Andrea BergerSwiss and Swedish Inquiries on the Nuclear Ban Treaty

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, or “Ban Treaty”), negotiated and opened for signature in 2017, is a divisive document. It was conceived at the initiative of over one hundred non-nuclear weapon states eager to highlight the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any nuclear use, stigmatize the current behavior of the nuclear-armed states and their allies under nuclear umbrellas, and change the conversation over the path to disarmament.

Unsurprisingly, it has been opposed consistently and loudly by those countries that rely upon nuclear weapons for their national security. Here’s what NATO released on the day that the treaty was opened for signature.

Despite the sharp divides, there were a few “middle ground” states (for lack of a better term) whose policies everyone has been watching closely since the TPNW’s adoption. And some of those countries have recently undertaken, concluded and published inquiries into the issue of whether to sign and ratify the TPNW.  

Middle-Ground States

The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, despite having sympathy for security-focused arguments made by the ban’s opponents and preferring the close involvement of nuclear-armed states in any disarmament discussion, opted to participate actively in the TPNW negotiations and the humanitarian conferences that preceded them.

From the outset of negotiations the Netherlands clarified that it would not agree to any treaty that was incompatible with its NATO obligations. The negotiated text was of course incompatible, and for a number of the ban’s key advocates, that was the whole point. So the Netherlands became the only country involved in the negotiations to ultimately vote against the treaty.

All eyes therefore turned to Sweden and Switzerland, which had expressed reservations about the final treaty text. Had either decided to sign or ratify the ban now, it would have been a pretty big deal.

After the ban was adopted in July 2017, both Switzerland and Sweden launched inquiries into whether they should sign and/or ratify the treaty. (Norway, which did not participate in negotiations but under a previous government had held one of the key conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, launched one as well upon parliamentary insistence. Its report can be found here.)

Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs led an inter-departmental working group to analyze the issue. Its report, published in June 2018, concludes that the arguments against the TPNW outweigh the benefits, and that Switzerland should avoid ratifying at this time and instead seek several clarifications. I’ll return to its contents in a moment. The Federal Council concurred with the working group in its August 15, 2018 decision on the matter. The Council of States of the Swiss Federal Assembly, however, subsequently dissented and in December called on the government to sign without delay.

Sweden opted not to pursue an inter-agency inquiry, but rather nominated former diplomat Lars-Erik Lundin to conduct an independent study. It was published in mid-January and similarly concluded that Sweden shouldn’t come near the treaty with a barge pole, at least while it’s in its current form.

While they are not exactly coffee table reading, I wanted to highlight a few of the things I found interesting in the two reports for all ~four of the Arms Control Wonk readers who care. As a caveat, my Swedish needs some work, so my discussion of Lundin’s report refers only to the English component.

Tone

It is immediately apparent that the Swedish report differs from its Swiss counterpart in one major way – tone. This is likely explained in part by the fact that the former is the work of a single author, while the latter is the outcome of an inter-agency discussion.

The Swiss report feels disjointed. Tensions in policy and messaging are much more apparent. Its first half expresses some understanding for the TPNW approach and support for its humanitarian aims, and reads as if it was written by diplomats working on the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The second half refers to how the TPNW would limit Switzerland’s future security policy options in the event of conflict, and gives the impression that it was penned by defense officials. It even included this section, which made me appreciate that I clearly know nothing about what Swiss neutrality law entails in practical terms:

“In the extreme case of self-defence against an armed attack, Switzerland would probably cooperate with other states or alliances, not least with nuclear weapon states or their allies. In this context, reliance on nuclear deterrence would not be excluded but narrowly confined by its obligations under international law. As a party to the TPNW, Switzerland would reduce its freedom of action and abandon the option of explicitly placing itself under a nuclear umbrella within the framework of such alliances. A defence alliance declared to involve purely conventional means would (subject to the law of neutrality) not be explicitly affected by the TPNW. In reality, however, it would be difficult to differentiate conventional capabilities from a potential nuclear dimension.”

The Swedish Inquiry adopts a much more consistently skeptical and critical tone. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in the TPNW approach that the author liked or related to, and many arguments put forth will be familiar to those who have followed the debate over this controversial treaty. (For more on the key concerns for opponents, see the recent speeches by US Assistant Secretary of State Chris Ford)

Bridge-Building

If you attend any conference or seminar on NPT politics right now, you will hear the phrase “bridge-building.” Probably a hundred times. So often, in fact, that at one recent conference I found myself googling how bridges are actually constructed, to be able to fully consider the extended metaphor being offered by one of the speakers. Google’s algorithms are now thoroughly confused as to whether I might in fact be some sort of crazy civil engineer-cum-North Korean weapons trader.

I am thankful that Lundin does not use the term in the report, as much as I acknowledge the pressing importance of finding common ground for states with markedly different opinions on disarmament. Lundin does discuss Sweden’s desire to continue to position itself as being a disarmament facilitator. Switzerland’s report similarly suggests that ratification of the ban would further polarize the disarmament community and hinder Switzerland’s ability to act as an interlocutor for countries with a range of views on this subject.

Staying out of the fight, at least for now, is framed as key to preserving the role that both Switzerland and Sweden see for themselves in the NPT context. Lundin states that should Stockholm ratify, Sweden would be viewed within Europe as being part of the small camp of ban proponents (that includes Austria and Ireland), and would become locked in a serious policy debate against almost all of the rest of the EU membership that detests the treaty.

(A brief digression: the consequence of taking the minority side in that debate, he suggests, is that “Swedish expertise in the area of non-proliferation and disarmament will suffer.” I understand the desire to keep a distance, and I would do the same if I were making the decision for Sweden. But the concern that Swedish expertise will suffer seems overwrought. I, for one, will still be regularly ringing Andreas Persbo for his thoughts on things no matter what Stockholm decides to do. Sorry, Andreas. And as an Austrian in the non-proliferation community, I have not felt any repercussions on my own work from Austrian ratification, and I imagine many of my compatriots would say the same).

However, it strikes me that while both countries’ decisions to refrain from signing the ban may preserve that role for them in the eyes of opponents of the treaty, the arguments presented in both reports may persuade ban proponents that Sweden and Switzerland are in fact not the countries for that job.

Repeated references in the reports to the potential future importance of a closer relationship with NATO, including to its extended nuclear deterrence policies, did not go down well amongst at least some pro-ban officials I have spoken with.

Lundin notes that “Unless the Treaty text is amended, the accession of Sweden to the TPNW, would without any doubt prevent a possible future Swedish membership of NATO.”

He adds: “Swedish accession would, not least in view of the nuclear umbrella issue, necessarily be perceived as a fundamental criticism of the strategic doctrine subscribed to by almost all of Sweden’s neighbours and partners in NATO. In this context, Sweden would no longer be perceived as like-minded.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think many NATO countries would view Swedish accession in precisely this way. But despite the fact that Lundin dances carefully around the question of whether Sweden is actually like-minded on the relevance of nuclear deterrence to its own security, he is evidently not of the view that Sweden should be supporting efforts that aim to bluntly stigmatize such policies. The same impression comes across in reading the Swiss report.

My question is, therefore: in practical terms, is the central bridge-building role that Sweden and Switzerland see for themselves now a mirage?

Clarifications

The two national assessments make another point loudly and clearly: we came to the table, we participated in negotiations, and a raft of our suggestions and concerns were ignored. Lundin cites 20 proposals made by Sweden during negotiations, and notes they were largely rebuffed or altogether ignored. Switzerland’s report is frank too, stating: On account of the one-sided participation in the negotiations, Switzerland often found itself in the minority with its concerns.”

Having sat in on the 2017 negotiations in New York, I can see why Sweden and Switzerland walked away from them with this impression. While some of their recommendations for preambulatory language were incorporated, they hit a wall in attempting to secure agreement to changes on operative parts of the draft text.

Sweden’s enduring issues with the treaty text are sometimes referred to in Lundin’s report as areas requiring ”clarification” or development. For example, what sort of security relationships would be prohibited by the vague ban on ”assistance” in Article 1 of the TPNW? Can the provisions outlining the relationship between the TPNW on the one hand, and the NPT and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) enhanced? Can the safeguards standard in the treaty be improved? Switzerland frames these issues in a similar fashion, noting the need to watch closely how States Party to the TPNW interpret these elements in the coming years.

While that language might be a polite way to articulate lingering concerns over the Treaty’s perceived deficiencies, these are neither areas for clarification nor for development. They reflect deliberate decisions by the so-called “Core Group” of states in the ban negotiations (Austria, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa), along with a handful of other influential countries. This is the very reason why Sweden and Switzerland felt they were alone in a corner, particularly towards the latter half of the July 2017 negotiating conference. They kind of were.

For key ban proponents, writing the core prohibitions in Article 1 with undefined terms like “assistance” or “development” was a conscious choice to balance the desire for a strong normative statement with the need to satisfy states who wanted more- or less-extensive activities covered by the central prohibitions. Inclusion of more specific, supporting references to the CTBT in the operative text were flatly rejected by Egypt and a handful of others. And Brazil, a Core Group member, ain’t into the Additional Protocol.

So I’ll call it like I saw it: though on paper every country participating had one vote in the negotiations, some votes counted more than others. And because of those deliberate decisions to privilege some views over others back in 2017, I find it extremely unlikely that any of the TPNW States Party are going to have an interest in reopening these issues once the Treaty enters into force. I therefore agree with Lundin that Sweden would probably not be able to meaningfully shape the treaty into something it is more comfortable with by ratifying.

Observing Future Meetings of States Party

Where he and I depart is on his assessment of the risks of acting as an observer to future meetings of the TPNW States Party. Here again, Lundin is preoccupied with what he believes everyone else will read into this potential form of Swedish involvement. While he doesn’t outright oppose the idea, he is evidently reluctant:

“Formally observing the Treaty sends a political signal which needs to be carefully considered. The option of observing meetings of States Parties could be considered in depth when the conditions for observation have been defined by the States Parties. A decision on this option should take into account the costs of observation and how Sweden’s status as an observer would be perceived.”

I would be surprised if the current TPNW States Party impose tight ideological or practical restrictions on observer status once the first meeting of parties is announced. Doing so would be inconsistent with the approach taken for the humanitarian conferences and for the 2017 treaty negotiations, which allowed for a broad church of observers. Even the European Union — whose membership is largely anti-ban, observed the treaty negotiations, for example.

Sweden and Switzerland would also have many ways to clarify that their involvement as observers does not necessarily mean they agree with the Treaty, in whole or in part.

If you are a ban-skeptical European or NATO government on the receiving end of that clarification, and you suspect either country of harboring some secret intention to dupe you and run away with TPNW supporters into the nuclear-free sunset, then the problem is you, not Stockholm. The risks associated with observer status seem pretty minimal and easily mitigated.

In fact, I believe that anyone wanting to have a constructive and informed discussion on this issue with those of all viewpoints should seize every opportunity to gain insights into how those viewpoints are formed and articulated. That includes understanding how States Party to the TPNW intend to shape the treaty and its review process in the years following its entry into force.

I’ll let the four readers of this post get back to their day jobs by closing with the following, brief appeal. To the States Party to the TPNW, current and future: preserve space for those with divergent viewpoints to observe your activities. And to those not party to the TPNW, who are eager to mitigate the polarization occurring in the NPT community: use the space available. 


Comments

  1. TERTRAIS Bruno (History)

    I am Number Four.
    Great insights, thanks for this.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    In principle, a ban treaty organization that excludes nuclear-armed states and nuclear-umbrella states could become an “interest group” that could bargain with the nuclear-armed and nuclear-umbrella states to get disarmament negotiations moving again. It would be necessary, though, for its organization to have some control over what its members do (through majority vote or other procedure), so that it could potentially provide something to the nuclear-armed states as part of any deal for nuclear arms reductions.

    The unwillingness of the ban treaty proponents to consider such obvious requirements as the additional protocol or CTBT or NPT for its members, means no hard choices for its members to achieve “moral superiority”. The ostensible “stigmatization” of nonmembers will not bring about actual arms control or disarmament, since these are achievable only through mutual negotiations.

  3. John (History)

    On the Swedish report I think you are missing a key point. The commission objective and that if Lundin himself was making the case for signing the deal, if not in its current state then under what circumstances. That makes the sceptical result all the more noteworthy. Having heard and talked with him on two occasions after the publication he continues to insist he believes there is a chance the treaty could be amended to satisfy Sweden (I disagree along the lines you suggest)
    On Lundins point about Swedish expertise on non-prolif an disarmament facing problems should we sign I think you are missing a point. This has much more bearing on the research staff responsible for supporting the Swedish government in its disarmament pursuit, than it does think tank people. Independent views and legitimate middle ground policy requires independent capability to assess issues within several research disciplines.

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