PARIS - Behind the missile defense debate and the dispute about greenhouse gases lurks another, potentially even more divisive trans-Atlantic disagreement, on how best to counter the spread of biological weapons.
Given the breakthroughs in genetic engineering, biological warfare may be to the new century what the threat of nuclear weapons was to the previous one. Effective multilateral measures to head off the threat are essential, but they will only work if there is agreement between the United States and Europe.
Unfortunately, all is now set for a momentous head-on collision between U.S. unilateralism and attempts by the Europeans and other Western states to craft a multilateral verification regime.
In principle, the production and use of biological weapons have been banned since 1972 by an international treaty that 143 states, including all the major military powers, have signed and ratified. Unfortunately, this treaty contains no verification mechanism. This glaring omission was exploited by countries such as the Soviet Union, which operated the giant "Biopreparat" complex exclusively dedicated to germ warfare.
The growing military potential of biological weapons has given new urgency to the establishment of a verification mechanism. Since 1993 an ad hoc group, the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament - which includes nearly all militarily significant countries, not least the United States - has been working toward a draft verification protocol.
This summer, the members of the working group are supposed to eliminate the remaining areas of dispute in the draft protocol. Not surprisingly, countries such as China or Iran are not particularly eager to facilitate such an outcome. However, Beijing or Tehran would hesitate to single themselves out as proponents of germ warfare if other members of the international community supported the protocol.
Here is where the potential tragedy begins, with the distinct possibility that the United States will join China and Iran in their obstruction. An initial interagency review in Washington has come to the conclusion that the United States should not press for the conclusion of the protocol.
Three reasons are given for this U.S. stance. First, the verification measures are considered a possible hindrance to legitimate efforts at defense against biological warfare, since such efforts involve technical work on biological weapons. Other military powers, including U.S. allies in Europe, do not consider such a concern as a show-stopper. Yet the governments of Britain, France and Germany are no less interested than the United States in ensuring the safety of their soldiers and civilians.
Second, the verification regime is considered a threat to the growth of the biotechnology industry, notably in the pharmaceutical sector. Yet Europe, with its world-class Swiss, German and French pharmaceutical industries, has come to terms with the protocol. The difference between the United States and Europe is that lobbying by the "pharmas" is allowed to influence policy in Washington in a way that does not occur in Europe.
Last, the Americans believe that the verification protocol is exceedingly weak in terms of detecting potential violators. No verification regime is perfect and biological warfare is a particularly difficult area. Even the United Nations' highly intrusive inspections in Iraq could not provide 100 percent assurance of Baghdad's compliance.
The question here should not be "Is this regime foolproof?" since the answer, as for any arms control treaty, can only be "No." The relevant query is: "What are the alternatives?" America's impossible quest for a perfect verification regime plays into the hands of countries that would prefer no verification.
If President George W. Bush reverses the unilateralist and rejectionist course of U.S. policy on biological weapons within the next few weeks, the United States, Europe and like-minded countries will probably be able to carry with them the bulk of the international community, as they did in the mid-'90s with the treaty banning chemical weapons.
Otherwise, we will have something even worse than the U.S.-European clash on the Kyoto Protocol. The United States would have a particularly hard time explaining why its bottom line is the same as that of countries such as Iran or China.
The world will not thank those who refuse to take even imperfect measures to curb the man-made plagues that unbridled use of biotechnology threatens to release.
The writer, director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research and chairman of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
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