Institutional Complexity and the Fight against the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

Dr. Benjamin Kienzle

When future historians will look back at the late 20th and early 21st Century, one of the most remarkable features of the international system that they will note is the exponential growth of international institutions. At the beginning of the 20th Century there were only slightly more than 30 international intergovernmental organizations in the world and in the first decade after the end of World War II this number was still relatively low, with slightly more than 100 organizations. Yet, in 2016 the total number of international intergovernmental organizations has risen to a staggering 7,657 organizations! And this still excludes international agreements, conventions, informal groups of states and international non-governmental organizations. So, the total number of ‘international institutions’ – broadly defined – is even higher. All in all, today’s international system is characterized by a puzzling maze of thousands of international organizations, treaties, agreements, conventions, protocols and informal arrangements.

One way to make sense of this institutional maze is to examine international institutions in specific issue areas such as climate change, international trade or the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, a closer look at international institutions reveals that they tend to cluster around certain issue areas. In other words, there are usually several international institutions designed to address the same global issue or problem. The big question is, of course, if this matters at all. Maybe the growth of the number of international organization is merely a reflection of nation states learning that cooperating on certain issues or problems is more effective than trying to deal with them in isolation or, even worse, in competition? After all, intuitively, few people would doubt that international organizations or agreements are inherently a good thing. The more organizations and agreements there are at the international level, the easier it is to solve certain global issues or problems! Or is it?

In recent years, International Relations scholars have developed a new concept to come to grips with the maze of international institutions in different issue areas: ‘regime complexity’. This concept helps researchers to go beyond the traditional piecemeal approach of analysing individual organizations and agreements individually. Rather, it assumes that sets of international organizations and agreements in a certain issue area such as climate change or nuclear non-proliferation form a single system or ‘complex’ of interlinked organizations and agreements. In this way, the concept of regime complexity offers a comprehensive view of international organizations and agreements, which may provide new insights into the impact that international organizations and agreements have on solving global issues and problems. As Karen J. Alter and Sophie Meunier, two of the leading scholars on regime complexity, point out, ‘Scholars who study complexity note that within complex systems, knowledge of the elementary building blocks—a termite, a neuron, a single rule—does not even give a glimpse of the behavior of the whole, and may lead to faulty understandings of the building blocks themselves’.

In a recent paper that I presented at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, I examined to what extent the concept of regime complexity actually helps us to understand the implications of international organizations and agreements in a concrete issue area, namely the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is widely recognized as one of the most serious global security issues. Nuclear non-proliferation is also a conceptually very useful issue area, as it is regulated by over 40 international organizations, agreements, conventions and protocols. Even experts lose easily count of organizations and agreements as diverse as the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

As can be expected from a system of international organizations and agreements as complex as the one that addresses nuclear non-proliferation, the impact of that system on the fight against the spread of nuclear weapons is complex, too. On the one hand, there exists strong evidence that the increasing complexity of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has strengthened non-proliferation. Most notably, new institutions have often closed loopholes in the previously existing institutions. For example, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the international key agreements in the fight against nuclear proliferation, does not address the issue of exports of sensitive nuclear technologies or items to countries with potential nuclear weapon programmes. Yet, in 1974, only a few years after its entry into force, it became known that India was able to test a nuclear device using a civilian nuclear reactor that was built with technical expertise imported from Canada. Thus, India’s test, codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’, triggered the establishment of a new non-proliferation institution to prevent the use of exported civilian nuclear technology and expertise for military purposes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Another important advantage of complex sets of international organizations and institutions is that they can increase the commitment of nation states to an issue such as nuclear non-proliferation. Usually, the commitment of a state to an issue is seen as being stronger if it has signed up to several relevant international organizations and treaties rather than just one. In other words, one thing is to sign and ratify just the NPT, another thing is to sign and ratify the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

On the other hand, however, it is forgotten all too often that complexity also creates a number of institutional problems. In my paper for the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association I highlighted three in particular: First, the system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements has grown in such a way that it has only strengthened non-proliferation in a strict sense. Originally, however, the international non-proliferation commitment was seen as a ‘grand bargain’ between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. As part of this bargain, nuclear weapon states committed also to nuclear disarmament and the uninhibited access to peaceful nuclear energy. Yet, only very few of today’s relevant international organizations and agreements address either nuclear disarmament or nuclear energy promotion. Hence, the current system of international non-proliferation organizations and agreements undermines the basis of the ‘grand bargain’. At some point, frustrated non-nuclear weapon states may well conclude that the ‘grand bargain’ has failed.

Second, a complex system of organizations and agreements inhibits the free flow of crucial information. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency may have sensitive information that is relevant for the Nuclear Suppliers Group – and vice versa. But they usually do not share their information. Third, if there are many organizations and agreements addressing in one way or another the same global issue or problem, nation states tend to cherry pick those organizations and agreements that are most suitable for their narrow national gains rather than for addressing the global issue in the most effective way. In other words, by facilitating cherry-picking (or ‘forum-shopping’ in academic parlance) complexity undermines, once more, the ultimate goal of international organizations and agreements, in this case the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

All in all, while the increasing complexity of nuclear non-proliferation organizations and treaties has strengthened the regime as a whole so far, it has also caused new or exacerbated existing problems that should not be ignored. These problems may still get worse in the coming years and have the potential to undermine the very foundations on which international non-proliferation efforts are built.

Image: The IAEA in Vienna. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Arms Control After Ukraine


Yesterday’s ceasefire in Ukraine can hardly be considered a Valentine. Tensions remain high between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, and past attempts at compromise failed or proved to be short-lived. A recent Washington Post op-ed by Anne Applebaum called on the international community to focus on a long-term strategy for dealing with Russia, rather than getting too distracted by short-term tactical questions. Russia is decidedly taking a long-view of its role not only in Europe but also in geopolitical balancing worldwide. A previous piece as part of this series by Tracy German highlighted Russia’s long-term attitudes and ambitions, which include an increased reliance on nuclear weapons to deter both nuclear and conventional threats.

Yet for the most part, events in Ukraine- to include Russian violation of Ukrainian borders and sovereignty, along with support for rebel forces- are likely to have minimal impact on nuclear non-proliferation and arms control policies. The same can be said for Russia’s ‘new’ military doctrine and nuclear posture. This is a case of correlation: changes in nuclear policy and non-proliferation are a reflection of the same shifts that led to events in Ukraine. The impact on nuclear policies, however, will be felt within NATO regarding the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Ultimately, the Ukraine crisis shed light on underlying tensions that have existed for years as a result of Russia’s evolving view of its role in the world, epitomized in the machismo of President Putin, to include its attitude towards nuclear weapons as a source of prestige.

Prospects for further arms control in the near future are unlikely, but this was the case before events unfolded in Ukraine. Following the 2010 New START Treaty, it became clear that Washington and Moscow had very different views as to what would be the next step in bilateral arms control. Russia insists the next agreement be multilateral and continues to express frustration with U.S. plans for missile defence in Europe and advanced conventional weapons; whereas the United States would want to see tactical nuclear weapons under discussion. Any informal agreements are unlikely as Russia will want a legally-binding mechanism for further reductions and unilateral reductions are unappetizing in the current Washington political climate.

A July 2014 report by the U.S. State Department concluded Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which committed both states to refrain from producing, possessing, or testing ground launched cruise missiles with a range of 500-5500km. The timing of the accusation suggested a link to events in Ukraine as the State Department report was released just weeks after the shoot-down of MH17. However, Russia may have been in violation of the treaty since as early as 2008 and in January 2014 the United States informed its NATO allies of missile testing that violated the INF Treaty. While Ukraine provided the opportunity for highlighting these incidents, they had been going on for years before Russian troops crossed the border.

In another blow to nuclear cooperation, in December 2014 Russia announced it would no longer accept U.S. assistance in securing its nuclear materials as part of a two-decade initiative, the Nunn-Lugar Programme. The timing of this announcement certainly can be seen as linked to souring relations over Ukraine, but for Russia the programme has been controversial since its 1992 inception. Accepting U.S. assistance, both financial and on-site inspectors, may have contributed to securing dangerous materials and weapons, but for many Russian hardliners this was a reminder of events in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the early 1990’s, an era of shame. The end of nuclear security cooperation was but one more example of an increasingly assertive Russia, not necessarily a result of events in Ukraine. For many Russians, the Cold War never ended.

On a more positive note, the United States and Russia continue to work together in other areas of arms control and non-proliferation. According to the U.S. State Department, as of the fourth year of New START’s implementation there have been over 8,000 data exchanges and eighteen inspections by each country. Other areas of cooperation include destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and ongoing negotiations with Iran as part of the P5+1 (along with China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) to roll-back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

Where events in Ukraine will truly have an impact on nuclear policies, however, is within NATO. In another piece as part of this series, Ellen Hallams noted that Russia’s actions in Ukraine have re-energised NATO but have not necessarily led to NATO solidarity. This is certainly true for NATO nuclear policy. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remain in five NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) but NATO has consistently avoided difficult questions as to the status of these weapons. For eastern NATO states, particularly the Baltics, these weapons along with U.S. missile defence plans are a crucial part of the Alliance’s security guarantee and source of reassurance. For others, including many of the states hosting the weapons, they undermine global efforts at disarmament, among other concerns. Russian incursions into Ukraine may exacerbate these divisions within NATO and the status of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is increasingly unavoidable.

Arms control is certainly at a pause, but it is hardly dead. New START inspections continue, along with cooperation on other non-proliferation issues, such as Iran. Taking a long-term view, as Russia appears to be doing, arms control remains in Russia’s interest because it feeds into Putinist ideology. Russia’s nuclear weapons are a reminder of its superpower status and any negotiations that puts it at the table with the United States, along with any resulting agreement solidifying parity in the two countries’ arsenals, reaffirms this world vision about Russia’s place in the world. Eventually, Russia will return to the arms control fold, likely as New START’s expiration approaches and Russia faces the prospect of losing the prestige of arms control, insights into the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and faces the financial costs of sustaining a massive arsenal. In the long-term, the West should be ready for when this time comes and remember that pressure, along with concessions, will be necessary.

Image: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Prague, 8 April 2010. Photo courtesy of Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Is There a Place for the EU in International Security?


It’s a crowded field out there. During the last few decades, international institutions dealing with security and defence in one way or another have mushroomed all over the world. This ranges from highly technical associations of states known only to a small group of experts such as the Australia Group to very prominent institutions such as the UN Security Council. One of the newcomers in more recent times is the European Union, which has tried to build up its credentials in international security by implementing what it calls the Common Foreign and Security Policy. This is quite a remarkable development for two reasons: First, the EU wasn’t designed to be a security actor in the first place. Although its purpose has always been to cement peace in Europe after the devastating Second World War, it has been – and is still today – an organization based to a large degree on trade and other economic issues. Second, it could be argued that there’s no real need for an additional international security organization at the regional level. With the UN, NATO or the OSCE – just to name a few prominent examples – European states already have more than enough institutions at their disposal to address with their partner countries whatever security problem they face. On top of that, EU security and defence policies have often been criticised for their persistent lack of impact. So, do we really need the EU in international security?

Contrary to the ever popular EU-bashing, I actually argue in an article on the tenth anniversary of the EU’s Strategy against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction that there is a place for the EU in international security. To begin with, it’s necessary to get rid of some common misperceptions that distort our view of the EU. First, the EU is not a state. Although it has state-like (i.e. ‘supranational’) competencies in the economic realm, in defence and security it remains largely an intergovernmental organization guided by the principle of consensus among member states. That is, EU policies are only as good as EU member state cooperation. Consequently, its performance should not be judged by the standards of a state or even a major power. Second, the EU has only few independent power resources. It does have large and relevant institutional structures with their own budget, in particular the European External Action Service, but many key features of a fully-fledged security actor remain with member states, including the ability to implement economic sanctions in practice or the use of armed forces. In other words, EU resources and capabilities are only as good as the resources and capabilities that member states provide. Taking these caveats into consideration, the performance of EU security and defence policies may appear in a better light than the failure to meet unrealistic expectations suggests. In the field of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction the performance has been certainly better than what most experts believed when the policy was kick-started with the EU Non-Proliferation Strategy in 2003.

The most illustrative example in this regard is the case of Iran. In the aftermath of the deep divisions over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the British, French and German foreign ministers (the ‘E3’) decided to address a high-profile proliferation concern next door and travelled to Tehran in late 2003. This was the starting point for an over ten year long negotiation marathon between Iran and what came to be known as the EU/E3 and a couple of years later the EU/E3+3 (also known as the P5+1). Although the process has had its ups and downs and has been far from smooth, the Europeans have been the lead negotiators in one of the most prominent security issues of the past decade and have been able to maintain both intra-European and international unity. Interestingly, they have been able to find an innovative institutional arrangement within the EU that installed the EU’s foreign policy chief, first Javier Solana and then Lady Ashton, as the lead negotiator and allowed the E3 to play key roles without ignoring the other member states. Moreover, the EU has been able to take unprecedented measures in the field of security, most notably an oil embargo in 2012. Has all this led to a successful conclusion of the negotiations? Obviously, not yet. But at the same time, it would be foolish to attribute this lack of progress to the EU’s weakness. After all, the Americans and Chinese haven’t solved the North Korea nuclear problem either! And they are arguably more powerful actors than the EU.

Iran and the broader field of non-proliferation are rather good indicators of when the EU is – and should be! – a leading security organization. First, the EU is a useful – and well established – framework to bring to bear the combined power of European states on the international stage, in particular if the United States refuses to get involved, as initially in the case of Iran, or if it deals with big powers such as China or Brazil, where individual member states’ clout is not sufficient. Second, flexible institutional arrangements for specific cases (read: EU/E3) and political pragmatism focused on problem-solving can be more helpful than formal institutions and rigid policy approaches. Third, the EU’s strength lies in non-military security fields, where the EU’s undeniable weakness in military terms can be easily compensated with its enormous combined economic and soft power capabilities. In fact, many of today’s security problems, from Ebola to global warming, are not classical military problems. For those, we’ll always have NATO! Ultimately, the key question is if an international organization can make a difference in security terms for its member states and their people. And within limits, the EU can certainly make such a contribution in a way other organizations can’t.

Image: Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the EC with Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the round of the E3/EU+3 nuclear talks in Vienna in July 2014