Nuclear Southern Ordering: Building the Global Nuclear Order from the Global South

January 19, 2024
By J. Luis Rodriguez | Perry World House

J. Luis Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of International Security and Law at George Mason University.


There are established and expanding bodies of literature in International Relations studying the politics of lawmaking and power in nuclear politics.These fields “are often constituted as two separate research agendas.” A burgeoning literature has emerged in recent years bridging these fields by reexamining the construction and maintenance of the global nuclear order. Scholars from multiple disciplines deploy different methodologies to understand the negotiation, construction, and development of nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament treaties. With these efforts, the authors offer a more complete picture of the bargaining dynamics behind the construction of these international security agreements.

Mainstream studies of international law and nuclear politics tend to posit that powerful actors, especially the United States, have protagonist roles in ordering global nuclear politics. Conventional accounts, however, usually offer incomplete interpretations of the participation of Global South non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) in the global nuclear order, especially those countries that favor nonproliferation. These accounts usually focus on why these states adhere, comply, or challenge the global nuclear order, downplaying or ignoring their ordering actions and initiatives. There is particular attention to countries with nuclear capabilities they could use to build nuclear arsenals. This paper reviews the negotiating strategies that Global South NNWS committed to nonproliferation have deployed during the codification of nuclear governance.

Nuclear Lawmaking and the Global South

Multilateral treaties on nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament have been necessary to promote international peace and security. Conventional accounts of the crafting of these treaties focus on the decisive role that the United States played for the nuclear nonproliferation regime to emerge, develop, adapt, and spread. The backing of the hegemon was necessary for the codification and success of these treaties. However, paying attention only to the preferences and actions of the United States paints an incomplete picture of the advent of these treaties. The negotiations of the legal mechanisms that form the global nuclear order were marked by collective compromise-seeking and concession-making processes, a characteristic of international law codification in response to security problems. This inherent feature of lawmaking has opened spaces that developing countries have used to challenge power asymmetries within treaty negotiations.

Support for nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament law did not produce a harmony of interests among Global South NNWS or between these countries and NWS. Most NNWS in the Global South have collaborated with nuclear powers to design treaties preventing nuclear annihilation. These states have participated actively in codifying global nuclear governance mechanisms, pushing for their preferences even when they do not accord with U.S. priorities.

Scholars of lawmaking have identified different tools that less powerful states use to push for their preferences in negotiations marked by power asymmetries. Global South NNWS that support nonproliferation have used these tools to reform and adapt the global nuclear order to reflect their preferences. Their actions show that not all dissatisfaction with the global nuclear order means revisionism, and not all acquiescence means irrelevance.

Taxonomy of Southern Negotiating Strategies

Global South NNWS that support nonproliferation have attempted to improve their bargaining abilities through different strategies. To increase their influence during lawmaking processes, these states tend to rely on cooperative bargaining among themselves—what traditional negotiation analysis denominates as an integrative process. They coordinate positions and balance the negotiation agenda to interact with more powerful actors in a competitive bargaining—a distributive process.

This section briefly presents some strategies these states have used to promote their interest and preferences when negotiating multilateral treaties for nuclear governance. These strategies are grouped around three overarching themes: Global South NNWS try to influence the framework where negotiations happen, the issues within the agenda, and alternative agendas.

Framework of Negotiations

Countries in the Global South with no nuclear arsenals usually seek favorable voting and veto rules. They can increase their influence in negotiations occurring within formal multilateral organizations where each state has one vote and decisions are made either with majority-based rules or unanimously. These countries can also improve their influence by chairing debates because serving as chairs of meetings helps Global South NNWS set the agenda, organize meetings, and spearhead and distribute position papers if they can avoid a perception of bias toward their own preferences. These states can also benefit from outside options. The existence of credible alternative forums where a topic can be negotiated can increase the influence of Global South NNWS. These countries can threaten to take a debate to more favorable venues.

Managing the Agenda

Non-nuclear weapon states in the Global South benefit when they can set the agenda of lawmaking negotiations. Less powerful actors tend to use the definition of the issues, priorities, and order in the bargaining table to identify shared positions with high joint gains and promote balanced agendas. These countries are also more influential if they build coalitions. Global South NNWS increase their capacity to influence debates when they bargain collectively and with shared problem understandings, especially when majority-based or unanimity decision-making rules apply. Another tactic that has benefited these countries is leveraging their networks. Less powerful actors can leverage their connections in different networks—diplomatic, commercial, and military networks—to increase their influence in negotiations. Their capacity to leverage their networks’ networks is limited compared to great powers, but it could help them complement their coalition-building efforts. Traditionally, these countries are more successful when they link issues together during debates. Global South NNWS can promote their interests by including enough issues in the negotiations that could help them gain concessions from more powerful states. This strategy can help less powerful countries provide incentives for nuclear powers to cooperate on issues that they would otherwise have little interest in.

Alternative Agendas

Issue-linkage sometimes precludes the abilities of weaker actors to influence nuclear lawmaking negotiations. To overcome this, less powerful actors can engage in issue-bracketing, postponing a discussion to a different negotiation, deliberately putting a controversial topic aside for consideration in a separate venue. This tactic helps to strengthen coalitions by discouraging actors invested in the matter from bringing it back into the negotiation. Issue bracketing convinces actors that they will address their preferences eventually, reducing the burdens of conceding in the current discussions.

Global South NNWS disappointed with the rate of disarmament by NWS have engaged in subversive revisionism. They created alternative projects to fundamentally question the global nuclear order and the hierarchy embedded in it. These countries are not only resisting asymmetries in the global nuclear order, but they are also actively undermining the discursive foundations of the hierarchies it institutionalizes.


Conventional accounts of the origins and development of the global nuclear order have two blind spots when it comes to Global South NNWS. These interpretations usually focus on the preferences and actions of the United States as the hegemon and tend to overlook how the United States and other actors order global nuclear politics. Mainstream studies that explore the nuclear actions of Global South NNWS pay attention to why these countries adhere, comply, or challenge the global nuclear order, downplaying or ignoring their ordering actions, nuclear governance initiatives, and negotiating strategies. This brief note presents a taxonomy of the strategies that Global South NNWS that support nonproliferation have used during the negotiation of nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament treaties.