The Paralysis of the International Norm against Conventional Weapons Proliferation

President Trump holding an executive order pulling the United States out of the Arms Trade Treaty. Photo Source: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

The norm against conventional weapons proliferation is a relative newcomer on the international legal scene. The first major multilateral treaty regulating the global arms trade, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), was only signed in 2013. The ATT requires arms exporters to ensure that their weapons do not end up being used to commit human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. But just six years later, it is under threat, and the norm it reflects is effectively paralyzed.[i]

Norms in the international system undergo a ‘lifecycle. They emerge and are slowly adopted until they reach a ‘tipping point,’ after which they ‘cascade’ and are thus widely adopted.[ii]  Finally, they are internalized.[iii] The signing and ratification of the ATT reflects the ‘cascade’ of the norm against conventional weapons proliferation. That cascade, however, has been halted, if not reversed, by the United States.

The U.S. signed the ATT in 2013, a significant victory for the treaty’s proponents, as the country then accounted for thirty percent of total global conventional arms exports.[iv] Since then, however, the U.S. neglected to ratify the ATT, all while its share of global conventional arms exports rose to thirty-six percent.[v] In April 2019, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would rescind its signature, and, with it, the normative imperative that so often comes with American support.[vi] 

To demonstrate the norm against conventional arms development’s paralysis, it is useful to contrast its development with that of the norm against nuclear weapons proliferation and use. On September 26, 2019, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly held a high-level event on the “Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.” The event speaks to the steady strengthening of the norm against nuclear weapons proliferation and use, which was first codified by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), signed in 1968 and effectively implemented in 1970.  One hundred and ninety states are party to the NPT,[vii] almost doubling the 105 states party to the ATT.[viii]

The gap in time between the signings of the ATT and the NPT demonstrates the importance that states place on the prevention of nuclear proliferation relative to the prevention of conventional weapons. Moreover, in the years since the signing of the NPT, the norm it reflects has strengthened, as evidenced by the progressively more forceful language directed toward nuclear weapons. In 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was signed.  TPNW has, to date, been signed by seventy-nine states and ratified by thirty-two. It will come into effect when that latter number reaches fifty. The 2019 event on the “Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons” represented a further illustration of how nuclear weapons are discussed at the international level.

To what can we attribute the relatively slow development of the norm against conventional weapons proliferation and its recent weakening? There are many explanations, and those that follow are but a few. First, conventional weapons are lower-profile and far more normalized than their nuclear counterparts. Nuclear weapons are perceived to be more destructive, their use more devastating and more heinous. States and their citizens, for the most part, are accustomed to other states, other individuals, even sub-state groups, possessing and using conventional weapons, likely due to their long history. In contrast, nuclear weapons are a more recent development, infrequently used and never normalized.

Second, the global trade in conventional weapons is big business. The Stockholm International Research Institute estimated its value for 2017, conservatively, at $95 billion.[ix] Representatives of arms-exporting companies in major exporting countries, the U.S. chief among them, argued that the ATT’s regulations would damage their bottom lines.[x] The NPT likewise restricts the export of nuclear technology, a much smaller industry, estimated at only $5 billion annually.[xi]  There is proportionately less business opposition to the NPT than there is to the ATT. Through lobbying and marketing campaigns, businesses can impact government decisions, such as whether to join a treaty, and can also drive popular support or opposition for any given norm.

Public opinion is an important factor in norm strengthening and weakening. Most norms emerge from public advocacy, as in the case of the norm against nuclear weapons.[xii] Moreover, the public is a ‘consumer’ of norms, and, at any time prior to internalization, it can choose to support them or not. That choice can then influence government decisions. In many states, especially the U.S., a large segment of public opinion towards conventional weapons—particularly small arms—is positive.[xiii] The public has interacted with these weapons in ways that do not currently exist regarding nuclear weapons, such as private ownership and positive media portrayal. The National Rifle Association (NRA), an organization that is particularly adept at motivating its base, campaigned tirelessly to drive popular and legislative disapproval of the ATT, explaining the US failure to ratify the treaty. Indeed, it was during a speech before an NRA forum that President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the ATT.[xiv]

The future of the norm against conventional weapons proliferation is thus uncertain. It has achieved a good deal of buy-in, but not as much as the norm against nuclear proliferation; however, unlike that norm, it has begun to weaken. Other states are unlikely to withdraw from the ATT, but the world’s second-largest arms exporter, Russia, is unlikely to join.[xv] China, seeking to replace the U.S. as the world’s normative leader, may yet sign on.[xvi] If this occurs in good faith, it could signify a positive step towards reversing the negative trend of the norm against conventional weapons proliferation. The US withdrawal was largely due to domestic political concerns, as President Trump and the NRA have made clear;[xvii] changes in domestic politics could lead the U.S. to reinstate its support for the treaty/norm at the international level. 

Regardless of what happens in the American political sphere, the U.N. has a role to play in supporting the strengthening of the norm against conventional weapons proliferation, just as it oversaw the strengthening of the norm against nuclear weapons proliferation and use.  The “total elimination of nuclear weapons” is an admirable goal, but it is unrealistic. Just as admirable and perhaps more realistic a goal is preventing the unchecked spread of conventional weapons. 


[i] It is widely accepted that international law, by virtue of the lack of law enforcement in the international system, reflects norms accepted by states. See Dinah Shelton, “Soft law,” in David Armstrong, ed., Routledge Handbook of International Law, 2008, pp. 68-80.

[ii] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52, no. 4 (1998): 887-917.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “Global arms trade: USA increases dominance; arms flows to the Middle East surge, says SIPRI,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 11, 2019,

[v] ibid.

[vi] Bill Chappell, “Trump Moves to Withdraw U.S. From U.N. Arms Trade Treaty,” NPR, April 26, 2019,

[vii] United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] “Financial value of the global arms trade,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,

[x] “International and United Nations Gun Control,” National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action,

[xi] François Lévêque, “The international trade of nuclear power plants: the supply side,” Revue d’économie industrielle, 148 (2014).

[xii] Nina Tannenwald, “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo,” International Security, 29, no. 4 (Spring 2005): 5–49.

[xiii] Gallup, “Guns.”

[xiv] David Smith, “Trump withdraws from UN arms treaty as NRA crowd cheers in delight,” The Guardian, April 26, 2019,

[xv] Agence France-Presse, “Russia Will Not Sign ‘Weak’ Arms Trade Treaty,” Defense News, May 17, 2015,

[xvi] Reuters, “China aims to join US-spurned arms treaty as soon as possible,” Reuters, September 27, 2019,

[xvii] Bill Chappell, “Trump Moves to Withdraw U.S. From U.N. Arms Trade Treaty,” NPR, April 26, 2019,

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