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Thursday, April 22, 2004

Bush's blinkered nonproliferation policy

Special to The Japan Times

NEW DELHI -- Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have emerged as the two most pressing issues in international relations. Since 9/11, the United States has used the two to advance its strategic interests, linking them to reinforce international concerns about a terror-WMD nexus. This has enabled Washington to base its forces in the largest array of nations since World War II and internationalize its coercive counter-proliferation strategy through the new Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

In promoting largely near-term U.S. interests, the Bush administration, however, has shown a remarkable lack of forethought. The U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the ensuing bloodshed and disorder there, have derailed the U.S.-led global war on terror. Less visible is the damage America has wreaked to a long-standing cause central to its interests -- nonproliferation.

The cases of Iraq and Pakistan, for polar-opposite reasons, have helped weaken nonproliferation. The U.S. invaded Iraq to eliminate WMD that were not there but has allowed terrorist-haven Pakistan, with real WMD, to escape international censure for selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya. By condoning the worst proliferation scandal in world history -- that too involving nuclear sales to nations Washington labels as "rogue states" -- a dangerous precedent has been set in international relations.

If nonproliferation is to be a genuine global norm, and if the nonproliferation regime is to survive and do its job, it is important to endow it with consistency, credibility and commitment. Recent events have made nonproliferation less credible and respectable as a norm.

To be sure, few want a world bristling with WMD, especially in the hands of failed or failing states. But from invading and occupying Iraq, to pursuing diplomacy and complex six-party negotiations with North Korea, to seeking to penalize Iran through the International Atomic Energy Agency, to unilaterally rewarding Pakistan, the U.S. has set four distinct and contradictory models since last year on how to deal with proliferation, alleged or real.

More troubling is Washington's tacit acknowledgment that it regards the fight against terrorism more important than the fight against proliferation, as if such a preference is viable. Washington's response to revelations on the illicit Pakistani nuclear exports was to oppose international scrutiny of Islamabad, let alone censure or a penalty, on grounds that the battle against al-Qaeda could be undermined. As documents from the purported Pakistani inquiry have not been turned over to the IAEA for inspection and no evidence exists that the various links in the elaborate Pakistani nuclear-supply chain have been identified and unplugged, can there be any reasonable assurance against similar proliferation in the future?

No mission can succeed in today's world without international acceptability and consensus. The world's sole superpower may have the power to do as it pleases, but not the power to either pacify nations it intervenes in or win international obedience. Because America can only lead by example, nonproliferation is proving problematic to an administration in Washington that differentiates between tolerable and intolerable proliferation, and whose arms-control record includes torpedoing international treaties.

Seeking to salvage American nonproliferation policy from his handling of Pakistan and Iraq, President George W. Bush laid out seven new proposals in a Feb. 11 speech that signaled his readiness to shift to some cooperative efforts owing to the rising costs of his unilateral actions. However, from proposing a special IAEA committee on inspections to advocating two separate types of a blanket multilateral ban on nuclear sales, Bush displayed his penchant to lead by diktat.

Damaged credibility on nonproliferation cannot be repaired through tough rhetoric or through sweeping proposals to outlaw all nuclear sales to states that have not signed the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) -- which permits unannounced inspections -- or to contravene the NPT and ban transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to those that do not already have such capabilities. If Bush is trying to put his money where his mouth is, it is only on one issue -- the controversial PSI.

The operationally active PSI, also known as the Madrid Initiative for the city where agreement was reached among the 11 original participating nations, including Japan, is advertised as partnerships among countries working in concert and employing their national capabilities. In reality, it is a muscle-flexing, action-driven venture to interdict WMD shipments at sea, in the air and on land. With its loathing of the United Nations, the Bush administration set this up as part of yet another "coalition of the willing."

How loose or flexible this 10-month-old "political arrangement" is can be seen from its lack of clear guidelines on what to and how to target. Not all WMD trade is subject to interdiction. Rather, the hunt is for shipments to "rogue states and terrorists" as may be politically identified.

Non-WMD shipments of a target state are not necessarily exempt. For example, to help soften Pyongyang's position in negotiations, Japanese security agencies, at America's urging, boarded and detained several North Korean vessels last year carrying commercial exports, such as crabs. In fact, to deter controversy and insulate it from public pressures, PSI has decided not to publicize its interdictions.

PSI, with 14 member-nations now, exemplifies the Bush administration's partiality toward a new force-based approach over the traditional treaty-based approach to nonproliferation. Washington, even so, wants to savor the best of both worlds: While propping up the NPT regime, it wants to be free to coercively deal with any activity it classifies as proliferation.

PSI, actually, is not nonproliferation but counter-proliferation, an infamous U.S. initiative from the early 1990s fashioning coercive antiproliferation unilateral measures. The specter of terrorists acquiring WMD has helped the U.S. to multilaterally package as PSI what was previously unacceptable even to its close allies. On its face, PSI seeks to lend respectability to counter-proliferation. More ominously, it suggests coercive enforcement is likely to be the trend of the future.

To help overcome PSI's insufficient grounding in international law, interdiction accords are being signed with flag states, transshipment states, overflight states, transit states and coastal states. Advance consent is sought from nations to stop and board ships flying their flag. By seeking to involve as many nations as possible in PSI, directly or indirectly, the Bush team aims to make coercive counter-proliferation internationally permissible and provide it more space by persuading others to expand relevant domestic and international law, including through a U.N. Security Council resolution to criminalize proliferation.

One problem with PSI is that it wants to deal with proliferation that may occur in the future but not with proliferation that has come to light -- the audacious Pakistani nuclear transfers to two-thirds of Bush's "axis of evil" as well as the nation behind the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing. Having recently designated Pakistan as its "major non-NATO ally," Washington is loath even to employ PSI interdiction to monitor Pakistani export activity.

Another problem is that PSI presents itself as an enterprise in search of targets. Libya has come clean; Iran has yielded to the IAEA; Pakistan has become a major U.S. ally; and a new round of six-party talks is expected before the end of June on North Korean proliferation. There is no other "problem state" in the world.

Yet, this does not mean that PSI has no existing targets or it is not probing new targets. North Korea and Iran currently are on PSI's hit list. Although Iran has now accepted tough, new IAEA inspections on its nuclear facilities and voluntarily suspended its uranium-enrichment program, the IAEA insists that Tehran account for the discovery of traces of enriched uranium, of 36 percent purity, on secondhand centrifuges imported from Pakistan's black market. Islamabad, of course, is keeping mum on this matter.

U.S.-Iran rapprochement would dramatically alter the strategic landscape from the Persian Gulf to Pakistan, aid U.S. interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and help build a modern, moderate Islamic Iran. But the blinkered neocons in Washington, by persuading Bush to spurn Iranian overtures and maintain pressure on Tehran, have ensured that the ayatollahs continue to call the shots.

The fundamental problem is that the Bush team views the fight against proliferation, like the war on terror, as an ideological battle that America must employ -- in the style of the Cold War-era fight against communism -- to serve its narrow interests. In the process, it is overlooking the fact that coercive enforcement could end up damaging nonproliferation. The readiness to use force to counter proliferation -- whether unilaterally or multilaterally -- can only decrease the chances of building and sustaining international cooperation and consensus. Over time, states will begin to see less incentive to lend cooperation in critical areas.

As with the long-pending reform of the obsolescent U.N. Security Council, the propensity is to shy away from tailoring the NPT regime to fit 21st-century realities. Instead, as shown by PSI, the preference is for improvised new arrangements that reinforce the existing maladies and imbalance. As IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei warns: "We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction, yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security -- and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use."

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research.

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