Back to the Cold War?

Michael Byers: the return of the nuclear threat

In Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a crazed American general launches an unauthorised nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. The film disturbed audiences in 1963 with its portrayal of how close the world actually was to Armageddon as a result of the hair-trigger procedures necessary to provide deterrence through ‘mutually assured destruction’. Nearly forty years later, a threat of perhaps even greater magnitude has materialised in Washington. In January 1999 Congress adopted an Act announcing ‘the policy of the United States to deploy as soon as is technologically possible an effective National Missile Defense system capable of defending the territory of the United States against limited ballistic missile attack’. When President Clinton signed the law in July 1999, he stated: ‘Next year, we will, for the first time, determine whether to deploy a limited National Missile Defense.’ That decision is fast approaching.

Referred to by some of its proponents as ‘son of Star Wars’, the NMD system is a scaled-down version of Ronald Reagan’s plan to use land, sea and satellite-based lasers to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles before they could hit the US. Although the new system would use missiles instead of lasers, the technology needed to ‘stop a bullet with a bullet’ is still highly complex, enormously expensive and imperfect. The US military has conducted two tests in the last year: only one succeeded. Clinton’s decision to build the NMD system will be based on a third test in July – a test that, even if successful, will do nothing to demonstrate the system’s ability to deal with multiple launches and decoys.

The advocates of an NMD system claim that it is needed to guard against ‘rogue states’ such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran, all of which are developing long-range missiles. Other countries, particularly China and Russia, are worried that a successful system would undermine the deterrence effect of their own nuclear forces, opening the door to American threats or attacks. They are also concerned that such a system would inevitably be expanded into the full defensive shield envisaged by Reagan in 1983.

The NMD system would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was adopted by the US and the Soviet Union in order to prohibit precisely this kind of project. The ABM treaty permits the ownership of one anti-ballistic missile system covering an area 150 km in radius. The Russian system is in place around Moscow; the American system protects the intercontinental ballistic missile sites in North Dakota. President Clinton would like to amend the ABM treaty so as to allow the construction of another, continent-wide system, the first phase of which would be based in Alaska. During his summit meeting with Vladimir Putin earlier this month, changes to the treaty were at the top of his negotiating agenda. But the Russian President rejected Clinton’s overtures, stating that the proposed system would represent ‘a cure which is worse than the disease’.

Clinton must have realised that Putin would be a difficult negotiating partner. He is a former KGB agent and his brief tenure as President has been marked by a belligerent stance towards opponents, whether at home or abroad – as Mary Robinson discovered when she dared to criticise his Government for human-rights violations in Chechnya. His brutal suppression of that independence movement and his renouncing of the no-first-strike principle of Russian nuclear strategy provided clear indications that he would refuse to renegotiate and alter a treaty that currently serves his country’s interests. Simply put, Russia does not have enough money to develop a new anti-ballistic missile system of its own, and therefore has no inclination to modify the ABM treaty.

Clinton’s capacity to negotiate was also limited by problems at home, most notably the vitriolic opposition of Jesse Helms. The 79-year-old, wheelchair-bound senator opposes virtually all treaties on the basis that other countries cannot be trusted to uphold their commitments and that the US is better off dealing with international issues on its own. As Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for almost twenty years, he exercises considerable influence over foreign policy. The President needs the support of at least two-thirds of the Senate before he can ratify a treaty, and the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee has the power to extend consideration of any treaty for years – as he waits for the opportune moment to call a vote. In part because of Helms’s influence, the US has in recent decades ratified remarkably few treaties. Even the most compelling of agreements have been denied Senate support. Only two countries have failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Somalia – a country without a government – and the US. The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Land Mines Convention and the Rome Statute for an International Criminal Court are all resolutely opposed by Helms.

The fact that the US is nearly two billion dollars in arrears on its UN dues is also directly attributable to Helms. His influence in this respect has been recognised by the members of the Security Council, who invited him to address them last November. Helms is the first and only senator ever to be asked to do so. The following passage from his speech to the Security Council is illustrative of his view that, while international law might bind other countries, it in no way overrides the will of Congress:

Under our system, when international treaties are ratified they simply become domestic US law. As such, they carry no greater or lesser weight than any other domestic US law. Treaty obligations can be superseded by a simple act of Congress. This was the intentional design of our founding fathers, who cautioned against entering into ‘entangling alliances’.

Thus, when the United States joins a treaty organisation, it holds no legal authority over us. We abide by our treaty obligations because they are the domestic law of our land, and because our elected leaders have judged that the agreement serves our national interest. But no treaty or law can ever supersede the one document that all Americans hold sacred: the US Constitution.

Helms recently led a successful campaign against US ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would have banned all physical testing of nuclear weapons. It was clearly in the American national interest because the military has computer systems that enable virtual testing. Helms, however, felt that even this treaty unnecessarily restricted the nation’s autonomy.

Early efforts to negotiate a test ban treaty were initiated by Dwight Eisenhower, who described the failure to conclude an agreement as the ‘greatest disappointment’ of his administration. John Kennedy came closest to success when the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into force on 10 October 1963, just a few weeks before his assassination, though that treaty, which prohibited nuclear tests in the oceans, atmosphere and space, did not prohibit underground testing.

While considering the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Republican-dominated Senate was faced with more than just a long history of efforts by both political parties to develop an arms control regime. Polls showed that more than 80 per cent of Americans supported ratification of the treaty, and key allies – including Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder – urged the Senate to do likewise. Nevertheless, in October 1999, the Senate rejected it, in large part because Helms had arranged for the vote to be taken when Clinton’s influence was at its weakest. Battered by the impeachment process, approaching the final year of his second term and fighting to negotiate the budget through Congress, the President had little political capital to spend on defending the treaty.

The consequences of the Senate’s decision have been profound, not least in terms of America’s inability to discourage countries such as India and Pakistan from testing nuclear weapons. These countries have pointed to the Senate’s actions to justify their own refusals to ratify the Treaty.

Helms has now set his sights on the ABM treaty, which was concluded in 1972, the year he was first elected to the Senate. In 1999 he co-sponsored the legislation that forced Clinton to commit to a decision this year on whether to construct the NMD system. Helms takes the view that such a system could be built without any amendment of the ABM treaty because one of the two contracting parties – the Soviet Union – no longer exists. The fact that everyone else, including the US State Department, considers Russia to be the legal successor to all of the Soviet Union’s treaty obligations, is seemingly beside the point. And should Clinton agree with the rest of the world that the treaty is valid, and persist in seeking amendments, Helms has already said that these would be ‘dead on arrival’ in his committee.

Helms, a longtime supporter of Reagan’s Star Wars project, is hopeful that George W. Bush will be elected President in November. Bush supports the development of a robust NMD system, regardless of any violation of the ABM treaty. Al Gore, realising that he could lose votes by appearing soft on defence – and campaign contributions from the defence industry – is also cautiously supportive of the plan. Gore has not, however, expressed the same willingness to ignore international treaties and aggravate relations with Russia and China. By sponsoring legislation that will force the Clinton Administration to endorse or reject an NMD system, Helms has ensured that nuclear defence policy will be an issue in the Presidential campaign.

Putin is aware of the threat to the ABM treaty and has taken steps to put pressure on the US to support arms control. Under his influence, the Russian Duma has ratified both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1993 (Start II). The latter, which was ratified by the US in 1996, commits the US and Russia to reducing their respective strategic nuclear arsenals to between 3000 and 3500 warheads. This has enabled Putin to raise the stakes considerably, threatening that if the US withdraws from the ABM treaty, ‘we will withdraw not only from the Start II treaty, but from the whole system of treaties on limitation and control of strategic and conventional weapons.’ His preference, however, would be to conclude a further treaty (Start III) to reduce levels to between 1000 and 1500 warheads, cutting the costs of maintaining Russia’s ageing nuclear arsenal.

Clinton hoped that he could trade further reductions in warheads for amendments to the ABM treaty, enabling him to announce that he would build an NMD system once the amendments had been ratified by the Senate. This would have shifted the onus onto Helms – who had already committed himself to opposing any such amendments – and foiled Republican attempts to make nuclear defence policy an issue in the election campaign. The problem is that Russia could never agree to amendments to the ABM treaty and at the same time reduce its nuclear arsenal. The threat posed to Russian interests by the NMD system would dramatically increase as it reduced the number of its warheads and missiles under Start II and Start III. Fewer and fewer missiles would stand any chance of reaching the US, and the deterrence value of the Russian arsenal would decrease accordingly. From a military perspective, the only rational response to the NMD system would be to maintain, and strengthen, the existing Russian nuclear force.

China poses yet another problem, in that it maintains a relatively small number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and is therefore particularly susceptible to having its nuclear deterrence nullified by an American NMD system. The fact that the first phase of the proposed system would be built in Alaska increases Beijing’s concern, as does the fact that Helms is a longstanding opponent of China and an ardent supporter of Taiwan. In 1999 he sponsored the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. If adopted, this law would require the US Government to provide increased military support to the island, including a ‘theatre’ anti-missile defence system of its own. Moreover, Helms and others point to China’s recent acquisition of American nuclear secrets as further justification for the NMD system. Added to this is ongoing outrage about last year’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and controversy over whether Congress will approve ‘permanent normal trade relations’ with China. Although the House of Representatives has consented to the indefinite extension of ‘most favoured nation’ trading status, which had previously been renewed on an annual basis, the Senate is stalling, as Helms and his colleagues seek leverage over the President in this autumn’s budget negotiations. In short, development of the NMD system poses a serious threat to whatever is left of US-China relations. Reacting to what it perceives as hostile American policies, China may already be taking steps to produce more missiles capable of reaching the US. As its chief arms negotiator told the New York Times earlier this month, ‘How can we base our national security on your assurances of goodwill?’

Some of America’s allies have also voiced concern. Australia and Japan have cautioned the US about the Chinese reaction, while Germany and France have both said that the NMD system is contrary to European interests, in that it will replace a nuclear deterrence that has worked for all of Nato with a shield that protects only the United States. Clinton’s response has been to suggest that the same technology could eventually provide Europe with its own protective shield.

The British Government, increasingly willing to abandon its European allies in favour of its ‘special relationship’ with the US, is poised to throw its support behind the American plan. Senior Cabinet ministers are reported to have reacted favourably to suggestions that the US upgrade its radar centre at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, so as to enable the NMD system to respond to attacks from the Middle East.

It is difficult to believe that the British Government would want to support a policy that could destroy the entire arms control regime, threaten relations with Russia and China, and provoke another nuclear arms race. This is not simply a question of the ‘special relationship’ or of New Labour’s desire to see Al Gore elected President. By acting yet again as ‘Clinton’s poodle’ the Prime Minister is missing a major opportunity to play a mediating role in defence of world peace. Clinton owes Blair an enormous debt for his support during the Lewinsky crisis and over Kosovo. Putin is grateful for Blair’s visit to St Petersburg in March, before the Russian Presidential election, and for having been received in London in the face of widespread criticism of his handling of the crisis in Chechnya.

Blair would be wise to call in these debts, to remind Clinton of the enormous efforts that previous American Presidents made to construct and maintain the current arms control regime. He should seek to convince the President that the lack of a foreign policy legacy is a price worth paying for maintaining nuclear stability. At the same time, he might encourage Putin not to pursue the arms control issue until after the American elections, and in the interim at least to uphold Russia’s own treaty commitments. On the one hand, progress in arms control is simply not going to happen between now and January 2001, when the next American President takes office. On the other, an overly bellicose position on the part of the Russian President could be very damaging.

Whether he realises it or not, the current crisis over nuclear weapons may be the most important foreign policy issue that Tony Blair will ever face. For though terrible injustices are being committed in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone, Dr Strangelove lives in Washington.