Even though the stock price of multilateral arms control is extremely low, there still aren’t many buyers. The heyday of the Conference on Disarmament was in the mid-1990s, when the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban treaties were finalized. The CD has been moribund ever since, a victim of its unwieldy size and rules of procedure, which provide outsized influence to its least enthusiastic members. More does not equal merrier when it comes to multilateral negotiations.
All of this was presaged in the negotiating endgame for the CTBT, when Great Britain took the lead in crafting an entry-into-force provision that required no less than 44 states to ratify the treaty. As with the CD itself, this EIF provision elevated consensus-building to new heights, while ensuring India’s immediate dissent. The wait for essential outliers to the CTBT is now fifteen years and counting. (The argument that this EIF provision was the best that could be negotiated would be more persuasive if greater effort had been focused on less onerous alternatives.) Given India’s objection to the CTBT’s final language, inventive diplomacy was required to convey the treaty from Geneva to the UN General Assembly. In due course, inventive diplomacy may also be needed to secure the treaty’s entry into force.
The CD’s diverse membership and hide-bound litany of agenda items are conducive to diplomatic gamesmanship and stasis. At one time or another, the United States, China, and now Pakistan have imposed qualifications, linkages, conditions, and vetoes that have tied the CD up in knots.
During the Cold War, multilateral arms control was conducted on a bloc-to-bloc basis, with nearby third parties sometimes added into the mix. Talks in Stockholm and later Vienna produced valuable confidence- and security-building measures, including the first use of observers at military exercises – the precursor to on-site inspections at sensitive sites that enabled strategic nuclear arms reductions. Persistent efforts during the Cold War to achieve mutual and balanced conventional force reductions in Europe finally succeeded when the Soviet Union was falling apart. Adapting the CFE Treaty to new geopolitical realities is proving to be very hard. For example, as Jeff McCausland pointed out to me, there are now less than 1,000 US tanks in Europe; the CFE Treaty allows 4,000.
The “Ottawa process” constitutes an alternative approach to multilateral negotiations. In this model, activist governments and nongovernmental organizations join efforts in convening states to draft Conventions directed at stopping the production, stockpiling, possession, deployment and/or use of weapons that can have indiscriminate and long-lasting effects, such as land mines and cluster munitions. The resulting Conventions are useful in clarifying norms and spotlighting irresponsible battlefield use, even when some key states choose not to join. But if most key states and potential offenders fall in the outlier category, the value of these Conventions is seriously compromised – as is most likely in the event of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
Another approach to multilateral negotiations – or, rather, pre-negotiations – is to utilize right-sized groups of governmental experts (GGEs) and diplomats under the UN’s auspices to consider ways to advance key diplomatic initiatives. Two GGE’s will convene beginning this summer – one on space, the other on cyber. Each will have fifteen members. Representatives from the P-5 will sit on both groups; the remaining seats will be split along geographic and geopolitical lines. Rules of procedure would still be consensual in nature, but vetoes are clearly inappropriate for the exploratory phase of discussions.
Membership in the GGE model has to be balanced, with a view toward creating a forum that has a decent chance to become functional while being sufficiently inclusive. If preliminary discussions warrant, the GGE membership might evolve to reflect a negotiating phase led by a co-chairmanship or a rotating chairmanship.
Still another approach is for a regional grouping to take the initiative, as the European Union is doing with an International Code of Conduct for space. It remains to be seen whether the EU has the negotiating savvy to succeed. If so, states could then pass judgment on the outcome according to their established constitutional processes. In the case of the United States, norm-setting Codes of Conduct have taken the form of executive agreements, as has been the case with Codes of Conduct negotiated during the Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. Encouragement of progress and endorsement of outcomes could be affirmed by UN resolutions.
If none of these models works, it’s hard to think of another that would be viable.