Not Talking about Disarmament at the IAEA

How nonproliferation rules ensure that nuclear weapons are here to stay.

Less than a decade and an administration ago, nuclear weapons appeared as Cold War relics that history had made obsolete. Their numbers dwindled, their importance declined, and President Obama inspired hope that nuclear weapons would be eliminated in a lifetime (or two). Today, however, nuclear weapons have made the comeback of the century thanks to a president who seems eager to reignite an arms race. This perilous moment primes us to learn how technologies, institutions, and discourses of the past profoundly shape our futures—and our possibilities for getting rid of nuclear weapons.

Amid last year’s rhetorical roller coaster featuring Trump and Kim Jong Un, one promising but underreported development was the adoption of a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in July 2017. The ban treaty, whose civil society supporters were awarded the Nobel Prize last October, has been roundly dismissed by the nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States), which are reluctant to relinquish their atomic arsenals and did not participate in the negotiations. Nonetheless, it represents an alternative political vision for a future free of nuclear weapons that challenges the established system of global nuclear governance.

Bomb the ban, nuclear ban treaty negotiations, June 28, 2017. Ralf Schlesener/International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

The ban treaty receives scarce mention in US news coverage of the situation on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, most editorials by scholars (Sagan and Valentino 2017) and nonproliferation wonks (Lewis 2017), who are generally sympathetic to reducing the risks of nuclear weapons, dismissed the effort as an unrealistic distraction that at best will have no effect (Mount and Nephew 2017) and at worst will prove counterproductive (Harries 2017), threatening to unravel the international system for governing nuclear weapons (Williams 2017). While ban treaty diplomats see it as an effort to fulfill the obligations of the 48-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), critics claim that the new treaty will undermine the old.

Within this rhetoric lurks a systemic bias against nuclear disarmament that has been institutionalized in the structures of nuclear governance since 1970. The NPT was originally developed as a stopgap measure to curb the arms race and create conditions amenable to nuclear disarmament. But it has made nuclear disarmament unthinkable. The nonproliferation regime becomes the project of making sure that no illegitimate nuclear weapons are produced. At the same time, it legalizes the nuclear weapons oligopoly of the few. The discourse of nonproliferation worries only about illegal nuclear weapons and remains silent on the subject of nuclear disarmament.

The global nuclear hierarchy as expressed by the NPT has become institutionalized in the presumably neutral techno-bureaucratic inspection practices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with verifying the treaty. Founded in 1957, the IAEA’s dual mission is to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technologies such as for electricity generation or medical applications, while preventing their misuse for military purposes. In order to do this, the IAEA carries out “nuclear safeguards”—inspections that focus on the material attributes of nuclear technologies to ensure that civilian nuclear material and facilities aren’t being used by states to develop nuclear weapons. Incidentally, these technical practices naturalize the uneven nuclear order as self-evident and immutable.

With over half a century of experience in verifying nuclear commitments across the globe, the IAEA would seem uniquely equipped to offer important technical expertise to the negotiators of the nuclear ban treaty. Alas, the IAEA sent no representatives to the negotiations, and staff were directed not to comment on the ban treaty to outsiders. This is despite the fact that the statute directs the organization to “conduct its activities…in conformity with policies of the United Nations furthering the establishment of safeguarded worldwide disarmament” (IAEA Statute, art.3, para.B1).

The IAEA’s disinterest in nuclear disarmament is not merely due to the outsize influence of nuclear weapons states. It is a pragmatic effect of its bureaucratic machinery. My research found that the bureaucratic process of verification naturalizes nonproliferation and perpetuates the current nuclear order by making it seem self-evident in techno-bureaucratic terms. The nuclear order becomes fixed as inspectors follow pre-established inspection routines applicable to distinct categories of state signatory to the NPT. The legal category of the state with respect to the Nonproliferation Treaty is translated into a bureaucratic category. Nuclear safeguards inspectors enact the hierarchical nuclear order with every measurement they take and with every report they write.

This daily translational practice makes it impossible for the organization to imagine nuclear disarmament or pursue efforts to bring it about. Indeed, the current leadership has actively tried to prevent discussion of disarmament within its hallowed halls. Every four years, the IAEA hosts a conference on nuclear safeguards, a rare occasion for staff and scholars of nuclear verification to interact in a non-restricted setting. At the last conference, a Princeton graduate student submitted an abstract on virtual reality tools for nuclear verification purposes, including disarmament. The abstract submission was punted all the way to the Director General’s office, which permitted its inclusion on the condition that any mention of disarmament be replaced by the nuclear weapon state friendly term “arms control.”

Arms control and nuclear reductions have been the siren song of the nuclear weapon states since the beginning of the nonproliferation era. Nuclear powers insist on the deterrence value of their nuclear weapons, which supposedly necessitates carefully calibrated nuclear reductions so as not to upset a materially fragile balance of terror. For decades, the non-nuclear weapon states went along with eternal deferrals of nuclear disarmament, watching stalled progress in all the relevant disarmament fora on all the major initiatives. The effort that led to the ban treaty, however, promised a new approach. Ban supporters oppugned whether states that relied on nuclear deterrence for their security could ever be genuinely committed to nuclear disarmament.

The jig was up for the nuclear weapon states. In 2013–2014, a broad coalition of states organized three conferences on the humanitarian and ecological consequences of nuclear weapons development and use. This framing shone a new light on the nuclear weapons that nonproliferation conveniently elided, effectively shifting the burden of proof to the nuclear armed states to demonstrate their commitment to disarmament. These conferences produced sufficient momentum within the UN General Assembly for a resolution to pursue a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapon states were incensed that the humanitarian initiative circumvented the usual consensus-based fora for such talks. This gave them no way to block the effort. After the treaty text was agreed in July 2017, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement that the treaty was “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence” (United States Mission to the United Nations, 2017). That this might have been the point was lost on them.

The Iranian nuclear agreement is widely upheld as a great success for nonproliferation. People in the liberal policy world, such as the writers at Arms Control Wonk, the Carnegie Endowment, and academic think tanks such as the Center for International Cooperation and Security at Stanford where I currently work, believe that the technical verification of commitments to peaceful nuclear uses—even in such sensitive cases as Iran—can and does work with the right agreement. In the case of North Korea, however, nonproliferation efforts clearly failed. Nuclear-armed states and their allies locate this failure everywhere but in the heart of the nonproliferation regime’s underlying contradiction: it denies most states access to a military technology that a few states are allowed to claim as their existential guarantee.

The legal and bureaucratic institutions of the nuclear age—and its authorizing discourses—protect the interests of the nuclear oligopoly. Even apparently impartial, technical organizations such as the IAEA contribute to perpetuating the global nuclear order, precisely by framing their nonproliferation task as merely procedural and unimpeachably technical (Amano 2017). In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Henry Kissinger described the structure of the liberal world order as “uniquely…procedural, not ideological” (Kissinger 2018).

The IAEA safeguards bureaucracy shows that the procedural is political. Barring major organizational transformations at the IAEA, a future free of nuclear weapons must be built with new institutions and novel agreements. The nuclear ban treaty is one step toward that future.

Anna Weichselbraun is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Her book manuscript The Nuclear Order of Things: Bureaucracy and Objectivity at the IAEA investigates how nuclear safeguards inspectors, bureaucrats, and diplomats at the IAEA negotiate the international and institutional boundaries of politics and technology in their working lives.

Cite as: Weichselbraun, Anna. 2018. “Not Talking about Disarmament at the IAEA.” Anthropology News website, July 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.924

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