Weapons Governance by the Weak

May 10, 2023

Why and how do small and medium states create multilateral agreements to regulate or ban weapons, especially when they lack the support of great powers? I develop a theory of why and how small and medium states pursue multilateral weapons governance and demonstrate it through the case of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. I contend that multilateral weapons governance is a strategic tool for small and medium states in their efforts to reshape international relations, across different types of weapons ranging from nuclear weapons to landmines to autonomous weapons. Specifically, these states develop multilateral agreements to reduce their vulnerability to great powers and to exercise greater agency and influence in world politics. To create agreements that reflect their objectives, small and medium states frame weapons in humanitarian terms, build broad coalitions of support, and carefully choose institutional formats that deny great powers special rights and privileges. In doing so, they seek to challenge great powers’ privileged position in world politics. The case study examines these dynamics drawing on elite interviews conducted in Geneva, Switzerland. In examining how relatively weak actors use weapons governance—an area in which relations among states are particularly asymmetric—to advance their goals, this article contributes to understanding why multilateral weapons governance agreements take certain forms when led by different types of states. Understanding why and how small and medium states pursue multilateral weapons governance is central to explaining how they seek to order relations among states and who benefits from these agreements.


00:00 Introduction by Dr. Jeffrey Knopf (Moderator), Professor and Program Chair, Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies

01:08 Presentation by Dr. Naomi Egel, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, and former CNS summer undergraduate fellow

34:32 Q&A starting with comments by H.E. Elayne Whyte Gómez, Costa Rican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Strategic Futures Group, President of the 2017 negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and alumna of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

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