21 August 2018

The United Nations’ Role in Arms Control and Disarmament

In “Arms Control and Disarmament”, his contribution to the second edition of the Oxford Handbook of the United Nations (Oxford University Press), Keith Krause, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute, provides a comprehensive account and review of the ways in which the UN has contributed to global disarmament since its establishment. We had an interview with Professor Krause to acquire first-hand knowledge on his recent book chapter.

There is an extensive scholarship on the United Nations’ impact on international peace and security. In this respect, we wonder how the new edition as well as your chapter could put forth novel claims and findings for the literature.

The publication is mainly a “handbook” designed and targeted towards practitioners and undergraduate or graduate students, and it is a general survey that is more than 800 pages long! It tries to cover everything about the UN and focuses principally on how to think about the UN system and its role in global governance. So my piece on disarmament was an attempt to give a bit of historical context to current debates. It is not necessarily new and certainly not based on original research but examines how the UN and its varied bodies have approached disarmament, and what role it has played (and could play). There is currently little written about the UN’s role in disarmament and arms control. There is a lot on security, conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding, but not much on the UN’s specific role in the control of weapons of mass destruction or conventional weapons. The main reason is that little or nothing has happened over the last twenty years in the UN system on disarmament, and the Conference on Disarmament is moribund.

Your chapter stresses two contending visions that give shape to the disarmament policies of the UN. These are the realist and the liberal institutionalist stances. To what extent has the strife between these visions impeded or contributed to the UN’s endeavour for the global disarmament?

We have to distinguish between the scholarly debate over the realist and liberal institutionalist approaches and the actual practices of the UN system. In the scholarly debate, it is fairly obvious that (1) the realist would say that the UN is just a reflection of great-power relations and thereby (2) nothing happens when the great powers do not wish it to. In the area of arms control and disarmament, there is a great deal of truth in that. On the other hand, one of the things that Thomas Weiss, who is one of the editors of this volume, has studied fairly extensively along with colleagues is the way in which the UN has played a particular role in norm-setting and as a focus for innovation. This is much closer to the liberal institutionalist model where the institution has at least a bit of relative autonomy. Even though I do not want to overemphasise this, I think that the UN system has demonstrated relative autonomy in some issue areas and at certain times. Besides, it has influenced the shape and scope of specific arms control and disarmament agreements and promoted global norms. Yet the realist argument holds a lot of sway in the area of weapons of mass destruction, as exemplified by the nuclear powers’ resistance to the recently negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

You argue that multilateral institutions can play different roles in security issues, such as a negotiating forum, a norm-setter, an implementing agency or an instrument of great-power security governance. In which one of these roles did the UN perform well in the past? And how did it happen?  

First of all, we should say that it is the UN system as a whole – not just the UN – since one of the institutions I focus on is the Conference on Disarmament, which is technically not a UN body but serviced by the UN. It has played an important role as a deliberative and negotiating body for the Chemical Weapons Convention, and other treaties in the 1970s and 1980s. Parallel to that, it was a forum for ongoing deliberations that resulted in the setting of norms around things like control of fissile materials or bans on nuclear testing. All of these restrictions only emerged through a long process of deliberation, and it is hard to imagine how that would have happened, counterfactually, in the absence of a standing body for disarmament discussions. So, the UN system and the Conference on Disarmament played a key role in those areas. The other area that I tried to highlight is the gap in arms control and disarmament regarding major conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction versus issues such as anti-personnel landmines, small arms and post-conflict disarmament. The UN played a significant role in these latter areas as a focus for the development of best practices and the actual implementation of policies in post-conflict settings. What is more, there is a gap in the literature between the people who think of arms control as a state-to-state negotiating issue, and those who focus on other issues. In my chapter, I tried to bring them into the same frame of analysis

Lastly, how do you see the future of the UN’s role in global disarmament efforts?

There are no major global disarmament efforts at the moment… despite the recently negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (which is not supported by major nuclear powers). The current environment is very negative. Without being unduly pessimistic, if you look at SIPRI’s – the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s – data on military spending, and more specifically on armaments spending, none of the trend lines are going in the direction of disarmament. That being said, the UN’s role in many post-conflict and fragile settings has been and still is important. I do not think that the Conference on Disarmament has got much of a future, since it has become essentially moribund and states’ involvement is very weak. I do not see that this situation will change soon because the developments that led to it are longer-term and will not be reversed tomorrow. Therefore, the UN’s role in these particular areas of great-power security governance can only be minimal in the near-term future.

Full citation of Professor Krause’s chapter:
Krause, Keith. “Arms Control and Disarmament.” In The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations, edited by Thomas G. Weiss and Sam Daws, 383–95. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science.