Monday and Tuesday, March 20 and 21, I attended the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. It’s the latest in a series of conferences held every other year. It was, like the three others I’ve attended, a lot of work and a lot of fun.
Many of us attending the conference tweet. On Monday morning, #Nukefest2017, the official conference hashtag, was trending. That brought the usual comments asking how we can be so frivolous about such a topic.
That’s a fair enough question if you look at the subject matter. But the conference is much more than the subject matter. We see colleagues from around the world for perhaps the first time in two years, new friends we have made on the internet for the first time in real life. We have promised others to discuss an issue, a possible collaboration.
It’s a small community and most of us like each other, even when we disagree. The conference primarily deals with nonproliferation issues, although the name was changed a few conferences back to bring in a broader range of nuclear issues. That broadening hasn’t really happened (although I have some ideas for the next one). The nonproliferation community is a small one, perhaps a couple thousand people, of which 800 or so show up.
This conference provided special sessions before and after for the younger members of the community – graduate students, new practitioners. I was asked to be a mentor at the Monday lunch, where Senator Tim Kaine was speaker. The panels were more inclusive than ever: not a single manel, and every speaker I heard was interesting. The lack of totally boring sessions was noted by several people. There had been a few in previous conferences.
And there were the stars. Federica Mogherini and Baroness Katherine Ashton, who played large roles in the negotiations for the Iran nuclear agreement. Yukia Amano, the head of the IAEA, was present for much of the conference and was on one panel. Chris Ford, the top nonproliferation expert in Trump’s NSA. Mogherini gave the keynote address. I was impressed by her intelligence, savvy, and determination. Without referring to him she spoke of a great many things that we are all worried that Donald Trump will destroy. They are good things to be aware of, the underpinnings of world security.
It is always frustrating to have to choose among concurrent panels; on Tuesday afternoon friends were on all three panels. The discussions of the various Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty articles applied to current issues as well, although very technical and hard to summarize for live-tweeting.
The last panel discussed NPT Article VI, the article in which the five signatory nuclear powers agree to work toward nuclear and general disarmament. The United Nations just finished discussing a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, as has been done for chemical and biological weapons. That discussion was called by the non-nuclear-weapons states that feel that the nuclear weapons states are not working hard enough to eliminate nuclear weapons. The Carnegie session clarified some things for me about the argument. It’s a lot to summarize here, but the argument of those favoring a ban is that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons are so overwhelming that a ban is justified. The argument of those against the ban is that we need a path from the current situation to elimination before a ban makes sense, and even then a ban may make the world more dangerous by forcing nuclear weapons programs into secrecy.
It’s not only the nuclear weapons states that are against a ban, but also countries that are provided a nuclear umbrella by those states. There are differences with the chemical and biological weapons conventions too: those conventions laid out timetables for destruction of those weapons. That can’t be proposed for nuclear weapons until their holders agree. Proponents of a ban say that a ban will change minds, and timetables can come later.
Other sessions on parts of the NPT were very dense with technical issues of how to define and identify nuclear weapons states or proliferators. It was hard to boil down that material into tweets, but I learned a lot.
Yes, #nukefest2017. One of the best conferences around.
I see that I am in the photo up top, which is from Carnegie.