Unfinished agenda

Print edition : May 27, 2000

At the NPT Review Conference, the United States has successfully deflected the worldwide concerns about its national missile defence system. And the disarmament scenario remains as hazy as ever.


AS the Sixth Review Conference (RevCon VI) on the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered its final week in the second half of May, few people were willing to make any guesses about its final outcome. In many senses, the stakes in Re vCon VI were substantial for the signatories to the NPT (called "States Parties"). Of the five preceding review conferences, three had ended in acrimony, with no consensus among the signatory countries. The indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 had hei ghtened the need of certain countries to see that the traditionally skewed ascription of rights and responsibilities under the treaty was suitably redressed. But the Nuclear Weapons States (NWSs) and in particular, the United States, had in a matter of f ive years suffered an acute attack of fresh security anxieties, which made a narrowing of divergences improbable.

RevCon VI began in New York on April 24 with the unanimous election of the Algerian delegate Abdallah Baali as president. It had since been constituted into three "Main Committees" and a number of "Subsidiary Bodies" to deliberate over the principal poin ts at issue. When the final week commenced, draft texts had been forwarded by all the Main Committees and Subsidiary Bodies to the plenary session for adoption. However, consensus had proved elusive on all the drafts. The contestation over phraseology an d language, the line-by-line war of attrition over declarations of intent and purpose, promised to continue from the committees into the plenary.

The U.S., though the principal player in the bargaining, was discreetly reserving its most decisive interventions for the end. It is known to have strong views on three of the fundamental issues that the more active of the non-nuclear weapons states (non -NWSs) have been advocating - universality, security assurances and nuclear disarmament. These are issues which go to the very core of the NPT if it is to be sustained as a credible global compact. And in all these respects the U.S. happens to be on the wrong side of global opinion.

Where universality is concerned, the Arab states that are signatories to the NPT have been insisting that Israel must be brought on board the treaty as a non-NWS. The U.S. has consistently opposed the singling out of Israel. On security assurances, the c onsensus among most non-NWSs is that signatories to the NPT must be assured of immunity from nuclear attack in a legally enforceable manner. The U.S., for its part, prefers a highly qualified variant of these so-called "negative security assurances". In terms of its current nuclear weapons doctrine, as enshrined in Presidential Decision Directive 60, the U.S. will consider the application of nuclear weapons against states that have prospective nuclear weapons capability, states that possess chemical or biological munitions, and states that engage in an act of war against an ally of the U.S. in league with a NWS.

Disarmament obligations imposed under Article VI of the NPT constitute the most thorny problem. The U.S., as also the three other "western" NWSs - France, the U.K. and Russia - have insisted that the negotiations in "good faith" envisaged under Article V I have been making reasonable progress and will continue to do so. China has been the exception among the five NWSs, making common cause with the non-aligned and other nations in calling for an accelerated timetable for the elimination of nuclear weapons . Incidentally, China has a standpoint on security assurances too that puts it virtually in the ranks of the non-NWSs. It has consistently upheld its pledge that it would not even consider using nuclear weapons against a state that is not similarly armed and has urged other weapons states to follow its example.

RevCon VI began in an atmosphere of some uncertainty as far as the global disarmament agenda was concerned. Significant progress had been registered with the ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-II) by the Russian Duma, as also its approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). But Russia made it clear that these concessions were provisional in nature. The immediate threat to their sustenance was the U.S. effort to put in place an ambitious - and ultimately rather implausibl e - national missile defence (NMD) system.

Although ostensibly designed to defend American territory against missiles launched from the putative "rogue states" that the U.S. has designated around the globe, the NMD programme involves the amendment or abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM ) Treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1972. As the designated successor, Russia believes that the ABM Treaty retains its validity, while right-wing elements in the U.S. Senate, insist that it has lapsed with the break-up of the Soviet state. And even if this far-fetched interpretation were to be discounted, Senate Republicans are pushing for the amendment of the ABM Treaty or its unilateral abrogation, in order to enable development work to proceed on an NMD system.

The preponderance of scientific opinion holds that an NMD system would be unworkable, expensive and unnecessary. The community of strategic affairs analysts, backed by a powerful lobby of defence contractors, thinks otherwise. Former U.S. Secretary of St ate Henry Kissinger has, for instance, identified NMD as a necessity in both "moral" and "strategic" terms. Its strategic rationale derives from the reality that missile and nuclear technology knowhow is now more widely dispersed than before, often comin g into the hands of states that have a long history of enmity towards the U.S. And its moral basis lies in the fact that the Cold War doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" is no longer acceptable.

This rationalisation begs the question that Russia and China have deep reservations about the NMD programme. The foundation of strategic stability as bequeathed by the years of unfettered nuclear competition during the Cold War lies in the ability of one side to inflict "unacceptable damage" on the other. "Mutually Assured Destruction", or MAD, is the logical reductio ad absurdum of these bizarre excesses of deterrence theory. But when one side in the uneasy equilibrium of forces seeks to rewrite the rules by deploying a missile defence system, the other sides are impelled to increase their offensive capability. The underlying principle is the old nuclear age dictum consecrated by Cold War ideologues like Robert McNamara: that a good offence can beat any defence.

Addressing the plenary session of RevCon VI, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought to put as innocuous a construction as possible on the decision to proceed with NMD: "The world has changed dramatically in the almost three decades since the A BM Treaty was signed. That treaty has been amended before, and there is no good reason it cannot be amended again to reflect new threats from third countries outside the strategic deterrence regime... And please remember that we are talking about a syste m capable of defending against at most a few tens of incoming missiles. It is not intended to degrade Russia's deterrent. Nor will it have that result".

Albright's pleas failed to carry much credibility. Both Russia and China were scathing in their denunciation of the planned missile defence system. And even allies of the U.S., such as Canada and the European Union, insisted that global arms control proc esses needed to be irreversible. Gains once registered could not be undone. This demanded at the minimum that the ABM Treaty be preserved and the world move onto other areas of shared concern.

The NMD proposal showed the potential to wreck irrevocably any hope of consensus at RevCon VI, until the five NWSs, by some miracle of draftsmanship, produced a joint declaration pledging their commitment to disarmament under Article VI. In presenting th is declaration to the RevCon plenary, the French delegate Hubert de La Fortelle drew attention to the clause which stated that none of the nuclear weapons in existing arsenals was "targeted at any state".

This affirmation was not given much credence, since targeting decisions can be altered in a matter of minutes. What did, however, defuse the potential for trouble was the declaration of the five nuclear powers that they were committed to "preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons".

By implication, then, the U.S. was committed to honouring the ABM Treaty in all its clauses. Given the climate of domestic political opinion in the U.S., though, such a conclusion would seem implausible. The wording of the nuclear powers' declaration is in this sense difficult to fathom. But it had the immediate effect of taking NMD out of the agenda of RevCon VI.

The earlier U.S. strategy had been to deflect criticism on this score from non-NWSs by arguing that the ABM Treaty was strictly a matter between itself and Russia. Dissident groupings within the RevCon argued, with great credibility, that if the immediat e consequence of NMD deployment was to provide an incentive for augmenting the offensive capabilities of the Russian and Chinese arsenals, then it had a direct bearing on the disarmament commitments inherent in Article VI. Not only would it impinge on th e tortuous and tardy progress under START but it could play havoc with the effort to cap and control the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Documents published during RevCon VI by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists drew attention to these long-term hazards of NMD deployment. Meeting in Geneva early this year, Russian and American negotiators exchanged notes about the scope of futur e arms reduction under the START process. The Russian side proposed that in comparison to the agreed START-II level of 3,000 to 3,500 deployed nuclear warheads, START-III should aim at a reduction to the region of 1,500. The Americans, however, demurred. They conceived of an arsenal of around 2,000 deployed warheads maintained in constant alert. The idea was in part to allay Russian fears that the NMD proposal would seriously degrade its strategic deterrence capability.

A decade after the end of the Cold War, American negotiators in Geneva submitted a note to their Russian counterparts which effectively ruled out any meaningful disarmament moves into the distant future: "Both the United States of America and the Russian Federation now possess and, as before, will possess under the terms of any possible future arms reduction agreements, large, diversified, viable arsenals of strategic offensive weapons consisting of various types of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic mis siles), submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers". Strategic offensive forces of this scale, the note continued, "gave each side the certain ability to carry out an annihilating counterattack on the other side regardless of the conditions under which the war began". And then came the effort at reassurance: "Forces of this size can easily penetrate a limited NMD system of the type that the United States is now developing."

In effect, in order to rationalise its paranoia about rogue states, the U.S. was encouraging Russia to maintain its immense and aging arsenal in a state of constant alert. As The New York Times commented, it appeared as if the U.S. was trying to p ersuade Russia "that the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction ... remains in place and would survive the deployment of any anti-missile system".

RevCon VI failed to address meaningfully the dangers inherent in the latest U.S. moves. But evidence is available of a far more expansive NMD system than is publicly acknowledged by the U.S. administration. A Norwegian journalist, Inge Sellevag, had poin ted out as far back as April 1998 that a radar installation being set up in that country in a military intelligence facility seemed clearly intended for NMD applications. The official explanation from both the U.S. and Norway is that the installation is intended to track "space junk" in high earth orbit. But as Professor Theodore Postel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, this is a patent misrepresentation: "Space junk is no trivia l matter. There are many thousands of manmade objects orbiting earth, ranging in size from paint flecks and nuts and bolts to booster rockets. But the (location of the radar in Norway) is nearly the last place on earth one would choose for a radar with t he purpose of tracking space debris. Because many objects of concern are in orbits that can never be seen from a far north location, a space tracking installation is in fact best placed much closer to the equator."

Clearly, the NPT review process has fallen victim to some rather serious dissimulation. U.S. pressure tactics could also account for the relative quiescence which the Russian Federation has shown, despite mounting evidence that NMD is much more than the modest programme it is made out to be. But the disarmament dialogue is clearly heading into directions where the majority of the world community would be excluded. In failing to challenge the U.S. on NMD, RevCon VI may well be on its way to renewing the licence that the U.S. has always enjoyed for untrammelled nuclear proliferation.

The preliminary draft submitted by Main Committee I to the RevCon plenary "condemns" India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests of 1998 and urges them to fall in line with the restraint measures prescribed in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1172. It als o invites all four non-signatories - India, Pakistan, Cuba and Israel - to join the NPT as non-NWSs. Whatever other changes the draft may undergo in the final week, these sections are almost certain to be retained. The only likely concession could be wre sted by Israel, since the U.S. has been insistent that its accession could only come about as a culmination to the peace process in West Asia.

Perhaps in a preemptive move, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh delivered a suo motu statement to Parliament on May 11. After outlining the reasons why India had chosen consistently to stay out of the NPT regime, he articulated the new global strateg ic perspectives of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, of which the key premises could be reproduced in the language of the original: "India is a nuclear weapons state. Though not a party to the NPT, India's policies have been consistent with the key pr ovisions of NPT that apply to nuclear weapons states. These provisions are contained in Articles I, III and VI. Article I obliges a nuclear weapons state not to transfer nuclear weapons to any other country or assist any other country to acquire them and India's record on non-proliferation has been impeccable. Article III requires a party to the Treaty to provide nuclear materials and related equipment to any other country only under safeguards; India's exports of such materials have always been under s afeguards. Article VI commits the parties to pursue negotiations to bring about eventual global nuclear disarmament. It needs to be emphasised that India today is the only nuclear weapon state that remains committed to commencing negotiations for a nucle ar weapons convention, in order to bring about a nuclear-weapon-free world, the very objective envisaged in Article VI of the NPT."

After this chronicle of self-denial, Jaswant Singh sought to record some of the more positive initiatives that India had made towards nuclear disarmament. He concluded with the assertion that India could never join the NPT as a non-NWS: "Statements by NP T States Parties about India rolling back its nuclear programme are mere diversions to prevent focussed attention on the basic goals of the NPT."

It remains to be clarified whether the Vajpayee government would conceive of joining the NPT as a NWS. This possibility is of course entirely hypothetical, since it has been repeatedly ruled out of court by the arbiters of the global nuclear bargain. But the long-running "strategic dialogue" with the U.S. and the newfound concord in overseeing a security paradigm for Asia, hint at certain bargains that have been offered if not struck. A full disclosure of the content and purposes of the Jaswant Singh-St robe Talbott talks, for instance, could clarify how much of the initiative India has actually surrendered in global disarmament forums.

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