Published on Thursday, June 15, 2000 in the Washington Post
Clinton's Star Wars Plan Undermining US Arms Control Goals
by William Drozdiak
VIENNA - The United States' campaign to develop a national missile defense system has intensified doubts abroad about its commitment to arms control, which in turn is undermining a key U.S. foreign policy goal: strengthening safeguards against the spread of nuclear weapons.
The U.S. interest in a missile shield, combined with last fall's Senate rejection of a treaty that would ban all nuclear tests, has led friends and foes alike to believe that the United States is turning away from multilateral arms control solutions and is pursuing unilateral policies that emphasize the security of U.S. territory.
That skepticism is eroding international support for a U.S.-backed measure providing for stronger protections to uphold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which was signed by 187 nations.
According to diplomats and senior U.N. arms control officials here, the campaign to get countries to go along with new, extensive inspections of nuclear facilities has lost momentum. Such checks are considered vital to sustaining confidence in the delicate process that has curbed the growth of nuclear powers.
"The Senate vote against the ban on nuclear tests was a devastating blow to our efforts to gain acceptance of more intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities around the world," said Mohamed Elbaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization responsible for the inspections.
Elbaradei had proposed this year as a target for applying the expanded inspection system in most countries. Instead, while the traditional and more limited inspections continue everywhere, fewer than 60 of the 187 nations that signed the NPT have agreed to participate in the expanded system.
"Innovations like this require diplomatic momentum, and without the U.S. in the lead, momentum disappears," said a senior IAEA expert who helped design the new inspection system. The system gives inspectors greater access and involves the use of advanced technology, such as isotopic analysis and high-resolution satellite photography.
"Even reliable countries are dragging their feet, asking why they should accept new burdens if America is turning its back on nuclear disarmament," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Until they are on board, we can't begin to put pressure on suspect countries to sign up."
Two important U.S. allies, Germany and Japan, are among those that have not yet signed up for intrusive inspections.
Many arms control experts here are baffled over why the United States is taking a unilateral approach when there is a large body of evidence that shows how the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Iran and Iraq have been effectively contained through diplomatic initiatives that succeeded in putting international inspectors in those countries. Many U.N. officials say that kind of engagement and hard-nosed diplomacy is far more effective than any missile shield in protecting the United States and its allies.
Officials here contend that unless Washington reasserts leadership over global arms control efforts, the NPT could be fatally weakened. In the worst case, a nuclear arms race could escalate at several flash points, including the Middle East and South and East Asia.
But experts also worry about a scenario deemed far more likely: that the current backsliding on intrusive inspections could result in the loss of the world's best insurance policy to detect and respond to cheating by "rogue states," such as North Korea and Iraq, that seek to acquire nuclear weapons.
"The greater danger is not that the NPT will dissolve, but that it will atrophy," said John B. Ritch, the U.S. ambassador to U.N. arms control agencies here. "This would leave the United States and everybody else without the full security benefit we have worked so hard to obtain. The new system of intrusive inspections isn't perfect, but it offers the potent combination of a serious deterrent and an early warning system."
In the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq was found to have deceived the world with its clandestine nuclear weapons program, the United States led the way in promoting a more robust system of international safeguards.
Three years ago, the Clinton administration won unanimous agreement from all 187 NPT countries on a plan for intrusive inspections that would allow IAEA teams broad and unprecedented access to investigate suspicious activities. Each country was expected to sign a formal contract with the IAEA on how to conduct the more elaborate inspections.
Getting the world to accept this plan was a critical step in fortifying the NPT, which has been a quiet but remarkable success. Only three countries--Israel, India and Pakistan--have declined to adopt the NPT. All other countries have formally pledged to forgo nuclear weapons and accept IAEA inspections.
But the United States contends there's a new risk. It says North Korea, Iran and Iraq--despite being subject to IAEA inspections--may soon acquire ballistic missiles armed with nuclear, biological or chemical warheads that could threaten U.S. territory. The premise that North Korea and Iran could possess this capability by 2005, and Iraq by 2010, is driving plans for the national missile defense system.
This assessment is being challenged by a growing number of critics, who say that U.S. officials are exaggerating both the capabilities of these states to develop long-range missiles and clandestine weapons of mass destruction, and their motivations to use them.
"Fifteen years ago, the ballistic missile threat confronting the United States was many times greater than it is today," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The nations now attempting to perfect long-range missiles are much smaller, poorer and less technologically advanced than were the nations with missile programs 15 years ago."
Regardless of the gravity of the threat, much of the rest of the world sees the U.S. quest for a missile shield, along with the Senate vote rejecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as signals that the United States is turning its back on arms control.
Some U.N. arms control officials say they think the U.S. missile shield, which the Clinton administration is currently considering building, is designed to allow the United States to regain a measure of its early nuclear weapons monopoly. They worry over apparent U.S. willingness to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, widely seen as the cornerstone of arms control, which would have to be amended to allow for the missile shield.
They also cite Washington's continuing refusal to go below 2,000 nuclear warheads in any future strategic weapons deal with the Russians as proof it has no intention of fulfilling promises to work toward the eventual abolition of all nuclear weapons.
"This American search for a perfect security environment only heightens the sense of insecurity for the rest of us," said a senior European diplomat. "In the end, any missile defense system in the United States will only provide a pretext for other nations to build more sophisticated offensive weapons. So ironically, even for the United States, the result will be less security."
Many diplomats say the challenge now is to remind the United States of its own success in leading a collective diplomatic effort that has largely thwarted the threat of nuclear proliferation.
In North Korea, the United States has succeeded in negotiating a suspension of missile tests and a halt to work at nuclear facilities, which are closely monitored by a large and permanent team of international inspectors.
In Iraq, the IAEA spent six years dismantling President Saddam Hussein's nuclear facilities. Although no inspectors have been allowed in since U.N. teams were expelled 18 months ago, Iraq's military threat to its neighbors has continued to be sapped by stringent economic sanctions and a persistent bombing campaign by the United States and Britain.
And in Iran, President Mohammed Khatemi's quest for improved contacts with the West has produced greater cooperation in allowing the international community to monitor its nuclear activities. Inspectors have been allowed to visit every known nuclear site, including a new uranium conversion plant in Isfahan and a large reactor in Bushehr that was damaged during the war with Iraq in the 1980s but is now being repaired with the help of 700 Russian workers.
"The more we engage with these states rather than isolate them, the better chances we have of inducing good behavior and preventing extremists from getting the upper hand," Elbaradei said.
If the campaign to put into place a more intrusive regime of inspections can be revived, experts say, the chances that Iran or any other state could ever develop a secret arsenal of nuclear weapons would be minimized.
"Even before the new system was designed, the cases of Iraq and North Korea showed the power of an NPT violation to rally an international response," said Ritch. "There's no question that continuing to build this system as our first line of defense against the spread of nuclear weapons is a fundamental American interest."