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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 29, August - September 1998

Arms Control and Disarmament at a Watershed
By Harald Müller

The events in South Asia have changed the parameters of world politics, and in particular those of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, fundamentally. They are as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years ago. Unfortunately, they point us in the opposite direction: away from cooperation, arms control and disarmament, towards confrontation, arms racing and, eventually, nuclear war. The world community must make its utmost efforts to stem this fateful tide.

Why The South Asian Situation Is Even Worse Than Most Believe

It is essential to seek the trigger to the events in the fundamentally changed character of the present Indian government - a precarious coalition headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These nuclear weapons are not for security, status or prestige in the first place, as is all too often assumed. They are instruments for political power, for dominating the subcontinent and achieving equality with China. They are instruments for increasing the tensions with Pakistan, so that the more radical elements within the BJP can enhance their influence within their party and in India at large. To expand the electoral basis beyond the tiny 26% of the last ballot, the BJP needs increased hostility with Pakistan. For this reason, a nuclear arms race is inevitable as long as this government prevails.

Deterrence is not reliable in this context. It is pure idealism to believe that the very specific circumstances of the East-West context can be universalized independent of historical and political context. I always admire the profound inconsistency of those who tell us, in the most sombre tones, that nuclear abolition will be impossible forever because the world is such a nasty place, but, virtually in the same breath, assure us that nuclear weapons are sufficient to keep peace forever among those who possess them. War has been an absurdity throughout our century; conventional weapons are invested with immense destructive force. The bombing of Dresden or Hamburg was as devastating as that of Nagasaki. War has been fought nevertheless. Certainly nuclear weapons have inserted a grain of caution into the minds of policy-makers during the East-West confrontation. That war was avoided, though, depended as well on the particular circumstances of this conflict and, recall Cuba, on good luck.

South Asia is a place where three bloody wars have been fought, where the protagonists share long borders and have a serious territorial dispute, where each main protagonist nurtures separatist movements in the other's backyards, where religious emotions loom large. In no other nuclear-weapon States have we observed fanatic crowds in the streets celebrating nuclear weapon tests with dances of triumph. Governments that first send nuclear mobs into the cities and then operate in their shadow cannot be trusted to conduct cool-headed deterrence policy. As long as the political circumstances prevail on the Subcontinent, the world does well to prepare for the worst: to inquire into the medical, decontamination and reconstruction requirements for the day after.

Non-Proliferation and disarmament have suffered a serious blow. India will certainly want to catch up with China, while Pakistan will try to remain as close to India as possible. A stable end-point to this race is thus not in sight. How will China react? Will she reconsider its - opaque - modernization plans as she now faces an immediate neighbour with an arsenal that will possibly rival her own in a few years? It seems unlikely to me that China will ratify the CTBT under the new circumstances, at least not until India's plans have become clear. This means, presumably, that Russia and the US will not ratify either - I cannot conceive of this Republican US Senate agreeing to ratification if America's two supposed nuclear rivals hold back.

The Death Of Arms Control and Disarmament?

An immediate, clear and unambiguous signal from the nuclear-weapon States that the incremental approach towards nuclear disarmament will continue unabatedly is badly needed to contain the negative consequences of Indian and Pakistani actions. However, the situation not only in nuclear disarmament, but in arms control and disarmament across the board is anything but encouraging:

  • START II, presently the key nuclear disarmament Treaty, is stalled in the Russian Duma, and this is blocking steps towards further reductions of nuclear warheads and new rules for tactical nukes.
  • Progress in talks towards more nuclear transparency between Russia and the US have come to a halt, apparently over objections of the Russian Ministry of Defence where nuclear weapons are seen now as the only guarantor of national security, and transparency is still seen - as in the old times - as another word for espionage.
  • The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has little prospect of ever entering into force, since the entry-into-force clause requests the ratification, inter alia, by India, Pakistan, and North Korea, and prospects that these three countries will join under present circumstances - even after the South Asian tests - are still remote. In addition, the tests in South Asia have rendered ratification by the Russian Duma and the US Senate uncertain.
  • Negotiations on a cut-off of the production of fissile material for explosive purposes were for a long time blocked by the insistence of Egypt, Pakistan and other non-aligned countries that existing fissile material stocks should be included, and by the strict refusal of established nuclear-weapon States, and Israel, to agree to this demand. At the time of writing (early August), the non-aligned group has relaxed its position, and the commencement of negotiations now seems likely. This does not guarantee success, however - the same controversies that prevented negotiations from getting under way may well emerge as a formidable obstacle in their path.
  • The whole Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva is not moving at all. No negotiation on anything is likely as long as the nuclear-weapon States refuse even to talk (rather than negotiate) on nuclear disarmament issues while the non-aligned majority request negotiations on this subject and refuse to negotiate about anything else as long as this request is not heeded.
  • The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is under permanent siege by those in the US Congress and the Pentagon who prefer quick deployment of non-functioning technology to the continuation of nuclear arms control. The present compromise on the distinction between tactical and strategic ballistic missile defence may never pass the Senate and is extremely fragile as US technology develops further.
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) has been undermined by unilateral conditions attached to US ratification on the instigation of Senate ultraconservatives, which have the potential to ruin the whole verification system. That the US President has the authority to block challenge inspections on national security grounds and that samples taken in the United States are not permitted to be taken out of the country would sound the death knell of the verification system if and when it was emulated by other States - what would the US say if, say, China or Iran would impose the same conditions?
  • The negotiations on a verification and transparency protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) are in danger because a group of States from both the developing and the developed world view those measures, which promise to lend some effectiveness to the Treaty, as too intrusive for their own industries. As for all verification systems that cover both military and civilian activities, there must be a combination of declarations, routine inspections and challenge inspections. Modalities and quotas are variable, but not the system as such. That Japan, Germany, the US and others want to limit declarations to military research and development and want to avoid routine visits altogether will prevent the erection of any meaningful system and thus make the protocol a void document.
  • The Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty revision talks could fail. While the new principles have been agreed - no group ceilings, but national ceilings (limiting weapons possessed in the Treaty area by each country, including those deployed abroad) and territorial ceilings (limiting weapons deployed in each country, including those possessed by other States) - the crucial outstanding issues are rules for the trespassing of territorial ceilings in crisis and rules for the flanks. In contrast to most of its allies, the US wants almost unlimited freedom of action to trespass to-be-agreed territorial limits in order to have the opportunity of heavy reinforcements for new NATO members, and Russia desires the elimination of the flank constraints, a move unacceptable to Norway and Turkey. The US and Russian positions undermine the very objective the CFE Treaty is meant for: stability and predictability.
  • The Open Skies Treaty cannot enter into force because Ukraine and Russia have not ratified.
  • Arms control efforts in non-European regions are rare and rather timid, and in the most volatile and arms-control needy region, the Middle East, it has come to a complete halt, because Arab States want to include negotiations on a nuclear-weapon-free zone from the outset and are not ready to consider more moderate confidence-building steps in the conventional realm unless Israel agrees to such negotiations, while Israel is not willing even to consider nuclear talks before the peace process (that it is blocking itself) has resulted in a stable, lasting peace with all closer and more remote neighbours.
Adding all these negative factors together, it is not alarmist to characterise the situation as more than merely potentially grave, all the more so as the world situation - measured by the degree of serious conflict among the major players - could hardly be better for agreed constraints on armament and even for disarmament steps. In fact, we are facing the real near-term danger that arms control and disarmament, one of the greatest promises humankind has made itself to usher in an era where conflicts would not be settled anymore by major war or by violence at all, will fall by the wayside, and nation-States may turn back to the dark ages of unfettered self-help, with the inevitable conference of protracted bloodshed even between major powers. And these conflicts may well involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

Reasons For The Stalemate

What are the reasons for this distressing situation? They lie very much in the policies and attitudes of major countries and groups of countries:

  • At the top, the lone superpower, the US, is oscillating between a pragmatic continuation of past (pro-arms control) policies and the attitudes of Congressional conservatives (with some followers in the Pentagon and the Labs) that are the moral equivalent of rogue State views: contempt for multilateralism and international organizations, an opportunistic attitude to international law that is (ab)used when it is convenient, and refused if it demands compromise, a complete reliance on unilateral military strength, and the relentless pursuit of the national interest - egocentrically defined - without regard to the claims and interests of others. For these people, arms control is but an impediment in the way of national strength. The administration is forced to follow a compromise line between its own - much more multilateral - views and the demands of the anti-arms control rogues.
  • In Russia, we see ever more clearly the powerfully negative combination of distrust of the West, reliance on nuclear weapons, and the precarious domestic balance between an institutionally strong President and an opposition-dominated Duma with a communist-nationalist majority that still regards the West as enemy rather than as partner and feels that NATO enlargement has confirmed that assessment. The Russian military has little left but nuclear hardware and old-fashioned secrecy and sticks to both assets.
  • China is still being socialized into the arms control/disarmament game. So far, China has shown a tendency to put forwards demand to others and to try to avoid measures that would amount to constraints on itself, though at the same time she has tried not to stand isolated at the end of negotiations. China still shows a considerable reluctance towards transparency measures.
  • All three smaller nuclear-weapon States - China, France and Britain - appear determined to stick to their status, though the recent British Defence Review contained some rays of hope, particularly with regard to transparency.
  • India plays a power game under the veil of disarmament, as already discussed.
  • Many non-aligned countries are still tempted to 'buy' the Indian line of argument, though with some polite criticism. The uncompromising attitudes of the nuclear-weapon States contribute to their sticking to old-fashioned, ante-Cold War's end postures.
  • Some non-aligned leaders, in addition, pursue regional security agendas that may not always be helpful in the context of global disarmament issues.
Consequences for the NPT Review Process

This, then, is the situation which the NPT Review is facing: strains on the Treaty emerging directly from the repercussions of the events in South Asia, and a seminal stagnation, if not rollback, of arms control and disarmament as a primary instrument for achieving national, regional and global security. In this situation, only the closed ranks of the Parties can save the NPT from lasting damage. However, as the recent meeting (27 April - 8 May) of the Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference has proven, the Treaty Community is deeply divided. That this division is exercised mainly on procedural questions should deceive no one. The substantial issue behind the procedural manoeuvres concerns the old, obsolete controversy about non-proliferation contra disarmament, but in a sharper form: namely, whether the achievements of the 1995 Conference, that were substantial and, as all present then knew well nigh, a condition for the smooth extension without a divisive vote, must be honoured or can be ignored.

The impression is strong that some of the nuclear-weapon States are apparently determined to renege on their commitments undertaken in the context of the indefinite extension of the Treaty, while many non-aligned Parties have forgotten about the option of step-by-step moves towards nuclear disarmament that Principle and Objective 4 c entailed, preferring to call for more radical steps towards nuclear disarmament than most of the Five are ready or capable of offering. There is thus the risk that the NPT may erode, stagnate, or even unravel.

As the great powers are not displaying an ability to lead, this role falls to lesser powers. The recent 'New Agenda' initiative by a group of eight countries (Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden) goes exactly into the right direction, as, with regard to the landmines issue, did the Ottawa process. It is essential that this group be augmented by other countries sharing the same views as well as concerns. It would be desirable to have major economic powers such as Japan and Germany included, although both countries still seem impeded by history as well as by current partnerships and alliances. Recently, however, Japan - in issues of nuclear disarmament - and Germany - in the CFE revision talks within the NATO alliance - have shown signs that, at least periodically, they could play a more prominent role. Without an intermediate group that hosts members from both the developing and the developed world, it will hardly be possible to bridge the yawning gap, to the detriment of all, and the NPT in particular.

What could be done to move forward both nuclear disarmament and the NPT Review in the light of the existing controversies? The 2000 Conference should emulate the scheme of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference: to define two or three disarmament measures that the nuclear-weapon States are supposed to undertake between 2000 and the next Review. This would include an element of timing into the proceedings, without nailing the Five to a final endpoint that they are not yet willing to accept. Without such a positive outcome, it is hard to see the NPT surviving as a solid foundation for the global non-proliferation regime. Without such a secure foundation, prospects for avoiding destruction and horror in the next century on a scale equal to, or even worse than, that witnessed in this century are, terrifyingly, bleak indeed.

Harald Müller is Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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