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CIAO DATE: 11/03

Accounting for the Past in the Future of Multilateral Arms Control

John Tirman

June 14, 2003

Social Science Research Council

The frailties of the multilateral arms control regime, which in the aftermath of the Iraq war seem more apparent than ever, were a source of concern long before George W. Bush assumed the U.S. presidency in January 2001. Negotiated, ratified, and supplemented from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, this regime generally consists of a few principal treaties, less formal agreements and protocols, and several bilateral accords between the United States and Russia particularly. This global arms control project—specifically encompassing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and missiles that can deliver such weapons—has always been beset by doubts about its capacity to contain the weaponizing aspirations of states big and small. But it was, until recently, regarded as largely effective, cumulatively building norms, institutions and means of control, as well as nurturing dense, spreading processes of transparency, accountability, and restraint. With the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the fitful attempt to disarm Iraq, which acknowledged a large and illicit program to develop and stockpile weapons, and the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan in 1998, the worldwide effort to control WMD development was confronted with deep doubts about its effectiveness. The actions and doctrine of the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq, have cast this regime into an acute crisis of legitimacy from which it may not emerge intact.

Because nuclear arms control was significantly a product of the Cold War, the weakening of multilateral arms control is often pegged to the end of the US-Soviet competition. This is debatable—a number of states were pursuing nuclear weapons development well before 1991, including India and Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq, and Israel, among others. But the end of the Soviet Union probably has had an impact on the fate of multilateral arms control in at least two ways. First, the United States chose to press its advantage rather than strengthen the multilateral regime. This began in the late 1980s and significantly during the Gulf War of 1991, a point to which I will return. Second, while the USSR was a major exporter of conventional weapons, it was fairly restrained with respect to nuclear technologies and materials, and could keep its allies in check to some extent.

The end of the Cold War was occasioned in part by the worldwide protest against the nuclear arms race, a vast social movement that helped to open “space” for political leaders to promote arms control and disarmament. With the appearance of Gorbachev, these movements insisted he fulfill his promising rhetoric and pressured Reagan to respond meaningfully to Gorbachev’s overtures (and was particularly effective when Reagan, his presidency in jeopardy due to the Iran-contra scandal, seized this “moment” to embrace detente). The Helsinki process was also a major factor in this complex mix of historical forces and personalities. So the Cold War concluded in an atmosphere thick with normative demands. Among those demands, however, was tepid support for the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in particular. The arms-control elite was supportive, but the mass movements were skeptical. Remember that deep opposition to nuclear power generation was one of the roots of the weapons protest, and the IAEA was regarded as a vessel of nuclear-power development (and Hans Blix was seen as beholden to the industry). Remember, too, that arms “control”---rather than disarmament---was regarded as a compromised position. So the large and powerful social movements that opposed nuclear weapons did not embrace multilateral arms control in any significant way. Rather, it pressed for worldwide bans on nuclear testing, plutonium production, space weapons, and the like: universal bans derived from emphatic moral sentiments.

That the form and process of arms control was very much a product of the US-Soviet competition compounded its problems in the early 1990s. Because leaders in Washington and Moscow were unable or unwilling to discuss other political issues that divided them, nuclear weapons became the lingua franca of the relationship. And the discussion about them was almost entirely technical, built on some quiet understandings about doctrine, which was also highly technical. Negotiations, and indeed the language of arms control—“throw weights,” “verification,” “MIRVing,” etc.—was fraught with quantitative terms that seemed divorced from normative considerations. Physicists became the new diplomats, and stability and predictability were favored over disarmament. When the bilateral relationship took a bad turn, which it often did, mutual accusations inevitably included charges of “cheating” on arms control treaties. This was the way they talked to each other. When one of them went away, the world was left with an arms control regime that had been very effective on its own terms—each treaty carefully negotiated and fastidiously verified—but whose own logic and mode of organization seemed ill-suited to the new world emerging.

Among the problems remaining, of course, was a multilateral accord, the NPT, which was a loose bundle of aspirations and contradictions. The aspirations were real enough, but matters of compliance, sovereignty, non-parties, etc., mixed badly and have never been adequately resolved. The regime is not universal and not well verified. The contradictions come in at least two forms. The first is its embedded inequality—that five states can have nuclear weapons and no one else can (Article VI notwithstanding), which has long been the drum that India beats when upbraided for its nuclear ambitions. The second is the dual nature of the regime—that it promotes nuclear energy while discouraging nuclear weapons. Every state that has developed nuclear capacity surreptitiously has done so through its civil nuclear program. This is what’s so hotly contested today with respect to Iran, and Russia’s involvement with Iran. It is in fact a much larger problem when considering chemical and biological weapons.

The weakness of the NPT was harshly exposed when the United States confronted Iraq in 1991. An ambitious nuclear program was found in Iraq, along with even more tangible chemical and biological weapons programs. During the war itself, U.S. intelligence raided the files of the IAEA to learn about Iraq’s facilities; U.S. warplanes struck some of those nuclear facilities during the war; and the United States and Israel both threatened Iraq with nuclear retaliation if WMDs were used during the war. (These threats were conveyed obliquely, but few now doubt what they were.) The United States toyed with the multilateral regime, in effect using it or flaunting it willy-nilly according to its own interests. In tandem with its go-slow approach to superpower disarmament, the Bush administration set a ominous tone for the decade to come: arms control and disarmament would not be the leading edge of American globalism. This emergent stance went unchallenged by the social movements that were so decisive only a short time before, in part due to their ambivalence toward the arms control enterprise and their waning dedication to the issue.

The prelude to the 1991 war briefly brought to the table of public attention the role of the big powers in supplying Iraq with a range of technologies that could be usable in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. This has been well documented, but it has since been overlooked in the discourse on arms control. The relevant regulatory agencies do not have the authority to investigate or block many of these technology transfers. The vendors, while declaiming “rogue state” WMD ambitions, provide the means for those ambitions. In the case of Iraq in the 1980s, as with Iran in the 1970s, the motive is oil and the security of its supply. This strategic interest is the root and branch of American involvement in the region—and no less so those of France, Britain, Russia, et al--and no discussion of the Gulf and weapons should exclude oil. The attitude of the big powers toward the enforcement of multilateral agreements on weapons development must always take into account such interests. For North Korea, for South Asia, and other potential proliferators, the calculus of interests typically trumps treaty obligations, or, more probably, the treaties are used as instruments of those interests. One must ask if the obligations in the NPT, the CWC, and so on have an independent life of their own—do they perform as restraining norms even if clashing with big-power interests, or even in the absence of big power attention and the hectoring of social movements? Are the institutions of arms control rigorous enough to perform even if the motivating norms are no longer active?

The remainder of the decade---despite the 1995 conference that extended the NPT, the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the transition of the former USSR—was marred by the more prominent setbacks, namely, the fracas over Iraq, the crisis on the Korean peninsula, and the South Asia breakout. The Clinton administration was managerial in its approach, and feckless in the face of internal resistence to its meager arms-control initiatives, notably, the nuclear test ban. The inability or unwillingness of Clinton to take bolder action toward worldwide nuclear disarmament—all the more puzzling given U.S. conventional superiority—was accentuated by his ambivalence about multilateralism in general. He never articulated a compelling vision for America’s place in the world, concentrated on trade policy, and otherwise fulfilled his 1992 campaign promise of a foreign policy that would be “Bush plus.” The leadership vacuum set the stage for the reëmergence of nuclear assertiveness after the 2000 election.

While it was likely that this assertiveness would have been a central thrust of Bush the Younger’s security policy in any event, the September 11 atrocities provided the political cover and a strategic rationale to pursue a new military buildup and a new nuclear doctrine. While there are probably several reasons why the United States was planning for war against Iraq within weeks of September 11th, one likely reason was that it is easier to wage war against a state—a nasty state at that—than against a dispersed network of political violence and religious militancy. That this state might possess WMDs provided the opening to articulate a new doctrine for nuclear weapons use. It also provided a glaring case of multilateral failure, or apparent failure, in the decade-long attempt to disarm Iraq and verify that disarmament. One of the central benefits of this strategy was of course the geostrategic significance of Iraq, not just oil but located centrally in the part of the world that had been most resistant to American hegemony politically, militarily, and economically. There are other reasons for the war, but they tend to revolve around a view that the projection of American power is necessary in the face of weak alternatives. It is sometimes said in Washington, for example, that Wolfowitz saw Saudi Arabia as a cesspool of terrorism, but not able to confront them openly, Washington would instead knock off their neighbor and let the Saudis draw a lesson. That such a message would be taken by Iran, as well as Syria, made the Americans all the more eager to deliver it.

Whatever the many origins of the war in Iraq, it was fought in the context of WMD threats (including, again, warnings of U.S. use of WMDs against Iraq) and a multilateral arms control regime that was tottering for a decade and perhaps has now fallen forever. One is tempted to say that Bush merely fired a bullet into a corpse. But the picture is not that clear. Within weeks of the war, the Bush administration was referring to the NPT to demand an accounting of Iran’s nuclear program, and has also invoked the treaty in the case of North Korea. This may be no more than what Stanley Hoffman calls “bossism,” but other weapons-control regimes have not thus far suffered any apparent setbacks (apart from U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty). The United States is actively engaged in multilateral activities on a number of other issues, trade most obviously. Multilateralism itself is not dead, nor apparently is multilateral arms control. But what of the latter remains, and remains viable? And, is the future one of steady erosion of that regime, U.S.-led reform, or even a broader renaissance?

It is obviously too soon to answer that question. And, in part, it’s difficult to speculate about the future because we still don’t know enough about the past. We don’t know, for example, how well the IAEA managed difficult cases, or, more broadly, if the relevant treaties and their implementation mechanisms have deterred new weapons development. We don’t know enough about the role of norms and various institutions in promoting restraint. We don’t know how essentially political agreements—pledges of no-first-use, for example—have worked in changing decision-makers’ calculations, doctrine, etc. We don’t know enough about the present, particularly the longer-term consequences of the WMD episode in Iraq. And we also don’t have enough insights about what alternatives to the old arms-control process might hold promise. Organizing research and action on these few questions, among many others, is necessary before the multilateral moment can be said to have passed.