Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Axiomatic Design and the #NuclearBan Treaty

Design for combination pencil and eraser:
simple and effective.

Several weeks ago, there was a G7 statement on disarmament. As I combed through the long statement, trying to parse its meaning in relationship to the UN negotiations on a global nuclear weapons ban (which the G7 countries are boycotting), I had an epiphany:

The language is obfuscating the process.

Without minimizing the complexity of the disarmament process, it is possible to design each progressive step in the process to remove confusion, not increase it.

It was at that point that I fell back on a concept I learned about 15 years ago: "axiomatic design." As I understand it, the "axiom" in axiomatic design is that, first and foremost, a good design should avoid building in features that trip up the design itself, and that there should be simple rules that guide designers in doing this. Hence, the two axioms of axiomatic design:

Axiom 1: The Independence Axiom. Maintain the independence of the functional requirements (FRs).

Axiom 2: The Information Axiom. Minimize the information content of the design.

(See "Axiomatic design" on Wikipedia.)

What might this mean for the nuclear ban treaty? Several things come to mind.

First, in accordance with the "independence" axiom, the nuclear ban treaty should focus on its principal "functional requirement." As I understand it, that requirement is to achieve cooperation in "efforts to stigmatize, prohibit, and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences."

Every point of connection between the new treaty and other instruments must be weighed by the criterion: does this connection tend to strengthen the treaty, or does it tend to bog the treaty down in obligations and escape clauses that tend to dilute it?

Second, in accordance with the "information" axiom, nuclear ban treaty should be stripped of any and all language that is not absolutely necessary.

Again, each addition to the new treaty's text should be weighed by the criterion: do these words tend to give the treaty more power? or simply make it longer?

This treaty in particular

It is worth reflecting that the treaty ban negotiations are being supported and carried out by a large number of countries that are unequivocally committed to the ban's success. The countries that want to keep their nuclear weapons (or want to remain under the "umbrella" of their allies' nuclear weapons) have boycotted the talks.

(The treaty supporters don't need a lot of extra words. The treaty opponents would be happy to bury the treaty in words.)

The situation of the negotiation participants is that they face a challenge in enforcing the treaty's aims against the non-participants. The situation of the non-participants is that they believe they can throw up roadblocks indefinitely against the treaty's aims.

(To the treat supporters, the words that matter are the ones that give them real power. The treaty opponents are praying those words get lost in the shuffle.)

If ever there was a need for axiomatic design -- minimum complexity with maximum efficacy -- this is it.

An example: NPT and IAEA

In an article published today, Kjølv Egeland probes one of the principal axiomatic design questions of the nuclear ban treaty: "Should the ban treaty oblige its parties to ratify the NPT?" He contrasts the possibility of linking the ban treaty to the NPT with a different point of connection -- concluding IAEA safeguards. I encourage everyone to read his article and consider the question for yourself.

(Related reading: I take every opportunity to commend this book that about the workings of the IEAE: ElBaradei's "Age of Deception.")

I hope that Kjølv Egeland's article is just the beginning of the process of widespread debate among people everywhere about the kind of nuclear ban treaty that will be designed to succeed.

Related: REQUIRED READING: "Banning nuclear weapons" from Reaching Critical Will

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