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John Duncan

Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control & Disarmament, Geneva
Posted 05 December 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

Like so many others I have spent much of the last few days blocked by the bad weather that has hit Western Europe. The wonders of modern technology mean one is rarely completely out of touch with the office, but after you've dealt with all the emails on the BlackBerry and the iPhone, I find that catching up with my podcasts is the best antidote to the "Hurry up and Wait" process that characterizes the modern airport experience.

The BBC's  "History of the World in 100 Objects" is one podcast I regularly follow and have even been persuaded to post some artifacts onto their growing virtual collection on the net. Object No 98 was Cristóvão Canhavato's Throne of Weapons; a sculpture made out of decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war (1977 - 92); a war that claimed almost 1 million lives and left 5 million people displaced.

The sculpture was made as part of the "Transforming Arms into Tools" project, where some of the seven million guns left in the country are voluntarily exchanged for useful tools such a spades.

Niel MacGregor's excellent series has charted human history via the objects that tell us about the people who used them and the times they lived in. This moving and inspiring episode struck a particular personal chord. Regular readers of the blog will know that over the last 4 years I have been leading the UK effort to secure agreement at the UN to begin negotiating a new Arms Trade Treaty. The ATT is now at the first stages of negotiation. The UK remains firmly committed to the process where our aim is to establish effective regulation of the international arms trade; to set up the checks and controls that the arms industry itself  wants to see in place. The ATT will be a complex and challenging negotiation and the end result will not be a panacea, but the human cost of inaction was amply illustrated by the speakers on the programme.

You can see the Throne of Weapons on line on the BBC website, where you can also listen to the programme, read the transcript, or download the podcast.

 You can find out more about the Arms Trade Treaty on the FCO website.

John Duncan
05 December 2010

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Posted 12 November 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

The Battle of the Somme in 1916, remembered as one the bloodiest of the First World War, is less rarely thought of as a place where the Celtic nations of Britain and France once fought alongside each other together. Given last week's announcement of greater Anglo French Defence Co-operation, I thought I would share this long forgotten episode with my readers.

Visitors to the Somme Battlefields will usually call at the Baumont-Hamel, or the Thiepval monument to the missing, both in their way deeply thought provoking places that attest to the huge number of men who lost their lives and at Baumont Hamel one can still walk the route that the allied troops took as they vainly attempted to reach the German trenches only a few hundred yards away.

The Ulster tower which lies between the other two monuments records the involvement of the Irish (although many southern Irish also served in the British regiments involved). But you have too look carefully to discover the true extent of the Celtic links to this small stretch of the line. The old trench maps give one clue. Many trenches carry the names given them by the Scottish regiments who preceded the Irish - Greenock Ave, Moncrief St, and Dumbarton track.

Tucked behind a hedge at OVILLERS-LA BOISSELLE a little to the south one finds the first evidence of the Breton's notably the 62nd and 19th Regiments D'Infantrie. 


A Breton Cross (calvaire) in Kersanton (an extraordinary stone mined in the atlantic) commemorates their role and in the nearby cemetery lie those who did not go home; Bellec, Jaouen, Salaun, lie only a few rows from McLean and Farquharson, names familiar to any Scot or Breton. Nearby lie men from the Munster and the Dublin Fusiliers, as well as soldiers from the final part of the celtic link the 38th (Welsh) Division who retook this part of the line after the final German offensive in 1918.

The Scots and Breton's commemorated their common defence of this part of France by an exchange of urns containing earth from Scotland, Brittany and the Somme. One of these is in the Black Watch museum in Perth, a second in the Le Folgoet Basilica in Finistere.

Today few remember this shared endeavor. So it is good that we take the time once a year to recall the bravery and sacrifice of these young men; a tradition that continues to this day with the men and women of our armed forces who put themselves in harms way on our behalf in many of the worlds trouble spots.

John Duncan
12 November 2010

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Posted 03 November 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

This week the Oslo Treaty banning Cluster Munitions came into force in the UK. Next week the States who have signed this new Treaty will gather in Laos, one of the countries worst affected by these weapons and their deadly legacy of unexploded bombs.

As the chief British negotiator for this treaty it is a moment to reflect. In my experience it is quite rare to be allowed to see a negotiating process through from its very beginnings to its conclusion. More often one leaves to take up a new job hoping that ones successors will take forward what you have started. Will they understand what you were trying to do?

Indeed when I look at some of the wording of the treaties such as the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which we reviewed in New York earlier this year, I am often bemused by the language that my predecessors of 40 years ago agreed to. Treaty text particularly on contentious points can be the result of tortuous compromises negotiated late into the night. Tired, hungry (and probably in need of a cigarette) how many negotiators have not been tempted in the early hours to conclude that no-one will ever  understand what the wording we are arguing over means, so it can’t be enforced anyway.

Understanding a multilateral negotiation is also difficult for historians (and for the NPT I usually include an academic in my team) because so much of what happens is at second degree; by which I mean that the art lies in manipulating the perceptions of others. It is akin to an immense game of poker with more than 100 players. But a game where theatre is an essential part, outrage, deliberate provocation and also humour are all an essential part of the negotiators tool kit. The skill lies in knowing when to deploy these, to disrupt or block emerging consensus that undermine your position, or to encourage those that do. One of the privileges over the past 4 years has been to watch some of the world’s best negotiators in action.

What I have described may seem overly cynical, but that would be to underplay the crucial importance of trust and building personal relationships with other negotiators, even if they are from an opposing view. The challenge of the Olso negotiations was that the UK was suspected because of our known dislike of taking negotiations outside the established UN framework.  Many feared we had come to water down if not wreck the outcome they so passionately wanted. That this was not the case was only really accepted in the final hours of the negotiation.

And the final outcome more than justified the effort. Diplomacy is as I've commented before, fundamentally about people and the world is a better place for the existence of the Oslo Treaty and its predecessor the Ottawa Landmines Treaty, both of which banned weapons that injure innocent civilians such as Song Kosal, often long after a conflict has ended. I doubt I will forget the joy on the faces of the Cluster Munition's survivors (below) when we succesfully concluded the Oslo negotiations in Dublin two years ago.

You can hear my interview with Song Kosal on AudioBoo

John Duncan
03 November 2010

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Posted 20 October 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

Tonight I return to Geneva after almost exactly a month In New York covering the UN General Assembly High Level (i.e. ministerial) Meeting (HLM) on Disarmament and then the UNGA First Committee.

I leave behind some members of my team for the formal voting, but my job is essentially done. Few of the draft resolutions will change much now and the UK position have been agreed with our ministers.

So was it a vintage session as I speculated in earlier blogs, one that would build on the success of May’s Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (RevCon) and the calls for action from politicians at the HLM?  Probably not.

Then again no great disasters either. The expected attempts by some countries, notably Pakistan to disrupt the majority agreement on the key resolutions about getting the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva back to work largely failed to gain traction. Indeed such blocking tactics won them few friends even amongst the Non Aligned Movement.

More disappointing was the tendency amongst so many of the centre ground countries to publicly acknowledge that the RevCon represented a major new commitment to take forward nuclear disarmament by the Nuclear Weapons States, and that it was being acted upon. One could only sigh as country after country trotted out the same tired old rhetoric.

While this year we were not running UN resolutions ourselves, the Prime Minister's announcement as part of the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) of further reductions in the UK’s nuclear weapons arsenal and the new Nuclear Posture – known as Nuclear Declaratory Policy underlined that the UK remains a committed player in the substance of the debate. (Link to my intervention)

This has been my last UNGA First Committee. Its tendency to indulge in a diplomatic dance makes it something of an acquired taste. But for me it will remain the scene of many diplomatic battles over the past 4 years and the terrific UK teams I have led, as we tried to breakout from a decade long deadlock in multilateral arms control and disarmament. Clearly there is still much to do and perhaps I tend to forget that the UN is like a super- tanker. It does take some time to change direction.

It is not my last time In New York. I will be back in February for round two of the negotiations on the new Arms Trade Treaty also mentioned in the SDSR.

John Duncan
20 October 2010

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Posted 15 October 2010 by John Duncan | Comments
"Maji ni uhai" shouts Mary Chege, as she leads a woman's group she runs in song. "Water is life", as this translates from Swahili is a phrase that has real resonance to communities where access to water is a real issue.

This summer I visited Kenya with my family (see Return to my Roots blog entry), and as part of our trip we spent some time with a Women’s community project in Nakuru, on the borders of Lake Nakuru National Park.
This is an area where women habitually spend up to 5 hours a day collecting water for their families for washing, cooking and drinking. The journey’s are arduous, the water unsafe (typhoid has been a real problem), and the time spent fetching water is time away from tending the farm or looking after families.
Now, thanks to the simple installation of rain water catchment tanks, many families can now simply get clean drinking water right outside their door. The concept is straightforward. Rainwater is collected via gutters connected to the corrugated iron roof sheeting that covers the local houses. A pipe takes the rainwater into a catchment tank that is installed next to the house, and a tap at the base of the tank provides easy access to the water. The community raise a third of the cost, and a small UK-based charity provides the rest.
Its amazing to see how such simple technology can make such a massive difference to people’s lives. Mary was an inspiring figure to meet, as she introduced us to the women’s group, and talked with passion about how the project has transformed their lives.
Blog action day this year has certainly focused on an important issue, and I was pleased to be able to see a project which is helping to make a real difference.

For more information see  Photos of the project are on my Flickr site 

John Duncan
15 October 2010

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Posted 14 October 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

Yesterday we concluded the first section of the month-long discussion in New York on multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament at the UN General Assembly's First Committee.

In the opening session the UN's High Representative for Disarmament, Sergio Duarte, drew attention to the progress made this year, (See my earlier Blog entry). However when he urged that "Let the momentum be with us", I am not sure that how many people present were listening. Bar a few honourable exceptions, momentum is something that has been sadly lacking in the debate over the past week. Indeed there were times when one felt trapped in some terrible time warp listening to the same tired old rhetoric which always asserts that the worlds problems are "somebody else's fault"

Honourable exceptions to this trend were a new grouping of Ukraine, Mexico and Chile with a sharply focussed and forward looking statement, and Egypt who gave an impromptu, but well argued explanation of why  the proposed Conference on  a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction is in the  interest of all the states in the region.

Otherwise the national statements, if mostly businesslike, were largely predictable statements of well known positions and concerns. There was little if any echo of the often passionate interventions by the 50 ministers who attended the UNGA High Level Meeting on Disarmament only 10 days previously.

I have commented before about the Multilateral Disarmament Diplomatic community’s rather peculiar inability to respond to developments in the real world, or in this case to an event in which many participated and which took place in the same city. Strange.

Still things may be looking up as we move on to the detailed debate on Nuclear Disarmament. MERCOSUR the Latin American regional grouping got us off to a good start with a forward looking, action orientated statement. We may not agree with everything they say but at least one can engage with that sort of approach.

Because of the imminent announcement of the outcome of  the UK’s  Strategic Defence and Security Review, we did not take the floor last week (Shades of not being able to speak in the early part of the NPT RevCon in May due to the election). So most of our work was behind the scenes. But we will be speaking in the Nuclear debate tomorrow to outline our general approach to the RevCon follow-up and probably again next week once the SDSR outcome is announced.

For those who want to read the interventions and statements themselves, I would recommend the excellent website of the NGO Reaching Critical Will.

John Duncan
14 October 2010

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Posted 10 October 2010 by John Duncan | Comments
The "Imagine" mosaic in New York's Central Park was crowded today as fans and the curious came to pay their respects on what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday. Despite the media's speculative efforts we can't really know what he would have made of today's world; although I think we can guess his response to the diplomatic dance. I have been sitting through this week just a few blocks away at the UN General Assembly's 1st Cmtte this week.

His iconic song Imagine from his first solo album has become a symbol for those who believe the world can be a better place; picked up by other artists from Neil Young (at the America: A tribute to Heroes, after the 9/11 attacks) and even Lady Gaga. I first heard it as a young teenager all too conscious of the violence around us when the IRA set off two terrorist bombs in our town and the looming risk of a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, locked as we were then in the height of the cold war.

Thankfully we are no longer at war with the IRA. The Cold War is over and nuclear arsenals of that time cut back to a third of what they were. But the intervening decades have had more than their fare share of manmade catastrophes from the Balkan wars to Rwanda, and the DRC to name but a few. As well as natural disaster from the great famines in Ethiopia, Sudan in the 80’s to Pakistan this year.

Lennon’s Imagine, like “We are the world” a decade later captured the spirit of people across the globe who believed they could make the world a better place. Young people continue to be inspired by that message and sometimes to devote their lives to the task such as Linda Norgrove who died tragically in Afghanistan yesterday.

Sometimes when we are locked in those “Smoke-less” rooms of diplomatic negotiation listening to another lengthy repetition of tired old rhetoric it is too easy to forget what the real purpose of our discussion is. At such moments if I’m observed humming a few chords of Lennon you’ll know why.

Next week I’ll be blogging on the conclusion of the General debate in 1st Cmtte, but also taking part in “Blog Action Day” which this year focuses on the important issue of Water.

John Duncan
10 October 2010

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Posted 04 October 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

Those that follow me on Twitter will have seen that I am back in New York; its begining to feel like home from home. True 2010 was always going to be an exception, at the last count about 12 weeks on this side of "The Pond".

But there is also perhaps a wider conclusion to draw from all this activity and travel. Traditionally New York, or at least the UN General Assembly is viewed by the Disarmament Community as a forum that is always long on rhetoric and often short on practical progress. Diplomats will talk about the “Vienna” or the “Geneva Spirit” with the subtext that those of us based at the UN bodies located in Europe are more pragmatic and focussed on achieving results.


The experience of 2010 has been rather different. Despite much activity, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva was unable to even agree a Workplan; going backwards from last year when it seemed the CD would at last be able to start work on a new treaty to ban the production of raw material for nuclear weapons. In Vienna little real progress has able to be made in resolving the international concerns about Iran’s Nuclear programme.(see Simon Smith's recent video blog)


By contrast in New York the successful outcome to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May after a decade of deadlock (and only the 3rd time since 1975 that a RevCon has had an agreed outcome) was followed by the opening of the negotiations of the new Arms Trade Treaty that will put in place much needed regulation of this important global industry. See my earlier blog entries (NPT, ATT)


Ten days ago the UN Secretary General convened a special “High Level Meeting” that provided a much needed focusing of minds on the need to maintain this new momentum in multilateral arms control and disarmament. The FCO minister responsible for our area of work, Alistair Burt addressed the meeting the UK.


Over the next four weeks at the UNGA First Committee diplomats from across the globe will take stock of progress. I will again be leading a small cross-government team to consider the 60 odd draft resolutions. If we achieve a successful outcome I think we can judge that 2010 was New York’s year.


I shall be commenting as usual on the blog and Twitter.

If you would like to find out more about the UK and Arms Control do visit the FCO webpages on these issues


John Duncan
04 October 2010

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Posted 30 July 2010 by John Duncan | Comments
Last week I was in New York again for the first round of negotiations on the new Arms Trade Treaty that will establish long overdue regulation of the global arms trade and, like efforts to combat money laundering before it, seek to squeeze out the places where unscrupulous arms salesman can carry out  their activities.

It has taken 4 years work to get us to this point and  I was heartened  to see that unlike previous discussions, even those who have been less convinced on the need for an ATT were now willing to engage in a debate about what should be in the treaty, rather than whether there should be one at all. There is still long way to go, but the level of engagement and the skilled work by our Argentine Chairman’s team ensured we made better progress than expected.
The human case for better regulation of the arms trade is unassailable and too many people in too many countries continue to pay a high price as a direct consequence of weapons finding their way into the hands of criminal gangs, pirates, and terrorists. But equally important for those countries not directly affected is the recognition that an ATT is also about preventing the destabilisation of our key overseas markets and providing confidence for industrial co-operation amongst responsible producers and suppliers.
This weekend also marks the entry into force of the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions, meaning that this new Treaty becomes binding international law, as more than 30 nations (including the UK) have ratified it. Followers may recall my earlier blogs about the work of cluster bomb survivors, many of whom were active campaigners during the negotiations, and whose courage and determination is inspiring. Britain is making good progress in destroying our own stockpiles of cluster munitions, and we are playing our part in encouraging the universalisation of this important humanitarian Treaty.

John Duncan
30 July 2010

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Posted 27 July 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

This month I took a break from multilateral negotiations to spend some time in Kenya. While the scenery and wildlife was, as always magnificent, I was keen to find out how the people I grew up with are meeting the challenges of making a better life for themselves and their children.What I saw was inspiring, particularly the way small communities were working together.

Perhaps the most striking change from my last visit was the proliferation of schools following the government’s decision a few years back to provide primary education free of charge. From my time as a UKTI director I could appreciate what an important driver for inward investment having a well educated workforce can be. A visit to my old school and a small school in the north showed a degree of enthusiasm for knowledge by the pupils that would warm the hearts of many teachers in Western Europe, my current home. I was therefore saddened to hear of the theft of public funds for education that came to light last year, with inevitable impact on donor funding

Kenya had a close brush with inter ethnic violence some years back, a problem that I know all to well from my time in the Balkans. What impressed me on a day spent with villagers in the Rift Valley area was the way the local communities were deliberately reaching out across the tribal divide, working together to build a better life.

The role of women’s groups was particularly inspiring, starting new business together working with charities and local bodies to secure funding for the basics that so many of us take for granted, such as a secure water supply; Photos on Flickr.

Those who follow me on Twitter will have seen the link I posted to the Sheldrick Trust, well known to British TV viewers from the Elephant Diaries series. The statistics on elephants killed by automatic weapons are horrifying. Yet another casualty of the failure to regulate the arms trade.

Last week I was again in New York concluding the first meeting of the formal negotiations of a new Arms Trade Treaty a further blog on that follows soon.  Those interested in Kenya can follow my colleague Rob Macaire, also a regular FCO blogger and who has just returned from a visit to Kenya’s Central Province


John Duncan
27 July 2010

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Posted 03 June 2010 by John Duncan | Comments
As the world’s media moves on to new issues, NGO and academic commentators have begun their own evaluation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York last month.

This is a very important role. In my experience, government unlike the private sector, often devotes more energy at capturing the lessons from failure rather than those of its successes.

Official inquiries, of which there have been a number in recent years, play an important part of the British democratic process, by calling officials and decision makers to account. Hopefully they help us to avoid yesterday’s mistakes.  But they are perhaps less likely to tell us very much about the lessons of what works and as the military would put it how  “to reinforce success”.

The task is also perhaps peculiarly difficult in the field of diplomacy, an area where so much of what happens needs to be seen “at the second degree”; where the theatre of formal interventions may be more important in the effect they create than what is actually said ; where the interplay of policy and personalities often occurs behind closed doors so that the outside observers perceptions of what is actually going on can be distorted.

Inevitably amongst a community of 189 nations the criteria for success at the Review Conference were many and varied. For some, and they exist in both camps, it was simply an exercise in avoiding criticism for their policies. Still others as I have commented in earlier blogs saw the RevCon as an opportunity to launch new initiatives such as the Nuclear Weapons Convention.

For the US and UK the principle objective was to re-energise and give renewed focus to a part of the international institutional arena that had been broken and polarised for a decade. At its simplest it was to create a new constituency for action by empowering the centre ground against more extreme views.  This is something new. Even if the result is the exercise of power and influence, it is the power of the moderates and thus a world away from 20th century power politics.

Last month was also an investment in the future. One cannot wield power from a platform that is broken. The first task was one of repair. Thus the important outcome lies not in the minutiae of the Final Document, but in the political processes created by last week’s agreement. Put another way, an appreciation of how the action plans across the 3 pillars provide for an individual and collective “calling to account” of the NPT community over the next 5 years.

Some commentators complained about a supposed “lowest common denominator agreement” or that the main success was the absence of failure. This is to rather miss the point. The NPT RevCon is not an end in itself, but like a marketing event in the private sector, the real importance lies in the process of engagement that follows.

Over the past month we have tried to give our readers a flavour of the the experience of a major multilateral negotiation. I hope you have enjoyed the guest bloggers, on my and Amelia Bate's blog site, the Nuclear 2010 campaign page and the regular updates on Twitter. For my part it has been an inspiring experience to lead such a dedicated and energetic team over the past three years. Many of them will be leaving us to go to new jobs and new challenges. I hope that beyond the sheer hard work they will also remember the real sense of privilege of representing one's country at a major international meeting where we try to make the world a better place.

John Duncan
03 June 2010

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Posted 30 May 2010 by John Duncan | Comments
Much of the media reporting on the outcome of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which concluded in New York yesterday, has focussed on the decision to take forward work to establish a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEZFWMD).

Agreement on concrete action MEZFWMD resolution after 15 years was a big step forward so it is unfortunate that reporting, often from responsible mainstream sources, has often missed the mark. Some have suggested Iran is the big winner in all of this. Being forced to hold up the final meeting to get one’s instructions reversed because you are completely isolated is hardly a big win. Beyond the usual rhetoric, the long list of complaints in their final statement showed how little of what Teheran wanted was realised. Neither the Middle East region, nor the Non Aligned Movement more generally, supported Iran’s agenda. Indeed Iran’s disruptive approach was resoundingly rejected.

So it is important to get our facts right. Admittedly, deciphering the code behind the formal statements that emerge from such international meetings is no easy task. A number of journalists spoke to the negotiators, often in private, but others relied on academic commentators, who of course were not present in what were naturally sensitive and difficult discussions.

I was quoted by the Associated Press as pointing out something most commentators seem to have missed; perhaps because of the way the MEZFWMD decision is structured; since the steps outlined in paras 7a and 7b of the decision could arguably have been placed the other way round.

In reality Friday's decision is to embark on a two-year process and dialogue on how one might achieve a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East; where the proposed conference is the point when all countries in the region could come together to discuss the possible ways forward.
The conference would have to be set up in a way that all sides will be comfortable attending; a point made very clear by the US and UK during every negotiation we had about the MEZFWMD decision. It would indeed be very surprising if Israel was able to agree today to come to the proposed conference before that dialogue has taken place.

All the countries outside the NPT (India, Israel and Pakistan) were mentioned in the RevCon Final Document, encouraged to join the NPT and place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards. The language used is familiar enough, similar terms were used at the recent Nuclear Security Summit.

However for the Middle East the problem is not just the development, or suspected possession of nuclear weapons, but more widespread concern about other WMD such as Chemical and Biological weapons. To suggest that the countries of the region should be part of a dialogue over the next two years to try an address the situation would seem to be the bare minimum that responsible members of the international community should propose. That is in effect what 189 countries did yesterday.

John Duncan
30 May 2010

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Posted 19 May 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

President of the Ploughshares Fund Joseph Cirincione has written the article below, giving his take on the NPT Review Conference in the context of nuclear debate in the US.

The NPT conference, as any reader of this blog knows, is going better than most experts expected. The conference, however, is a minor issue in Washington, where debate remains focused on the New START treaty, missile defense and Iran. The Washington debate highlights the deep divide between progressives and far-right conservatives on the relationship between existing nuclear arsenals and the spread of these weapons to other nations.

For the far-right, nuclear weapons are power we would be foolish to give up. “The US nuclear arsenal is as important as it ever was,” says analyst Keith Payne, whose 1980 article, “Victory Is Possible,” argued for fighting and winning a nuclear war. If we decrease our arsenals, says former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, “Teheran and Pyongyang will conclude that…America is getting weaker.” In this view, these are weapons the United States must retain indefinitely and prepare to use.

For progressives, whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have provided in the past are now outweighed by the risks they present. The Nuclear Posture Review released by the Obama Administration April 6 concludes that the greatest threats to America, are nuclear terrorism and new nuclear-armed states.  To prevent both, we need the cooperation of many other nations. To get that cooperation, we must move together with them to reduce and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons everywhere.  “Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options.”

The two views inform how both camps view the NPT Review Conference. For the far-right, it is an empty talk fest, where the global Lilliputians gang up on the American Gulliver. For the Obama administration, it is an essential part of a comprehensive plan to protect America. 

Five years ago, the former view informed the US role in the last conference, contributing to its failure. This year, while the United States and other nuclear-weapon states have not escaped criticism for the relatively slow pace of nuclear reductions, the new nuclear security agenda forged by the administration has won the praise of most nations. Agreement is developing among key nations for new steps to accelerate disarmament and build firmer barriers to any new state getting nuclear weapons.

If this agreement consolidates, it will be seen my many as a validation not just of the administration strategy but of the new bi-partisan consensus upon which it is based.

I have used the phrase “far-right conservatives” above because many conservatives are part of this consensus. It is epitomized by the work of George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn who argue now for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” In their January 2007 Wall Street Journal oped they wrote, “We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.”  The only way to prevent this, they argue, is to move step-by-step to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

This consensus is growing. Two-thirds of the former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisors have endorsed their overall strategy. Dozens of groups in many nations are working on plans for how to do it. The administration has embraced the policies in its new nuclear plans, reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in US strategy, the New START treaty with Russia now awaiting Senate approval, and the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington last month where 47 nations agreed to an action plan to prevent nuclear terrorism.

That is why Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, former Secreatary of State Jim Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft all endorse the New START treaty and most elements of the new security agenda. This still does not assuage the far-right, who will dismiss whatever happens in the Review Conference as pointless or as a weakness. It is vital that international observers understand that these views — however loudly expressed — represent a minority within a minority view. The majority of national security experts in the United States will see the Conference and the New Start treaty as progress and solid evidence that the new nuclear security agenda is working.


John Duncan
19 May 2010

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Posted 13 May 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

The pace is picking up at the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in New York. Talks on each of the three pillars as they are known,  disarmament,  nuclear non-proliferation and  peaceful uses of nuclear energy are gradually moving beyond simply statements of national positions to more focussed bids for issues that nations want to see reflected in the final decisions of the conference.

As a result core themes are starting to emerge, with some interesting debates shaping up in the margins too. Not the least of the topics being discussed is how to verify concrete action on nuclear disarmament. As former US President  Ronald Reagan famously said "Trust, but verify". In practice this is a more challenging issue than it might at first appear. Not only do nuclear weapons states want to protect their military secrets, but they have a legal obligation under the NPT not to reveal nuclear weapons technology to states who do not possess these weapons.

Today (Thursday) the UK and Norway will report on our ground-breaking joint research project to test in practice how one could verify dismantlement of nuclear weapons without breaching military security, or our legal obligations. This research is the fruit of several years of hard work between the two countries, with Non-Governmental research organisation VERTIC providing an independent viewpoint. The first time that a nuclear weapon state and a non-nuclear weapon state have ever carried out such joint work.

Andreas Persbo, Executive Director of VERTIC, has blogged about Thursday's event on the aptly named Arms Control Wonk website.

Do keep checking for further details of our activities at the RevCon, and follow me @jduncanMACD on Twitter. I'd also recommend you follow our blog from the NPT RevCon team.

John Duncan
13 May 2010

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Posted 10 May 2010 by John Duncan | Comments

Despite the backdrop of a decade of deadlock and stalemate in multilateral arms control and disarmament, the five yearly Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting in New York managed to break free of the endless arguments over procedure that have so bedevilled this part of the international diplomatic community.

When one wants to avoid a discussion of the real issues it is all too easy to block progress by refusing to agree the less important ones. During my four years in Geneva this tactic has prevented the Conference on Disarmament from getting down to negotiating a new Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty, despite an overwhelming majority in favour of doing so.

But in New York this week, patient behind the scenes diplomacy won the day. The Review Conference gets down to serious work on Monday following agreement on the three Committees and their sub-committees (known rather pompously as Subsidiary Bodies) that will focus respectively on Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and the Peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

For some, this focus on the real issue of how we can work together to make the world a safer place will be unfamiliar territory. For far too long rhetoric has dominated the debate. It is risk free to indulge in "the blame game" if there is no prospect of any real progress. As I have commented before in the blog, the NPT is a classic example of the Have- Have-Not relationship and so it is all too easy to fall into the old habits of power-politics.

As with the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change last year, if we are to steer this process through to a succesful conclusion in three weeks' time it will require us to leave our bilateral quarrels, and there are many in a community of 189 countries, outside the door and focus on the task at hand- to get the process of multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation back on track.

That does not mean we should avoid ambitous plans or expressing criticism, but if we lose sight of the fact that we are engaged in a collective endeavour that requires everyone to come on board, then we will surely fail. A delicate balancing act to be sure.

Over the coming weeks I shall be blogging (including with some invited guest bloggers) and providing updates on Twitter. You can follow me @jduncanMACD and visit our Nuclear 2010 page for more information. 

John Duncan
10 May 2010

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