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Brad Roberts *
Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction:
What Role for Arms Control?

An American Perspective

*[The views expressed in this contribution are those of the author and should not be attributed to any of the institutions with which he is affiliated, or their sponsors. Portions of the arguments presented here have previously been published in other venues.]

This German-American dialogue on arms control begins with an important premise: that a gap has emerged in the attitude of the two countries toward arms control, a gap that threatens to grow wider in the years ahead. The basis of this perception is a belief that the commitment of the United States to arms control has grown weaker, and will grow even more so in the period ahead. This short essay addresses both the premise and the belief, by exploring the following four questions:

  • How have U.S. attitudes toward arms control changed since the end of the Cold War?
  • How does the United States conceive the policy challenges posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?
  • What does the treaty regime contribute to the effort to deal with proliferation?
  • How does the Washington-based policy community understand the gap between the United States and its allies on the proliferation agenda?

Changing U.S. Attitudes

Has the commitment of the United States to arms control in fact grown weaker over the last decade?

Arms control remains a central tenet of the effort to construct a viable long-term strategic relationship between Washington and Moscow while also eliminating nuclear risks and de-emphasizing the nuclear component to the maximum extent possible. To be sure, the bilateral arms control agenda has made little progress over the last decade, and the posture and structure of Russian forces at least appear to be dictated increasingly by budgetary and technical factors rather than arms control ones. But the focus of the present inquiry is the role of arms control in preventing WMD proliferation, so the bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control agenda falls outside of the present area of concern.

There are other reasons to think that arms control has become less important in Washington. Central among these is the dismantling of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the absorption of its main functions by the Department of State. Many people have interpreted this reorganization as signaling the demise of arms control in U.S. policy and, to be sure, there are some in Washington who promoted such reorganization for precisely this reason. But the reorganization was not simply a victory for those trying to stamp out the arms control function or to ask arms controllers to do more with less money. The reorganization also reflected a view broadly held in the foreign policy community that an autonomous arms control agency only had a substantial impact on policy at those increasingly rare moments when presidents have put arms control at the top of their agenda. To sustain arms control diplomacy at moments of lesser presidential interest, especially as the overall focus of arms control shifts from the high politics of treaty negotiation to the low bureaucratic

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politics of implementation, some closer integration of the arms control function into the political-military function of diplomacy makes sense. The reorganization debate and process unfortunately have consumed a very large share of the time, energy, and political capital available to deal with arms control issues during the Clinton administration.

A similar set of arguments can be made with regard to the reorganization of the Department of Defense to deal with proliferation and arms control issues. In 1998, the department brought together a variety of activities into a new Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The motives were again multiple: to achieve efficiencies in the use of defense resources, to ensure greater integration of policy tools, and to raise the visibility of WMD issues within the overall defense community. But the reorganization should not be read as signaling renewed military antipathy to arms control; rather, it signals a renewed interest in understanding the role of arms control in reducing nuclear, biological, and chemical threats, and in promoting arms control approaches where they can make a positive contribution.

A better reason to speculate about a possible loss of political commitment in Washington to arms control can be found in the relationship between the executive and the legislature there. As the Clinton administration enters its final two years, at least eight arms control measures await ratification review by the United States Senate. In some cases, the administration has been reluctant to promote an arms control agenda with Capitol Hill; the Chemical Weapons Convention, for example, languished for years in large measure because the administration opted not to push for its ratification. In other cases, the administration has pushed, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has resisted. Arms control has been taken hostage by executive-legislative gridlock.

This gridlock cannot be explained away on the basis of the personalities of a president and a committee chairman. Rather, it reflects a major change in the domestic politics of arms control. Over the last decade, we have witnessed a repolarization of the debate about arms control. The moderate middle that came to dominate arms control policies as the Cold War wound down has virtually disappeared. The conservative embrace of arms control as a tool to promote the national interest has been replaced by a conservative rejection of arms control as a foolish if not dangerous sellout of the national interest. Among the right wing in the Republican Party are many experts who oppose the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) as unverifiable and thus meaningless agreements. There are also some who actively work for the failure of these treaties out of a belief that doing so helps to prevent full implementation of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and nuclear disarmament by the United States. The Congress has also suffered the retirement of many of the most important arms control leaders of the last decade, as well as an erosion of some of the old tools of policy coordination. The apparent eclipse of the moderates and the rise of the Right in the Congress raise important questions about how a future government composed of a Republican White House, especially if in combination with a Republican Congressional majority, might pursue arms control. Perhaps the moderates would reassert themselves; perhaps they would find it impossible to do so.

These political factors reflect not so much a loss of commitment to arms control as a loss of consensus about the utility of arms control. The uncertainty is not so much political as substantive. Arms controllers have carried forward the arms control process largely on the basis of arguments about the utility of arms control strategies and arms control instruments honed during the Cold War. But the proliferation problem of decades past is not the

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proliferation problem of the present or future, so those arguments are losing their currency in the political process. This is a threat to arms control, but it is also an opportunity.

The Proliferation Challenge

How does the United States conceive the policy challenges posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)?

Our conference organizers have given us one answer: the central challenge is to prevent proliferation. By implication, the central goal of policy ought to be prevention. This way of thinking about the problem deserves some exploration because some of the friction in the transatlantic debate on proliferation can be traced to the seemingly divergent goals the two sides seem to have in mind.

To be sure, there is a prevention goal. But this goal no longer encompasses the full set of goals relevant to the WMD proliferation challenge. It is important to articulate and understand the goals other than prevention, not least because how well we do on the other aspects will shape how well we can do on prevention. So in addition to prevention, the following goals make sense:

  • To reverse WMD programs and roll back capabilities

Some analysts depict proliferation as a linear inevitability, with more and more countries acquiring banned capabilities - „it's only a matter of time", goes the argument. But history reminds us that states sometime abandon weapons of mass destruction. In the nuclear domain, there are many „repentant states" (to use Sandy Spector's term to describe states that have abandoned nuclear weapons or programs), including Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. In the chemical domain, there are at least a dozen states that have promised to destroy their chemical arsenals under the provisions of the CWC. In the biological domain, a number of major powers have relinquished offensive capabilities over the years, including for example the United States, Britain, and France. Achieving such „rollback" and sustaining the conditions that made it possible are important goals in the fight against WMD proliferation.

  • Where some proliferation has occurred, to freeze capabilities in place

The Cold War well illustrates the dangerous effects of arms races on stability, effects that many observers hope to avoid in regions where proliferation is an ongoing process, as in South Asia and the Middle East. Achieving stability at the lowest possible level of weapons activity and capability are also important goals in the fight against WMD proliferation, not least for the hope that at some future time decision-makers might be ready to relinquish some or all of those capabilities.

  • To slow quantitative and qualitative improvements

We do a disservice to our understanding of the proliferation problem to treat all proliferators alike, to think „either they've got them or they don't" and to check the box accordingly. Not all WMD capabilities are alike. In the nuclear domain, there is a substantial difference between the threat posed by one or two fission-style weapons and a small nuclear arsenal of deliverable fusion-style weapons. In the chemical domain, there is a difference between the ability to deliver nuisance-style attacks and the ability to undertake Warsaw-Pact-style campaign attacks unfolding over days and weeks. In the biological domain, there is a difference between a stockpile of small quantities of unreliable agents and an arsenal composed of large quantities of reliable agents mated to precision delivery systems and employing advanced biotechnologies. The quantitative and qualitative differences are important, not just operationally, in terms of the military effect achieved, but also

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strategically, in terms of the political effect associated with coercion, compellance, and deterrence.

  • To inhibit cooperation among WMD proliferators

There is a learning curve associated with WMD programs. Proliferators can climb that curve more rapidly if they are able to benefit from the experience of others. Inhibiting such cooperation is desirable, in the same way that inhibiting the diffusion of materials, technologies, and expertise from the WMD programs of the former Soviet Union also pays dividends in the fight against proliferation.

  • To promote the peaceful uses of dual-use materials and technologies

These materials and technologies are diffusing throughout the international system, as a result of processes driven largely by industrialization, modernization, transnational commercialization, and globalization. The international community has an interest in seeing these assets used for peaceful purposes and indeed has expressed this interest in each of the treaty regimes as a shared obligation to promote such uses. Especially in countries of proliferation concern, there is an interest in promoting the maximum possible degree of accountability and transparency in the use of dual-use materials and technologies.

  • To inhibit the use of WMD

In South Asia, for example, the international community has a strong interest in seeing that India and Pakistan never resort to the use of their nuclear capabilities, as such use could unleash a set of political and military forces leading to further proliferation globally - in addition to terrible suffering. The international community also has a strong interest in not seeing nuclear threats somehow emerge as useful tools for coercion and compellance in these regions.

  • To deter the use of WMD

In those cases where weapons of mass destruction are acquired by U.S. adversaries pursuing asymmetric counters to U.S. military influence, the international community - and not just the United States has an interest in seeing that the aggressor is effectively deterred from the use of those weapons. It also has an interest in demonstrating that the United States and its partners cannot be blackmailed into backing down from a security commitment by the threat of WMD attack. If weapons of mass destruction are seen to be useful for deterring or defeating the United States, the result would likely be more WMD proliferation by other challengers to U.S. influence - and by those who might then have lost faith in the credibility of U.S. guarantees.

  • To defend against and defeat the use of WMD where necessary

This follows directly on the previous point. If an aggressor can „win" against a U.S.-led coalition by forcing it to back down and withdraw in the face of WMD attack, our world will be changed in fundamental - and fundamentally negative - ways. In this regard, we should understand that the most likely military adversaries of the United States are also the ones understood to be the most advanced in pursuing banned weapons. The United States has a clear preference to prosecute this goal without resort to nuclear weapons - in other words, to rely on its conventional war-fighting advantages to achieve this end. The presence of robust chemical and biological weapons (CBW) threats in some regions raises a major question about the ability to fight wars on terms preferred by the United States. Protecting local civilian populations against chemical and biological (CB) attack is a major new challenge, among others.

  • To reassure the „weapons disinterested" states

The vast majority of states of the world have concluded that they have no interest in weapons of mass destruction. Most have done so on the basis of the absence of WMD risks. But some have done so on the basis of a calculation that restraint on their part brings benefits at acceptable risk. Many countries - Germany among them have the capability to develop weapons of mass destruction but have forsworn doing so because self-restraint helps to

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sustain a structure and process of international stability that is in their national interest. If that structure were to erode - if Germany were to be left to fend for itself in a radically different world without the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the relationship with the United States - it would probably give serious consideration of WMD acquisition. The number of countries in this category is quite large, if one thinks of all the countries technically capable of making weapons of mass destruction that might feel compelled to do so if there were a general collapse of restraint by countries around their periphery, or a sudden loss of confidence in the current security mechanisms. Yet this is a category of states that rarely receives serious attention by the community of proliferation experts. Reassuring these states that the choice for self-restraint that they have made is sound is also an important goal of policy.

In sum, preventing proliferation is certainly the first and primary goal of policy. But it cannot be the only goal in a world in which some proliferation has already occurred, especially if we would prefer a world order based on collective security responses to egregious acts of aggression. If policymakers focus only on the prevention goal but fail to reverse, freeze, slow, inhibit, deter, defeat, and so forth, then their legacy is likely to be a world in which more and more states acquire latent weapons capabilities and move up to or across the threshold to weaponization and deployment (whether overt or covert). The prevention problem would then be much more challenging because it would encompass a far larger number of potential proliferators.

The Place of Arms Control

For the policymaker, then, the proliferation problem is multifaceted. When confronted with complex problems, the typical policymaker wants more rather than fewer policy tools.

In combating WMD proliferation, the policymaker has a range of tools. Nonproliferation measures have relied heavily on economic instruments, including export licensing procedures that direct sensitive trade in desirable ways, as well as sanctions that punish states that violate their treaty undertakings. Political reassurance measures have also played an important role; alliances between the United States and partners in Europe and Asia have played a central role in dampening proliferation pressures in those regions. Military measures also play a role. Counterproliferation capabilities being developed by the United States - and some of its NATO allies - are aimed at achieving the necessary operational capabilities to deter and defeat WMD aggressors, and to reassure their intended targets that coercion and attack will not be successful. What does the treaty regime contribute to this larger effort to deal with proliferation?

The treaty regime consists of three primary elements: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). These three elements constitute a single regime to the extent that they reflect a shared understanding among their members about how the WMD problem is going to be managed globally - about the institutions, processes, norms, and expectations that are at the heart of the anti-WMD effort. Seen in strategic terms, what are the functions of this regime? There are at least twelve:

  1. Arms control agreements codify patterns of restraint among states currently committed to the non-possession of certain weapons; such codes play a domestic role as well, making treaty breakout by these states politically costly and thus unlikely.

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  2. They reduce the number of weapon states; the CWC and the NPT, for example, have provided a rationale for some states weakly committed to weapons programs to abandon them. They restrain the military threat of residual arsenals by limiting their size, sophistication, and integration with other military assets. These limitations may prove critical to the ability of aggressor states to achieve operationally significant capabilities or to utilize those illicit weapons capabilities to good military effect.
  3. They help to de-politicize the debate about the holdout states; when Libya or North Korea fails to sign a treaty, they self-select themselves as a target of efforts by signatory states to induce future compliance.
  4. These regimes also focus compliance tools, such as inspections, on potential dropouts from the regime in order to detect clandestine programs; this helps to deter noncompliance.
  5. They institutionalize preexisting norms against the use of these weapons and thus increase the capacity of the international community to extend those norms through concerted action. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is conspicuous as an example of a treaty that embodies a strong international prohibition against nuclear testing and that may have prolonged effect even if it never formally enters into force.
  6. The multilateral arms control regimes are also tools for building political and economic coalitions against holdouts and dropouts; the CWC for example obligates states parties to deny certain kinds of sensitive trade to non-parties.
  7. They are also tools for building military coalitions against states whose noncompliance comes to be seen as particularly egregious. The international response to Iraqi aggression in 1990 had much to do with its violations of international agreements.
  8. They are helpful for legitimizing the punitive military action that may be deemed necessary in extreme situations; without such agreements, preemptive strikes by the United States and/or others against the weapons facilities of smaller states look to many like a form of vigilantism.
  9. The multilateral treaty regimes are also useful for tying together diverse international constituencies for common purposes. North, South, East, and West need opportunities to turn their sense of community into common action, or their differences seem likely to overwhelm their common interests.
  10. Particularly for the United States, multilateral arms control mechanisms are useful for providing a mode of international engagement well suited to American temper and preferences; arms control is essentially a rule-based system that seeks to promote order through the preservation of shared values and to anchor U.S. power in defense of common interests.
  11. Arms control has also proven useful for helping to manage major international transitions; the existence of the NPT had much to do with achievement of the denuclearization of a number of former Soviet republics.
  12. These treaty regimes also help to legitimize technology export controls and to extend them to all states parties; by creating a legal obligation to prevent banned trade in sensitive materials, they save the ad hoc coordinating groups from being nothing more than supplier cartels.

This tally of arms control effects must be weighed against the shortcomings of arms control. Arms control is not a panacea. It cannot prevent some states from pursuing weapons programs deemed illicit by the rest. But it can make it more difficult to be successful in that pursuit.

This analysis indicates that the functions of arms control are numerous. Indeed, they are essential to the effective functioning of the other political, economic, and military elements of the strategy to combat WMD proliferation. But the opposite proposition is also true: the

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military and other measures are essential to the functioning of the arms control component. The various tools of policy must be pursued as part of a comprehensive strategy. But the strategy is not merely comprehensive; it must also be integrated, in the sense that the pieces are self-reinforcing and there are tradeoffs among them.

An American Perspective on the Transatlantic „Gap"

My final question is: how does the Washington-based policy community understand the gap between the United States and its allies on the proliferation agenda?

Among those in Washington interested in the WMD problem many believe that the European allies are interested primarily in regime-based solutions to the proliferation challenge and are unmotivated on the rest of the agenda. To a certain extent, this belief has been tempered by NATO's progress in coming to terms with nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) threats. But NATO's recent progress has been overshadowed by NATO's actions in Kosovo.

Europeans ought to understand that the United States is increasingly motivated by the view that future regional wars are likely to see the use of chemical and biological weapons, mixed perhaps with nuclear threats. Moreover, there is a growing appreciation of the ways in which such wars are likely to be very different from the pre-NBC variants with which we are familiar. Some Americans see a European preference for quibbling about the details of the threat as a way to escape the strategic complications of WMD proliferation.

Some in Washington also believe that the allies are more interested in expanding the arms control regime than in making the existing regime function as well as it must. They argue that Europeans have not exhibited much interest in dealing with regime enforcement issues. There is of course more than a bit of irony in this perception, given Washington's own difficulty in coming to terms with the enforcement agenda and its so-far-unsuccessful and sometimes ham-handed efforts to deal with noncompliance by Iraq, and with the Russian BW problem. Also germane to this picture is Washington's tardiness in fulfilling its obligations under the CWC and its apparent ambivalence about bringing to a rapid and successful conclusion the effort to strengthen the BWC. From my personal perspective, it is difficult to gauge the validity of the common Washington perspective: Europeans have said many of the right things about regime enforcement but have not had the same weight as the United States in turning political commitment into practice and effect.

As an American, I would like also to speculate about the gap as European allies might perceive it.

First, it seems to me that many Europeans continue to believe that America has let the military co-opt the proliferation agenda - that counterproliferation represents an abandonment of nonproliferation and arms control. This belief is not well founded. To be sure, some of those involved in the early genesis of the counterproliferation effort spoke cavalierly to suggest such an interpretation of U.S. motives. But the United States pursues counterproliferation as part of an integrated strategy to combat WMD proliferation, and there is broad consensus that the goals of counterproliferation and nonproliferation are mutually reinforcing. Further transatlantic dialogue on this point would be constructive.

Second, it seems to me that many Europeans criticize not so much America's commitment to the fight against WMD proliferation as its ability to lead the fight. America is frequently chastised for its episodic engagement in essential processes, for its tendency to let bilateral

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U.S.-Russian endeavors dominate its arms control agenda, for its lack of interest in the dialogues that some of its arms control partners would wish to have with it, for expecting deference while contributing less than others expect of it. These criticisms come much closer to the mark. In this sense, arms control is caught up in the larger moment of American politics - in our uncertainty about our world role, about the essentials of effective leadership, about the kind of world order we ought be trying to construct and secure. Absent a major international crisis, America's debates on these questions are not likely to be resolved either promptly or definitively. This implies that Washington's ability to lead on arms control as others might wish it to lead is likely to fall short of those desires.


So is there a role for arms control in the effort to combat WMD proliferation? Yes, but that role is a good deal more complex than we understood the role of arms control to be during the Cold War. Is there a gap in transatlantic attitudes toward arms control? Yes, but it is probably less than meets the eye. Can that gap be narrowed and perhaps closed? Probably, but this requires a deeper and broader consensus about the answer to the first question. This will take time and energy and not merely a national election or two.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Februar 2000

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