Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Why Treaties Work or Don't Work, and What to Do about Them

Magazine article Behind the Headlines

Why Treaties Work or Don't Work, and What to Do about Them

Article excerpt

It's a great pleasure for me to be here among a group that is fascinated by international politics, especially after a general election in which such issues barely rated a mention.

My topic is "Why treaties work or don't work, and what to do about them." Rather inelegant in English, I'm afraid. But the French version more than makes up for it with its mellifluous "Les traites: il y a ceux qui fonctionnent et ceux qui ne fonctionnent pas. Qu'en faire?"

The core treaties that I want to consider deal with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD): chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological. I say "so-called" because lumping them together, when their physical and political effects are actually and potentially so different and so dependent on circumstance, obfuscates rather than enlightens. The term WMD has also become politicized in some quarters to mean weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands. But, that said, it is a useful shorthand that I'm forced to use, along with everyone else.

In addition to WMD treaties, I'll consider other treaties that I am familiar with, by way of contrast, including those inside and outside the disarmament field.


When Barbara Darling, president of the CIIA's National Capital Branch, first approached me about the topic, she suggested that I discuss wily treaties don't work and what to do about them. But I felt that would not do justice to the situation: the vast majority of treaties--and hundreds of new ones are negotiated each year--do actually work. They are successfully implemented, the states parties comply fully with their obligations, and no one gives it a second thought. This is as tree in the field of arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation as in any other. In fact, it may be truer of this field than others.

Because disarmament treaties go to the heart of national and international security, states are wary of frivolously embarking on new ones that might constrain their options. When they do agree to negotiate, they do so intensely to ensure that they derive maximum flexibility for themselves and impose maximum constraints on others. Hence the sad litany of treaties that have never made it out of the Conference on Disarmament: the radiological weapons convention, the negative security assurances convention, and the fissile material cut-off agreement, not to mention a nuclear disarmament treaty. Those that do make it out by and large achieve large numbers of signatures and ratifications, sometimes approaching universality. They are, by and large, fully implemented. And the vast majority of states comply fully with their obligations.

But the flip side of the fact that states are so sensitive when it comes to negotiating and signing disarmament treaties is that when they are violated, there is, rightly, a great deal of angst.

While there has only ever been one known major violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), it was immensely disturbing. It turned out that the Soviet Union, at the very time it was signing the treaty, was planning a biological weapons research, development, and production program on a massive scale. We are still unsure of the details more than 15 years after the end of the Cold War.

There have now been four notable violations of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They are all highly alarming, involving as they do Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and Libya.


So the general question arises: when treaties work, why do they work? The short answer is that they embody a norm, an aspiration, a settlement that is valued by all of the parties. The treaty has been well constructed to reflect these elements, the states that become party are happy with the outcome, and there are no incentives to defect from the agreement. The best example of this phenomenon that I can think of is the Ottawa Convention on land mines. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.