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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 43, January - February 2000

Establishing Legitimate & Effective Order in a Unipolar World
By William Walker

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from a presentation given by Professor Walker at the Wilton Park Conference held in England, December 17, 1999.

If a single word sums up the current state of mind of the nuclear arms control community, it must be "disorientation". The last couple of years have brought a series of shocks culminating in the realisation - the shock of all shocks for most of us - that the United States, the main founder of the security order in which we have lived our lives and a country whose judgement we have been used to respecting, has decided to shift the furniture around. More than that, it appears to have decided to move us all into a different kind of house, a house whose architecture is unfamiliar and instinctively unattractive.

Shocks, disorientation. This is familiar territory to psychiatrists. Victims typically experience a loss of ability to 'make sense of the world', causing them to lose the capacity to act, or to think how to act. Although we are not yet in that state, it comes as no surprise that discussions during this conference have often appeared unfocused, and that nothing resembling a political strategy has emerged from them.

How can we again make sense of the world? What ideas should now guide our actions? I would like to describe the story I have been trying to construct for myself, and to draw out of it some priorities for governments in these difficult times.

Two things are worth stressing at the outset. The first is that I remain a qualified optimist despite all the upsets. In part, this stems from observations about the nature of weapons of mass destruction and the extreme risks they present to all states and all peoples. They have an exceptional capacity to create fear and disorder, but this very capacity eventually forces everyone to concentrate on recreating order out of disorder. These weapons carry with them a powerful ordering imperative which kicks in whenever disorder becomes intolerable. The history of the Cold War can be told in terms of cycles of order, disorder and re-ordering.

Of course, this is ultimately an act of faith. We can never be sure that order can be restored. Disorder can become so great that governments' abilities to recover are overwhelmed. There has always been a risk that one day we would lose control and the nuclear missiles would fly. So far, it has not happened, but it could happen.

Secondly, the current tendency among some states is to drift towards a competitive unilateralism. While unilateral action may bring short-term advantage, we must understand that, in this field more than any other, such a tendency is bound to create more problems than it will solve. Furthermore, it is bound to result in a general loss of problem-solving capacity within the international system. No state, however powerful, can hope to solve the problems connected with weapons of mass destruction on its own or just with its close allies.

It follows that states will be impelled to return to cooperation, whatever the present trends, in pursuit of their national and collective interests. It needs recognising that all of the problems in the nuclear field that have been successfully resolved in the 1990s have been addressed by blending co-operative action, rooted in international law, with the judicious use of state power.

So how should we begin to give our thoughts coherence in this time? As always, it is useful to place events in some historical perspective, and to try to think systemically. In this spirit, we need to reflect on how the global security order has developed over the past forty years.

Very briefly, the Cold War international order from the Cuban missile crisis onwards can be described in terms of an equation and a structure. The equation was:

Nuclear deterrence + arms control (including non-proliferation) = coexistence and survival
The avoidance of war in this period relied upon a double restraint emanating from deterrence and arms control. Both were indispensable.

The structure emerged out of power balancing between armed alliances. It was fundamentally bipolar, involving states arranged in hierarchies presided over by the two 'superpowers' which were locked in both competition and cooperation. This structure was expressed in military institutions and strategies; and its imprint can still be found in the constitution of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The Cold War system was never stable and always frightening. But the above equation and structure helped us to survive.

The second period began with the Gorbachev-Reagan summit in Reykjavik in 1986 and lasted for about a decade. Again the security order can be summarised as an equation and a structure - a structure that was also a strategy. The equation, based on hope as much as experience, was:

Marginalisation of military force (including nuclear weapons) + economic interdependence + democratisation = an international society which is at peace with itself and can concentrate its efforts on solving common social, economic and environmental problems
Economic globalisation was considered to be the dominant force reshaping an international system in which the nation state would increasingly take a back seat. According to this view, nuclear weapons were anachronisms - the ultimate symbols of a conflictual order that was passing into history.

The accompanying structure was multipolar, and the accompanying strategy was co-operative security. This entailed amongst other things an enhanced role for the United Nations and the UN Security Council; increasing reliance upon international law; a consensual approach to policy formation; and the rejection of power balancing as the primary means of ordering relations between states.

The successes were extraordinary in this decade. They showed that, given co-operation amongst leading players, the regimes and measures born in the Cold War period had a tremendous potential for solving problems. The successes in the nuclear field included:

  • the INF and START treaties;
  • the nuclear 'settlement' amongst the states formed out of the Soviet Union;
  • the voluntary disarmament of South Africa;
  • the collective disarmament of Iraq (via UNSCOM and the IAEA) and North Korea (via the Agreed Framework and KEDO);
  • negotiation of the CWC and CTBT;
  • indefinite extension of the NPT and agreement on the Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament; and
  • conclusion of the "93+2 Program" reforming the IAEA safeguards system.
The third period began in the mid-1990s. Its main structural feature has been a tendency towards unipolarity, with the United States emerging as the dominant global power. This has come about mainly because of economic and technological changes which have unambiguously favoured the US. Other economic power centres have experienced stagnation (Japan, Germany …), collapse (Russia, parts of Asia and Africa …), or have started from too weak a position to challenge the US in the near term (China, India …). The political effects of these economic changes have been reinforced by developments in military capabilities which have again favoured the US, whose conventional military power has burgeoned while that of other states has diminished in relative terms (and absolute terms in Russia's case).

Suddenly, there have been very big winners and very big losers in the international system. Their gains and losses have been demonstrated in the most visible terms. The huge stock market and currency gains in the United States have been paralleled by collapses in Russia and elsewhere; and the uses of military power in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo (and Chechnya) have shown the chasm that has grown between US technological capabilities and those of other states.

"How to establish legitimate and effective order in a unipolar world?" has become the question in the late 1990s. Essentially, unipolarity offers two choices:

restrained, unselfish hegemony: whereby the dominant state checks its own power and seeks to govern by example and through co-operative measures (regimes, norms etc), using military resources only when broad international agreement can be reached on their usage; or

unrestrained, selfish hegemony: whereby the dominant state seeks to maximise its relative power and is prepared to maintain order, including compliance with international obligations, through unilateral decisions on coercive measures.

In the late 1990s, the perceived trend was towards the latter state of affairs. The United States' recent rejection of the CTBT and commitment to deploy a national missile defence (NMD) appear to have confirmed the shift towards unrestrained hegemony especially in the security field. Both decisions have been taken in defiance of friends as well as foes and without apparent heed for the damage that they might inflict on international treaties and regimes.

Why has this happened? Why has US security policy appeared to move away from the well-tested principles and practices that the United States itself established with great effort over many years? We need a sympathetic understanding of this change of direction. I would suggest four causes.

Firstly, there has been a profound change in threat perceptions in the United States over the past five or so years. A great anxiety has developed around the perception that irrational (even suicidal) minor actors armed with lethal weapons (especially biological weapons) pose major threats which cannot be countered by the traditional deterrence and arms control. Against a background of concern over civil order within the United States, an un-coordinated but terrifying army of 'rogue states', 'terrorists' and other actors has assembled in the public mind against the American people.

These fears have probably been exaggerated (although outsiders should hesitate before passing judgement, recognising that the threats posed especially by biological weapons have been subjected to a much more intense scrutiny in the United States than elsewhere). But as always it is perceptions that count. The need to find a response to these new threats became paramount for many constituencies in the United States. This compulsion created the political grounds for ballistic missile defences, even if those defences would offer little or no protection against many of the new threats.

Throughout this period, the United States has felt comparatively invulnerable to traditional challenges, including nuclear challenges, from other great powers. To some, China began to loom as the most serious long-term threat to US interests, but even that could be countered by US military and economic power. As a consequence, US security analysts have been either careless of the effects of ballistic missile defences and other measures on broad strategic relations, or have been unworried by them given America's perceived invincibility vis-à-vis China and Russia.

Secondly, the problem-solving capacity of regimes, and the ordering capacity of co-operative security, appeared to diminish when viewed from Washington as the 1990s wore on. Iraq seemed to provide a telling illustration of these limitations - both in regard to the limitations of international safeguards and UNSCOM when faced with a determined opponent, and in regard to the loss of cohesion amongst the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Of course, American reactions and over-reactions have on occasion encouraged the very lack of cooperation that has hindered common approaches - a typical vicious circle. The overall consequence has been a US government that has felt less and less able to forge international consensus, and less and less prepared to place its trust in weakened proposals which are all that can be agreed. It has thus been tempted to turn its back on consensual politics and try to enforce its own solution, as in the Iraqi case.

Where arms control is concerned, diplomatic and administrative overload in Washington has also had negative effects. The various treaty negotiations, now involving chemical and biological weapons (and landmines) as well as nuclear weapons, the battles over ratification, and the task of implementing complex measures in various countries (not least Russia) have together required an enormous and sustained commitment of individual and collective energy. Viewed from the outside, government agencies in Washington appeared to become less effective after 1995, giving rise to a perception of drift and inattention. Exhaustion, the loss of key personnel, and resource scarcity rather than disinterest may have been partly to blame.

Thirdly, domestic politics have worked against arms control. At this conference, various speakers commented on the growing asymmetries that have bedevilled great power relations. Unfortunately, there has been perfect symmetry between the US and Russia in one notable respect - the relations between presidents and national legislatures. In both countries, those relations have become confrontational and at time venomous. Furthermore, elections since 1993 have resulted in the ascendancy of nationalistic political groupings in Congress and the Duma which have been suspicious of foreign powers and antagonistic towards arms control, and which have exploited popular anxieties in pursuit of their special interests. START II, the CTBT and the ABM Demarcation Agreement are just some of the examples of measures that have fallen foul of adversarial politics in and between Washington and Moscow.A

Fourthly, technological advances have begun to generate their own political momentum. Developments in missile defence technology over the past 20 years have reached a point where the United States may be able to deploy an effective defensive system - at least against small numbers of incoming missiles. To the advocates of a defensive shield, the US has the chance to render its territory invulnerable to external attack for the first time since the early 1950s and to provide additional protection to close allies such as Japan. Although this prospect has already shown its capacity for disrupting relations with other nuclear powers, opportunities to establish clear and lasting technological leadership over rivals are always hard to resist, especially when they seem to answer a popular craving for greater protection.B

The US remains, of course, highly constrained in how it can and cannot behave internationally. It is constrained, for instance, by its membership and strong commitment to treaties such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). However, the trend in US policy, especially as perceived in foreign capitals, has been towards greater unilateralism. The US is not alone in this, but as hegemon it sets the tone in international politics more than any other state. Recent US actions, more than any others, have been seen as confirming that international relations are sliding towards the competitive unilateralism that we hoped had been cast aside.

This trend nevertheless presents the US, as the dominant power, with four grave problems which suggest that its own and other states' drift into unilateralism will ultimately be self-defeating.

Firstly, a selfish hegemony will also be a challenged hegemony. States and other actors will try to balance power against the US, and to force restraint upon the US, by whichever means are available to them. Given US superiority in economic and conventional military resources, WMD and terrorism provide the obvious means of challenging US authority. Thus an attempt to govern through imperial might and disregard could lead the US into its worst nightmare.

Secondly, US capacities for problem solving would be reduced still further in a world of challenged hegemony and competitive unilateralism. As already indicated, coercion is a blunt instrument when faced with an Iraq or a North Korea if actions taken against such states lack international support and are not founded in international law. A combination of increased incentives to acquire WMD (or to expand existing arsenals), failing non-proliferation regimes, weakening taboos, and unwillingness to develop co-operative solutions would bring the worst of all outcomes for the US. Confidence in crisis management would also be imperilled by such trends. Abilities to handle crises in relations between Russia and the US and China and the US in particular will be diminished if there is no substratum of trust and co-operation.C

Thirdly, unilateralism will be self-defeating if it undermines the cohesion of alliances. The strains in the Western alliance over missile defences and over Iraq already show the potential for division. If current trends are allowed to continue, the result will be political and institutional fragmentation, again weakening the ability of the US and other great powers to protect their own security interests.

Finally, an unspoken assumption in the US is that a retreat into competitive unilateralism in the political sphere will have no affect on economic performance - that the realms of economic globalisation and international security are essentially autonomous. I cannot believe this to be true. If the security situation is allowed to deteriorate much further, the global economy and thus the US economy must eventually be affected, especially as a result of growing conflict over trade policy.

For all these reasons, national interest must surely bring co-operative security - supported by the judicious use of military and economic power - back into centre stage. It may be a hard road to follow, but any other could lead us to disaster.

In these circumstances, what should be the priorities of those concerned to arrest the deterioration in nuclear relations? Seven come to mind.

1. To borrow a phrase used at this conference by our Russian colleague, Viktor Slipchenko, hang on to what you have. Concentrate on protecting the agreements, treaties and institutions that have been established with great effort over the past forty years. More than that, reaffirm them . In my view, the aim of the 2000 NPT Review Conference should be to reaffirm States Parties' commitments to the NPT, and to the realisation of the Principles and Objectives on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and the Resolution on the Middle East agreed in 1995. Parties should beware of trying to negotiate a new set of Principles and Objectives, or any other new agreement, at the Conference in these difficult times. An act of re-dedication is what is required.

2. Understand the risks. There needs to be much more appreciation amongst politicians, and bureaucracies and publics of the dangers of embarking on a unilateralist course and of weakening the institutions of co-operative security, (including multilateral treaties).D We hear much about the specific threats from this rogue state or that terrorist organisation, but little about the graver threats from decaying co-operative institutions. At the same time, risks of whichever kind should not be exaggerated: no-one gains from the unwarranted pumping up of anxieties.

3. Clarify the objectives of missile defence programmes. It is clear that US policy on missile defence has become the central issue for many states. American colleagues attending this conference have tried to reassure the other participants on a number of occasions that US programmes still have narrow objectives (objectives which we can respect). This is not the impression gained abroad. Rightly or wrongly, the perception has taken root that US policy has moved from the limited goals implied by the ABM Demarcation Agreement to an open-ended adventure designed to limit the effectiveness of other states' nuclear deterrents. The actual objective is in need of urgent clarification.

The policy process that has been instituted in Washington has also not helped, to put it mildly. To have Congress mandating the deployment of a national missile defence system without prior consultation with other states, including America's closest allies, and to have the US government feeling obliged to base its deployment policy upon evidence from a handful of tests and to underplay the consequences for foreign relations, is to invite disarray.E

4. Address the North Korean problem. The North Korean missile and nuclear programmes have arguably become the most destabilising factor of all. Besides providing encouragement for the US NMD programme, they are diminishing Japan's confidence in its security arrangements. A decision by Japan to abandon its renunciation of nuclear weapons would shatter the non-proliferation regime. If China wishes to avoid a nuclear-armed Japan, or a Japan committed to deploying missile defences with the United States, it should renew its effort with the US and other powers to terminate the North Korean programmes. If it believes, as Chinese colleagues attending this conference have indicated, that North Korea is simply a pretext for the US to deploy missile defences against China, then it should call Washington's bluff.

5. Reach a new accord on Iraq. We await the outcome of negotiations in New York on a new UN Security Council Resolution on Iraq. Beyond its practical implications, a unanimous resolution would have considerable symbolic importance at this time. It would show that the P5 can still work together in the Security Council, and that co-operative security is still alive. (Unfortunately, subsequent developments inside and outside the UN Security Council concerning the establishment of UNMOVIC have not been reassuring).F

6. Address the issue of India and Pakistan's status. Discussions have been held in the margins of this conference on how the slight caused by the NPT's exclusion of India and Pakistan from the ranks of the recognised nuclear weapon states might be overcome. If there is desire and determination on all sides, a solution can surely be found to this problem. These countries' absence from the institutions of arms control brings no benefit to anyone.G

7. Don't give up on multilateral initiatives. Last but not least, the tasks of bringing the CTBT and the Additional (safeguards) Protocols into force, negotiating the FMCT, concluding and implementing the BWC Protocol, and pursuing other multilateral initiatives must not be abandoned. Despite the setbacks and frustrations, the show must be kept on the road.H

Finally, we must not forget that nuclear disarmament remains humankind's ultimate aspiration and the obligation to realise it is embedded in international law. Although recent developments may have injured the prospects for disarmament, there remains a pressing need to establish a forum in which states can collectively discuss how to imagine and institute a nuclear weapon-free world.

Editor's Footnotes

A. See News Review

B. See Documents and Sources

C. See Opinion and Analysis

D. See News Review

E. See Documents and Sources

F. See Disarmament Diplomacy, Issues 41 & 42, and News Review

G. See News Review

H. See Geneva Update, BWC Update and Documents and Sources

William Walker is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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