method, which can therefore be adapted to different regional contexts.

Chiara is a Doctoral Candidate at the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security (ICCS) at the University of Birmingham and a Nuclear Policy Analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). Her doctoral thesis focuses on the role of empathy and trust in the de-escalation of diplomatic crises between adversarial countries in international politics. At BASIC, Chiara is the Project Officer for the Asia-Pacific track of the Programme on Nuclear Responsibilities

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