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Heiner Horsten
Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction:
What Role for Arms Control?

A German Perspective

In asking how disarmament and arms control can contribute to preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) we are in fact broaching the key question posed by decades of effort at building cooperative security structures. Can international and regional security be reliably ensured in the long term by weapons bans and arms control regimes? Are the relevant treaties sufficient? What about verification and transparency? Are the treaties binding in practice? Should we aim to negotiate further treaties as well as additions to existing ones in areas such as verification? In short, are the instruments we now have sufficient, do they merit the confidence placed in them, and can they be built on and adapted to rapidly changing circumstances?

What other options might there be? Both regionally and internationally a renewed reliance on military solutions appears to be gaining ground. That would mean the development and procurement of increasingly effective and (of course) ever-more expensive weapons. That is what the vociferous campaigns amount to in favor of antiballistic missile (ABM) defense systems designed as shields against weapons of mass destruction (WMD), either for specific theaters or for the entire territory of a nation the size of the United States. But the disarmament and arms control approach on the one hand and the military prevention (counterproliferation) approach on the other are two options with possibly mutually conflicting goals. You cannot reach for sword and shield and hope the other side will simply lay down its arms. The opposite will in fact happen: To offset the perceived heightened danger, the other side will feel compelled to expand its arsenal of offensive weapons.

What Has Been Achieved to Date?

A choice has to be made, and that requires a sober assessment of what has been achieved so far in the area of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Let me begin with nuclear weapons. Virtually all countries in the world other than Cuba, India, Israel, and Pakistan are now parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which entered into force in 1970 and was extended for an unlimited period in 1995. Last autumn another major country, Brazil, signed the treaty. The decision by Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus right after independence to accede to the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states and to hand back to Russia the nuclear weapons deployed on their territory by the former Soviet Union was an immensely important step that greatly strengthened the nonproliferation regime. Against this background the disappointment and indeed alarm the international community felt in the face of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests conducted in 1998 can be readily understood. These tests threatened to reverse the prevailing trend, opening up new and dangerous prospects of horizontal as well as vertical proliferation. Although the U.N. Security Council did condemn the tests in Resolution 1172 and also made a series of demands, the international community has yet to give a convincing response. An international task force has, however, been set up to coordinate appropriate measures to limit the damage to the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The regime is under further threat from test flights of medium-range missiles carried out by India, Pakistan, Iran, and above all North Korea, which is openly engaged in proliferation of this technology. Considering the complexity and expense involved in developing and

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procuring such systems, one is bound to ask what weapons they are designed to carry. There are good grounds for suspecting work is also in hand to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Similarly, the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament taxes the credibility of the NPT, which is based on a difficult balance between renunciation of nuclear weapons and a commitment by nuclear-weapon states to nuclear disarmament (Art. VI). That the Russian Duma has for years been blocking ratification of the START II agreement is just another indicator of the highly restrictive attitude now taken by nuclear-weapons states toward their disarmament commitment, a commitment reaffirmed in the Principles and Objectives adopted at the 1995 NPT review and extension conference. This controversy emerged into sharp focus at the preparatory meetings for the NPT review conference scheduled for the year 2000. At the conference itself this issue will certainly feature prominently.

The breaches by North Korea and Iraq of their obligations under the NPT regime that have come to light in recent years fit into this overall picture. The international community has reacted resolutely, although the instruments selected to deliver its response have differed. Whether full confidence in the viability of the NPT regime can be restored remains to be seen. Prompt adoption of the enhanced Safeguards 93 + 2 Program by as many states parties as possible would go a long way to rebuilding confidence.

In the area of chemical weapons there has also been important progress. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) entered into force on 29 April 1997. To date a total of 169 states have acceded to and 121 have ratified the convention. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has started work in the Hague. I regret to say, however, there are shortcomings on implementation. At the national level some major countries are dragging their feet on fulfilling their obligations under the convention.

The Biological Weapons Convention entered into force in 1975. Of the 169 signatories, 141 have completed ratification, and work is proceeding on negotiating a protocol on verification, for which no effective provision has existed to date. The negotiations in the Geneva Ad Hoc Group of states parties are proving difficult. It is by no means certain they can be successfully concluded prior to the next review conference in 2001.

What Can We Expect in the Future?

When we take stock of what has been accomplished in terms of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation of WMD, it is thus a patchwork of light and shade we see. Important headway has been made, but the goal proclaimed at the start of the decade, to erect a strong bulwark against WMD proliferation and eradicate these weapons once and for all, has not as yet been realized. What then can we realistically expect disarmament and arms control to achieve in terms of halting proliferation and ridding the world of such weapons?

As in the past we must start from the premise that security policy entails not just military matters but the employment of all available means, including strengthening and developing diplomatic and legal instruments designed to curb proliferation. The importance of this principle is highlighted repeatedly in the new Strategic Concept of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Paragraph 40, for example, states:

„The Alliance's policy of support for arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation policy will continue to play a major role in the achievement of the Alliance's security objectives. The Allies seek to enhance security and stability at the lowest possible level of forces consistent

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with the Alliance's ability to provide for collective defence and to fulfil the full range of its missions. The Alliance will continue to ensure that - as an important part of its broad approach to security - defence and arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation objectives remain in harmony." [ The Alliance’s Strategic Concept, Approved by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. on 23 rd and 24 th April 1999, http://www.nato.int/docu/pr/1999/p99-065e.htm]

The key priority, I believe, will be for countries to fully honor and act upon the obligations they have assumed if current standards are to be maintained and in future even enhanced. It is important to remember that in the area of disarmament and arms control nothing is static; the goalposts are constantly moving, although our goal remains the same: a world free of weapons of mass destruction. This dynamic process is, moreover, strongly influenced by external political factors. Unless the political climate is favorable, advances in this area are hardly likely. Yet once achieved, they must be robust enough to withstand a rougher climate.

It is important, therefore, to have a clear perception of the link between disarmament and arms control provisions relating to WMD on the one hand and conventional arms on the other. It is a complex edifice we are dealing with, and whether it holds up structurally depends to a large measure on the strength of its component parts. In terms of European security, for instance, success in adapting the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) to the changed security environment will be crucial. That again is a prerequisite for further progress on disarmament and arms control in the area of tactical nuclear weapons, whose role Russia currently has under review.

To take another example: the continued viability of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty is critical to the future of strategic nuclear disarmament. There is a danger that, should the United States pursue its plans to build a national missile defense system without reaching an understanding with Russia on the ABM Treaty, the whole process of nuclear disarmament would be stopped in its tracks and indeed reversed. Concrete steps on disarmament are a sine qua non if further progress is to be made in stemming proliferation of WMD. Thus, those participating in this regime, that is, all countries that have assumed disarmament and arms control obligations, bear a heavy responsibility to pay close heed to the implications of their actions for the entire disarmament and nonproliferation system. Important countries, particularly nuclear-weapon states, have a special responsibility here. It is essential that positive standards be upheld and not lightly cast aside. Security gains from the whole disarmament and arms control treaty system are always reciprocal. Anyone whose unilateral actions result in a strain on the system ultimately puts his own security gains in jeopardy - a fact not everyone appears to have sufficiently grasped at the moment.

Another point worth considering is whether we should focus on new and more flexible instruments of disarmament and arms control. While treaties will clearly remain the backbone of international efforts in this area, intergovernmental agreements of a political nature as well as (verifiable) cooperative arrangements implemented at national level, could help extract important disarmament and arms control areas from the present impasse caused by cumbersome ratification procedures where prestige is all too often at stake. The revival of the START process, including (preliminary) negotiations on a START III accord, could be a significant test case.

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What Are the Lessons for the Future?

As far as nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation are concerned, the two are evidently so intertwined that progress is possible only if both are tackled together. This reciprocal commitment derives from Article VI of the NPT and the Principles and Objectives adopted by the 1995 NPT review and extension conference. Nuclear disarmament is the quid pro quo of nuclear nonproliferation. However, now that the NPT has been indefinitely extended, some observers feel the nuclear-weapon states are no longer focusing on this with the necessary rigor.

That is currently not the only concern regarding nuclear nonproliferation. India, Pakistan, and Israel, along with Cuba, which under the Tlatelolco Treaty has renounced nuclear weapons, are the only countries that have still not acceded to the NPT. Despite the virtually universal consensus in its favor, these countries might still cause the collapse of the whole NPT regime. In the long term it can scarcely survive if they remain aloof. The international community is just as reluctant to allow India, Pakistan, and Israel nuclear-weapon state status as it is to accept the division of the world into those states that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not.

What is to be done? The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a proposed treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices (the so-called "cut-off treaty") could provide a kind of second ring of nuclear nonproliferation if India, Pakistan, and Israel can be brought on board. Nuclear tests would then at long last belong to the past; no new weapons-grade fissile material would be produced. That would be a big step towards freezing the current status quo on nuclear weapons and preparing the ground for further progress on nuclear disarmament. Especially crucial in this context will be the verification regime of a cut-off treaty, which (at a minimum) must provide for effective global monitoring of all relevant production plants (enrichment and reprocessing plants) as well as procedures for dealing with suspicious cases.

The entry into force of the CTBT and agreement on a cut-off treaty, still unfortunately some way off, could stem the trend toward further proliferation. However, a cut-off treaty would not only pose a big challenge to countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel but would for the first time also subject established nuclear-weapon states to nondiscriminatory and mandatory verification measures. Such a regime is indispensable, however, if we are to effectively eliminate the risk of nuclear proliferation and lay the foundations for nuclear disarmament that can be reliably verified by the international community. It is encouraging that the nuclear-weapon states, albeit with certain misgivings in the case of China, have declared a moratorium on the production of weapons-grade fissile material and are respecting it, as far as we know. In this context France's dismantling of its plant for reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium and its decision to give up its nuclear-weapon test site are particularly welcome.

It is also encouraging that at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament (CD) in August 1998 India, Pakistan, and Israel agreed in principle to open negotiations on a cut-off treaty, although that pledge has regrettably yet to be honored. The CD is still blocked by the question of how to tackle nuclear disarmament issues.

An equally relevant topic in this context is the future of the ABM Treaty, whose importance a growing number of political leaders in the United States no longer appear to fully appreciate. Perceiving heightened risks - whether real or not - of WMD attacks on United States territory by "rogue states", they are pushing ever more vigorously for the deployment of a national

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missile defense system. This has been agreed in principle and, provided technical feasibility is ensured, the development of such a system is to begin in 2005 if, as generally expected, the president gives the go-ahead in July 2000.

The consequences of such a step are obvious: nuclear disarmament will - in the best-case scenario - be frozen, but it is more likely a new nuclear arms race will ensue worldwide that would finally spell the end of the NPT. We can only hope the United States will honor its pledge to build no defense system in breach of the ABM Treaty, that is, will proceed in agreement with Russia. However, senior officials in Washington have already let it be known they might in the end go ahead regardless of the ABM Treaty.

It is clearly going to be an immense challenge to adapt the ABM Treaty to the changing environment. Whether Russia can be persuaded to agree to the development of a precisely defined defense system designed solely to counter a very limited missile attack is very doubtful. Russia currently lacks both the financial and technical resources to follow suit. Incentives would have to be found to guarantee Russia continued strategic parity and to take into account its limited capacity to maintain a strategic nuclear-weapon arsenal on the same scale as hitherto. The key might lie in agreeing on ceilings below those envisaged in the START III talks, provided Russia can be sure the deterrent effect of these systems will not be significantly undermined by an American missile defense system. It is evident, too, from the protests made against such a system by China (although it is not even a party to the ABM Treaty) that reaching an American-Russian understanding on the future of the treaty would hardly resolve the problem. China also sees its strategic security interests threatened and will seek means of its own to counter the threat. Given its technical and financial resources, that can only mean faster modernization and enhanced development of its own strategic nuclear arsenal. How the ABM Treaty could be adapted - as the United States would like - to take account of such a development is difficult to conceive. The treaty would have to be made multilateral in effect. Perhaps entirely different approaches should be found to organize at global level a system of defense against isolated missile attacks either by rogue states or as a result of technical failures, although it appears utopian today to imagine an American system under United Nations auspices providing a global shield against missile attack. At any rate arms control clearly has enormous challenges ahead. Should present instruments fail, a new nuclear arms race is inevitable.

That brings into sharp focus the intimate link between nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Progress on the one is contingent on progress on the other. In a wider context that goes also for worldwide implementation of the bans on chemical and biological weapons. Vigorous efforts are called for both to make headway on implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention and to agree on an urgently needed substantive verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. Unless these instruments prove effective, there is a growing danger of biological and chemical weapons proliferation. That could result in a growing temptation to deploy nuclear weapons to deter increased threats from chemical and above all from biological weapons. A dangerous reevaluation of nuclear options could be the outcome.

Prospects for the future do not therefore look very bright. Yet there is no reasonable alternative but to resolutely pursue our chosen path of building cooperative security. Germany is strongly committed to this path and will do its utmost to strengthen the whole range of disarmament and arms control instruments. This, we are convinced, is also the best way to effectively prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and finally bring us nearer the goal of a world rid of such weapons for ever.

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

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