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Arms and the mandate: prior to the attack on the Twin Towers, the US had embarked on a policy of unashamed unilateralism. The new war will only produce more of the rogue states that it now identifies as the problem.

Does Washington really care about the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? This apparently outrageous question arises because, in a series of breathtakingly reckless actions, the US has undermined the internationally negotiated non-proliferation regime covering biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. This from a country that has much to lose if proliferation takes off, declares non-proliferation a key national security objective, and has taken strong action to punish transgressors like Iraq.

How did it come to this? The answer is complex and has many different threads. But first it is necessary to outline troubling aspects of US arms-control policy in each of the three categories of WMD.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) emerged from President Nixon's decision in the early 1970s to abandon America's bio-war program, considered both militarily useless and distasteful. Although most countries signed up to the BWC, it was viewed with mixed feelings by security analysts. For instance, the Convention lacked provisions for verification, making it anomalous in modern arms control. This deficiency was especially serious given the secrecy and general nastiness which marked some of the signatories. (Here it is worth noting that few experts were shocked by revelations that the Soviet Union and Iraq systematically and massively violated the agreement.)

The need to patch up the BWC was obvious. A first step was a series of international meetings, held since 1995, to produce a protocol on enhancing the transparency of biochemical and related facilities (these nearly all have innocent uses, including the production of pharmaceuticals, but can be used to make biological weapons). Washington was a longstanding participant in this process. However, the United States had concerns that some of the proposed transparency measures would be too intrusive and potentially jeopardised commercial and industrial secrets. These concerns were reflected in a draft protocol at the cost of opening significant loopholes. The next US move was to cause dismay and disappointment in friendly capitals like Canberra: in July Washington said the protocol was too weak, and walked out.

With chemical weapons, the situation is a little different. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), developed during the 1990s, could become one of the most robust arms control measures around. The CWC had provision for verification built into the original treaty. Washington has signed up and is progressing with the elimination of its enormous stockpile of chemical warfare agents.

However, the United States has unilaterally introduced national legislation which compromises important aspects of the CWC. In particular, in terms of activities on US soil, the legislation restricts the reach and powers of the international organisation established to verify compliance with the Convention. The United States has asserted a right to be treated preferentially, thus eroding the universalist intent of the Convention. Who doubts that if this precedent was copied by `rogue states', Washington would loudly claim the move disturbing, provocative and unacceptable?

But it is in the nuclear field that US policy is perhaps most reprehensible. While Washington jumps up and down about the need to strengthen the nuclear weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it simultaneously refuses to consider any timetable, plan or preconditions for the elimination of its own nuclear arsenal. This is in clear breach of the spirit of the NPT.

Although Washington's behaviour here is hardly surprising or unique, its determination to maintain a nuclear capability has to be set beside other dubious aspects of US policy. For a start, Washington refuses to rule out the first-use of these weapons. It claims US nuclear forces have a role beyond the simple deterrence of enemy nuclear weapons. The `world order' function of US power is said to provide Washington with a licence to initiate the firing of nuclear weapons in a crisis. It is asserted that the possibility of US nuclear escalation injects an extra dimension of stability into the international system. It is also suggested that an American first-use would be self-evidently righteous. When it comes to pressing the nuclear button, Washington has set itself up as the judge, jury, and executioner. This is mind-blowing moral presumption.

In addition, while the United States has a moratorium on nuclear testing, it refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Yet acceptance of this treaty was a condition laid down for a 1995 agreement to extend the NPT indefinitely. Here the non-nuclear states accepted the continuation of their second division status -- provided the nuclear club showed more evidence they were serious about arms control, something which demanded a test ban. The United States and other nuclear weapon states, as well as Australia, fought rigorously for the NPT extension (they did very well out of it, after all); but without a CTBT the political basis for the deal has come under question.

Given this context, reports that senior US officials are contemplating a resumption of tests are troubling. The Bush administration has ordered a review and upgrade of America's readiness to conduct nuclear test explosions. The ostensible rationale is to better gauge the safety and reliability of the arsenal. The suspicion is that tests could be driven more by political calculations than anything else and could open the door to a new generation of weapon designs. US equivocation on the test ban already threatens to erode international arms control. Active preparations for testing would deepen the damage.

The absurdity of the situation is underlined by the fact that America has less need of tests than any other state. Between 1945 and the 1990s Washington conducted well over a thousand nuclear explosions. This was significantly more than Moscow and more than twenty times the number conducted by Beijing (both of whom support the CTBT). This extensive program provided a vast database for American weapons engineers, a resource enhanced by the enormous computer power now devoted to the modelling of nuclear weapons and their explosions.

Ultimately, international attempts to prevent proliferation depend on the delegitimisation of nuclear weapons. The next steps in this process should be the outlawing of both testing and first-use. Conservatism here is more than unfortunate -- it advertises the value of nuclear forces and comes close to labelling genuine adherents to the non-proliferation regime as mugs. This is reckless diplomacy -- both in terms of underlying US interests and the future well-being of the international community.

Some months ago the editor of a respected newsletter on arms control announced his departure. He used his final edition to publicise his `relief, that [now] ... he need not follow, nor try to report dispassionately on, the insidious antics of the leaders of the one country that could and should do most to promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, who appear set to undo decannia of achievement in those fields, heedless of the harm to world peace and security'. There was no need to name the country in question.

Why is this happening? It is easy to paint US policy as a simple convergence of hypocrisy, complacency and self-righteousness. But there is more to it than this. For a start, there is the US Constitution to contend with, which gives a relatively small number of senators enormous influence over the ratification of treaties.

Perhaps the most sorry example of this influence was the Senate's 1999 refusal to ratify the CTBT. The refusal was partly motivated by a desire to punish President Clinton (who was pro-treaty) over `Zippergate'. A routine reluctance to see America's strategic hands tied by international agreements also shaped Congressional opinion. Additionally, well-hyped, and somewhat questionable, concerns about whether the ban could be verified were used to torpedo the treaty.

There is no doubt that some American politicians and analysts have raised the bar on what they will accept as appropriate levels of verification to be applied to foreigners. At critical points this raising of the bar has been unreasonable. For instance, US concerns about the alleged impossibility of adequately verifying adherence to the CTBT and BWC are not matched by independent observers, and they are not endorsed even by close allies like the United Kingdom and Australia.

Of course, concerns over verification are sometimes legitimate and genuine. But unfortunately these concerns have become entangled with more objectionable aspects of the debate. In particular, questions of verification have been manipulated by those who are opposed to any arms-control arrangements which constrain US strategic options. These people have no qualms about exploiting putative verification issues as a smoke screen and spoiler to advance their essentially anti-arms-control cause.

Today, the arms-control rejectionists have allies in the White House. This goes beyond dealing with WMD. At the Opposite end of the strategic spectrum, the United States restricts efforts to constrain the global trade in small arms by invoking the constitutional right of Americans to be armed to the teeth. US obstructionism in this area means international controls are driven by the lowest common denominator. Moving from the absurdly parochial to the blatantly cynical, there is the impending militarisation of outer space. Media interest here focusses on the potentially damaging consequences of the US preparedness to walk out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT), but there is a broader canvas to consider. The employment of arms control to pre-empt the stationing of weapons in space, something which includes but goes beyond the question of national missile defences, has been debated for decades. And for years Washington resisted a comprehensive control regime for the `high frontier' on the grounds that it wasn't needed because there was no prospect of an arms race in space. It is now becoming clearer by the week that Washington refuses a regime because it wants to jump the starter's pistol in just such a race. How US officials keep a straight face when presenting their country's two-faced position on this issue amazes me.

In many of these aspects of arms control the United States has a case, however arguable or questionable. The real problem, though, lies in the bigger picture. This picture means individual components of US arms-control policy should not be seen in isolation. After all, America's leanings on (to take three examples) the environment, the UN, and the International Criminal Court provide a worrying broader context. Unilateralism is in fashion. Short-sighted, narrow-minded notions of the national interest are presented as robust policy.

Despite denials by apologists in Washington and Canberra, there is indeed an ugly pattern here. This was neatly sign-posted last year by Condoleeza Rice, who later became President Bush's National Security Adviser. In the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs she suggested, among other things, that the nuclear test ban treaty was `a symbolic agreement of questionable value'. She said that President Clinton's pursuit of international norms had become `an epidemic', implying there was something pathological about efforts to build world order around multilateral diplomacy. And, in a revealing sneer, she dismissed the concept of an international community as `illusory'.

Key players in the United States are willing to rubbish significant parts of the multilateral `norm building' that many international relations scholars assumed was a central plank of US diplomacy. This assumption was based on two pillars. Firstly, after World War II, Washington played a critical role in establishing the main international institutions and steered world order in far better directions than had marked pre-war international relations. Secondly, following the Cold War it was believed that US domestic political values, stressing such positive ideas as constitutional politics and human rights, were being projected onto the international system and, however haltingly, were becoming institutionalised globally. It was proposed that, in normative terms, world order was being partly re-constituted along lines that reflected the best that America could offer. Generally speaking, the idea propagated was that the US stamp on world politics sprang from a fortunate combination of unrivalled power, moral purpose, and a predisposition to provide public goods on the world stage. `Might' and `right' were seen to be converging.

Unfortunately, as the WMD and related issues demonstrate, this conception of US policy requires qualification. Just as US international weight means that positive values can sometimes be better projected onto the world stage, it also means we have to live with rather less benign projections. This is why, if we are not careful, international arms-control negotiations could start looking more like meetings of the National Rifle Association.

The attitude and influence of American arms-control rejectionists bodes ill for the sort of diplomacy that many had hoped for when the Cold War ended. It invites criticism that US international leadership increasingly rests on muscle, and the arrogance of power, rather than moral authority.

Andy Butfoy lectures in International Relations at Monash University.
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Title Annotation:non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
Author:Butfoy, Andy
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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