The Blog

Arms Control

The Cold War was won at Reykjavik. The Senate's defeat of the test ban treaty is Reykjavik II.

11:00 PM, Oct 31, 1999 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



Zbigniew Brzezinski is not alone in his judgment that the Cold War was won in 1986 at Reykjavik, though the fact that Brzezinski was President Carter's national security adviser shows that this is no partisan judgment. At Reykjavik, Ronald Reagan was offered the most sweeping arms control proposal in history. And he would have accepted it -- had Mikhail Gorbachev not insisted that the price was American surrender of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan walked out, stunning not just Gorbachev, but the entire American foreign policy establishment.


The importance of Reykjavik to winning the Cold War was that it kept American missile defense alive and made Gorbachev understand that nothing would stand in its way. The United States under Reagan was prepared to press its massive technological and economic advantage over the Soviet Union to achieve strategic superiority. Failing that, the United States would simply bleed the Soviets dry in any strategic competition. Reykjavik made clear to the Soviets the fate of their 70-year experiment of confrontation and military-technological competition with the West. They had long known that they were losing, but now they knew that the United States was not going to call off the game prematurely before their final defeat. After Reykjavik, the Soviet leadership took the only rational course left open to it: accommodation.


Reykjavik had an even deeper significance, however. It was not only that Reagan insisted on holding on to SDI. It is that he was willing to walk away from the ultimate in arms control, a deal that would have won him the Nobel Prize. Reagan, however, lived for something other than recognition from bow-tied European aristocrats.


What so shocked both the Soviets and the American foreign policy elite was that Reagan's tenacity on SDI was matched by his indifference to traditional arms control. He was widely denounced for having destroyed the best opportunity for peace in a generation. But Reagan did not care. He was perfectly willing to pass up a bad deal. In doing so, Reagan helped shatter the totem of arms control, the slavish devotion to the "process" that turned agreements into ends in themselves. He refused to acquiesce to the notion that rejecting any arms control agreement would necessarily produce instability.


In fact, Reykjavik led to the opposite. It paved the way for the demise of the Soviet Union and thus, ironically, for the very need for U.S.-Soviet arms control. That denouement made plain to all what arms control skeptics had been saying for a generation: that the real problem with nuclear weapons was not the weapons themselves but the intention to use them. The weapons are not self-firing. The problem is the nature of the people prepared to fire them.


After all, the Russians still have enough nuclear weapons today to destroy the United States many times over. But we don't stay up nights worrying about it. We don't make movies and television shows and novels about the coming U.S.-Russian apocalypse, as we did by the bushel during the Cold War. The Russian nuclear arsenal hardly even figures in our politics anymore. Why? The weapons are still there, but the threat is not, because the regime has changed.


The problem was always the regime, not the weapons. With Communist ideology in ruins, Russia may now be a Great Power rival, but no longer is it an immutable enemy of the United States. It was ideology, not nuclear technology, that accounted for the hair-trigger superpower crisis of 40 years. The ideology is dead. It was Reagan's willingness to defy the theology of arms control, in particular at Reykjavik, that helped bring about its demise -- and the peace we enjoy today.

 

II


OCTOBER 13, 1999, MARKED ANOTHER MILESTONE in freeing the United States from arms control idolatry. The Senate did not just defeat, it destroyed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty not only failed to command two-thirds of the Senate. It failed even to win a simple majority.


This was more than the defeat of a treaty. It was the defeat of an idea, indeed a series of ideas about nuclear weapons, about arms control, and even more generally, about the international order of parchment barriers and paper treaties that the Clinton administration has set about trying to construct during the 1990s.


It was Reykjavik II.


It is important to understand why the test ban treaty lost. The establishment press, in the most blatantly biased coverage since the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s (the establishment press has a habit of losing both its nerve and its head when contemplating nuclear weapons), has tried to portray this vote as the result of clever timing and maneuvering. In September, Byron Dorgan (D-ND) got up on the floor of the Senate and vowed to obstruct all Senate business -- "I intend to plant myself on the floor like a potted plant" -- unless the test ban treaty, which had been held back for two years by Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, was put on the table for debate and a vote.


Meanwhile, "a handful of Republicans led by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona had been secretly proselytizing their fellow members about the treaty" (in the hilariously conspiratorial accounting offered by the miffed New York Times) and neglected to tell the Democrats about their success. The Democrats thus fell into a "trap" when the Republicans acceded to the Democrats' demand and put the treaty on the calendar for a vote.


Ah, the duplicity. The Democrats complain that there was no time for debate. Time? Clinton signed the treaty in September 1996. He had three years to make his case. Where was he during all that time? If the treaty was so important to him, the country, and the world, why did he not go on television and make the case to the nation in the weeks and days before the vote?


Perhaps because the treaty is such a bad treaty. The longer it is subject to examination, the worse it looks. The CTBT is precisely the kind of arms control agreement that at first blush gets instant support. A universal test ban. What could be wrong with that?


It takes time to explain. First, no treaty should prohibit what it cannot detect. This treaty bans all nuclear explosions, but it cannot detect low-yield explosions. That means that those countries like the United States that have an open society and a free press will adhere to the treaty and test nothing, while those that do not -- North Korea, Iraq, Iran, perhaps even China and Russia -- will be able to conduct vital low yield-tests with impunity. As C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, testified before Congress, "If the United States scrupulously restricts itself to zero-yield while other nations may conduct experiments up to the threshold of international detectability, we will be at an intolerable disadvantage."


Moreover, the treaty is not just unverifiable, it is disarming. Literally. Without testing, the reliability and usability of the American nuclear arsenal will inevitably erode. Nuclear weapons are incredibly complex mechanisms made up of many parts, with a radioactive core that is bombarding the rest of the mechanism at all times. They simply cannot be relied upon over time without fixes and without testing.


The nuclear arsenal is all the more important to the United States because we have already forsworn, for good reason, chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are our only means of retaliation and deterrence. It was the threat of nuclear weapons, for example, that kept Saddam from using his chemical weapons in the Gulf War.


Administration officials protest that we have sophisticated computer programs that will substitute for testing. This claim happens to be wrong. There is great uncertainty, even in the expert nuclear community, as to whether we really can maintain confidence in the reliability of the arsenal without occasional explosions. Robinson himself testified to Congress that reliability through computer simulation is 10 to 20 years away. And that was an optimistic prediction, based on the perhaps unrealistic assumption that we will be able to replace our cadre of weapons scientists after we abolish testing.


But assume it is right that sophisticated computer programs can substitute for testing. What then is the point of the treaty? The tests are just a means. They are not atmospherically polluting, like the kind that were banned in 1963. The only purpose of banning all underground tests is as a first and inexorable step towards disarmament. The whole idea is to make nuclear weapons unreliable and unusable, as the more candid of the test ban proponents admit.


For those who claim not to want disarmament, the paradox is unanswerable: Either a test ban degrades nuclear arsenals and thus ushers in an era of nuclear disarmament, or it does not. If it does, then it is catastrophically dangerous to the United States, because our nuclear arsenal, the ultimate deterrent, is what preserves the safety of the United States and those allies that live under its nuclear umbrella.


And if it does not degrade arsenals, then what is the point? We would be banning tests simply for the sake of banning tests.


No, said the advocates. For the sake of preventing proliferation.


This shift -- selling a disarmament treaty as a non-proliferation treaty -- is as unconvincing as it is unsubtle. The argument is puzzling in the extreme. The CTBT does nothing to prevent the transfer of nuclear technology from one country to another, which is the essence of proliferation. It seems to be saying that other countries will be moved by the example of the United States to lay down their nukes and/or forgo developing a nuclear capacity.


But the bad guys, regimes that define themselves as enemies of the United States, will either (1) not sign the treaty, or (2) like Iraq, cheat, or (3) like North Korea with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, openly violate it when they please.


So much for our enemies. What about our friends? Here the argument for non-proliferation breaks down completely. In fact, it is the reliability and strength of the American nuclear arsenal that, if anything, deters friendly countries from seeking to acquire their own nuclear weapons. If the United States were irrevocably committed to a test ban and thus to the slow erosion of the reliability of its arsenal, our guarantee to non-nuclear friends would similarly erode. Countries like Japan and Taiwan would be more inclined to acquire their own nuclear weapons as they lost confidence in the American nuclear deterrent.

 

III


THAT A FATALLY FLAWED TREATY that so clearly ill-served American national security needs could have been so proudly signed by the president of the United States, so loudly declared to be essential to American security, so bitterly defended even after its defeat in the Senate, with Clinton promising to continue the fight until its ultimate ratification, tells us how strong remains the grip of arms control theology.


Which is why the defeat of an agreement of such apparent attractiveness, enjoying both popular support and fierce media allegiance, is of such potential significance. By ending a decade-long string of victories by arms control advocates, it has the potential to break the arms control spell. Why? Because its central defect perfectly illustrates the central defect of all arms control.


The enduring paradox of arms control is this: Either it does something strategically serious (such as keeping us and our enemies from destroying each other in a nuclear exchange) or it does not. If it does reduce our nuclear strength to the point where we cannot reliably destroy our opponents, then we have lost our deterrent and made the United States and the world far less safe.


On the other hand, if arms control is structured so as not to fundamentally affect our ability to eradicate, say, Russia, it has made no strategic difference. What then is the point? It might save a few dollars, but that is hardly the promise and purpose of arms control -- enhanced security and safety -- as presented by its advocates.


At the heart of arms control theology is the bedrock belief that (1) the weapons are the problem and, even more mindless, (2) the number of weapons is what matters. These were the beliefs, for example, that underlay the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s, a time of mass agitation fueled by near-hysteria in the mainstream media and culminating in the largest disarmament demonstration in American history (New York City, June 1982).


Its demand and central organizing principle was a freeze on all nuclear weapons. It made absolutely no sense. After all, if we were at such a nuclear precipice, why in the world would we want to freeze the situation in place? Both sides already possessed enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side many times over. What possible difference would it make to nuclear safety to prevent the development of new weapons that, as the freeze advocates themselves pointed out, were redundant and could do nothing more than make the rubble bounce?


The freeze only made sense if it was a first step to true nuclear disarmament -- as the CTBT and almost all other nuclear arms control measures are intended to be. The central paradox again: The only point of a freeze would be to achieve such radical arms control that neither side could make the other's rubble bounce even once. But then what happens to deterrence? It would have been an infinitely more dangerous world if the United States had reduced its arsenal below the level at which it could massively retaliate against the Soviet Union.


The only kind of arms control that made sense in the bipolar era were agreements that focused not on the number of weapons but on specific types. There were two such agreements in the Reagan-Bush years. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty abolished a whole category of nuclear weapons (those of intermediate range) and forced the Soviets to dismantle the SS-20s with which they had threatened Western Europe. And the START treaties abolished land-based multiple-warhead missiles, which are particularly destabilizing because they might tempt their possessor to launch a disarming first strike in time of crisis.


The INF treaty and the START treaties marginally increased strategic safety. But only marginally, which is all that arms control, when very narrowly tailored and at its very best, can ever do. The profound sense of nuclear tranquillity that we enjoy today -- the feeling that we are not, as during the first 40 years of the nuclear era, living on a hair trigger, just minutes away from Armageddon -- has nothing at all to do with arms control.


Arms control at its very best seeks to alter strategic calculations and make a first strike marginally less likely. But it was not arms control that ended the nuclear crisis. It was the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Reagan-Bush arms control agreements were symptoms, rather than causes, of the relaxation of tensions that occurred as the Soviet Union began to expire.


What brought about the nuclear tranquillity of today was victory in the Cold War. And crucial to that victory was the resistance of strong leaders to the siren song of arms control. Three of the great turning points in the Cold War were Senator Henry Jackson's holding up the SALT II treaty in the late 1970s (which would, if anything, have increased the gap between U.S. and Soviet nuclear capabilities); Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl's facing down the nuclear freeze movement and deploying intermediate-range NATO weapons in Europe; and finally Reykjavik, where Ronald Reagan walked away from the most radical arms control deal in history to pursue nuclear safety not by treaty, but by unilateral military means.

 

IV


MODERN NUCLEAR ARMS CONTROL WAS BORN of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. One might have expected that when that rivalry died the fervor for arms control would have died with it.


It did not. Indeed, with the return of Democrats to power in 1993, the main American foreign policy agenda has been to develop, sign, and ratify a dizzying array of new treaties -- mostly multilateral, even universal -- regarding chemical, biological, nuclear, and strategic defensive weapons. These include:


P A chemical weapons treaty that even its advocates admit is unverifiable.


P A biological weapons regime that would intrusively inspect American pharmaceutical operations and have no chance whatsoever of finding the small concealable plants that could produce toxins in rogue states like Libya, Iran, and Syria.


P The land mine treaty, which the Clinton administration was in the end forced by Pentagon pressure to refrain from signing.


P The ABM treaty, strengthened and multilateralized.


P And now the test ban.


The new theology of arms control is to promote these multilateral treaties as a way to lessen the chance of war. This involves a leap of faith even greater than that required for bilateral arms control.


First, there is the problem, to put it delicately, of compliance. Universal treaties, as Richard Perle points out, group together good guys and bad guys. The good guys, with a free press and open governments, will honor the treaties. The bad guys will not.


You would think that the arms control dreamers would have learned their lesson with Iraq and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the time of the Gulf War, Iraq was in excellent standing with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It had signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, passed all its IAEA inspections, and been pronounced nuclear free. Indeed, Iraq was on the IAEA governing board! Had it not been for the invasion of Kuwait, we would not have known that Iraq had not one but 11 facilities involved in various aspects of its nuclear program. If not for Saddam's folly of invading Kuwait, he would have had nuclear weapons within six months -- all under the IAEA's nose.


The Iraq example shows how universal treaties can actually decrease international security by creating a false sense of security. Inspectors, bureaucracies, governing boards, lofty goals, and professed norms -- these are supposed to protect us from the ambitions of unappeasable rogue states. With these phony safeguards in place, the urgency to take real and often unilateral measures -- whether aggressive (like Israel's attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981) or defensive (like building an ABM system) -- is blunted.


And beyond compliance is the question of salience. These universal treaties and supposedly universal norms have radically different meaning for different states.


Universality assumes that all nations are equally situated. On its face, this is false. We hear, for example, that 155 nations have signed the CTBT. This number is supposed to be impressive. It is mindless. The fact that Albania, Andorra, Angola, and Antigua have signed this treaty is meaningless. (And that's just the A's.) They have no nuclear weapons to test. (Even the all-important 44 "nuclear capable" states, whose unanimous assent is required for the treaty to go into effect, include such absurdities as Colombia, Congo, and Peru.) These weapons are infinitely more important to some states than to others. Some, like Israel, may need a doomsday deterrent to prevent numerically superior enemies from over-whelming them. Some, like the United States, need a massive deterrent in order to extend a nuclear umbrella to such dependent countries as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Others have no nuclear needs at all.


This difference in salience manifested itself most dramatically in that great motherhood cause, the land mine treaty. Some countries don't need land mines. Others, while peace-loving and unaggressive, do. During the treaty negotiations, the prime minister of Finland became increasingly annoyed with his neighbors' posturing on the issue. Easy for them to eschew land mines. They live in safety surrounded by friends. "Do other Nordic countries want Finland to be their land mine? It is very convenient," he noted plaintively. Meaning that Sweden has a land mine -- Finland -- but Finland, twice invaded by Russia across an exposed 800-mile frontier, has no such buffer. Finland, hardly a rogue nation, refused to sign.


So did the United States. There are no Swedes defending South Korea from the North. It is Americans who would die in an initial North Korean attack. Different weapons have different salience for different countries. Addressing them universally is a fool's errand. Some nations, like Finland on land mines, will refuse because they need the weapons for defense. Others, like Iraq on nukes, will refuse because they want the weapons for greatness. Universal treaties should not stop the former. And they cannot stop the latter.

 

V


THERE IS A LARGER ISSUE STILL, however, larger than a single bad treaty like the CTBT, larger than the ideology of arms control. The test ban and arms control are part of a larger web of "interdependence" -- treaties, protocols, conventions, agreements of every kind -- that the liberal foreign policy establishment sees as the wave of the future and the road to global security. Not the primacy of American power. Not American deterrence. Not the alliances we dominate. Not, banish the thought, robust American defenses against the weapons of the future. But a new web of international norms on arms, trade, human rights, the environment. Pieces of paper that we all sign together, that then create by their very existence an "international community" living under universal norms.


This frenzy of paper signing is not random do-goodism. It reflects a coherent vision of what constitutes progress in international relations. The idea is to transcend power politics with a regulated system of agreements that creates new norms, obligations, and restraints on the behavior of otherwise lawless nations -- ultimately, an international system that recreates the structure of domestic civil society.


The idea is to establish an international order based not on power but on interdependence. It is not terribly new. Cordell Hull, FDR's secretary of state, anticipated it as far back as 1943 when, returning from the Moscow Conference, he said, "There will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests."


Hull's optimism reflected the hopes soon to be invested in the United Nations, the ultimate in universality. He could be forgiven for believing at the end of the Second World War that the transcendence of power politics was finally at hand. We who have a half-century of experience with the failures and delusions of the universalist idea -- beginning but not ending with the United Nations -- have no such excuse.


What norms do Zambia, France, and North Korea share? And what international authority is there to force compliance with these norms, as the police and courts do in domestic society? What is the penalty for violating these norms? North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it had signed, and build nuclear weapons. The penalty? Endless blandishments from the Clinton administration, including the promise of two multibillion-dollar nuclear reactors and a supply of free oil.


Last year, North Korea violated another norm by launching a three-stage rocket over Japan. It is now preparing to test more long-range missiles. The penalty? The Clinton administration has relaxed sanctions against North Korea in return for the promise that it will desist (for now) from launching any more long-range missiles.


In view of the unmistakable reality that these "norms" are unenforceable, the woolly internationalists have a fall-back: Parchment makes a statement. As Senator Joseph Biden explained at the opening of hearings on the chemical weapons convention, international agreements "provide us with a valuable tool." What kind? "Moral suasion of the entire international community to isolate and target those states who violate the norm."


How can serious people believe such nonsense? There is no more morally compelling norm than the prohibition against using -- not just developing but using -- chemical weapons. The protocol banning their use dates back to 1925. How did the "international community" respond when in 1988 Saddam Hussein attacked Kurds with chemical weapons killing 5,000 people?


It found even "moral suasion" too strenuous. It did nothing.


A decade later, Iraq violated the "norms" imposed on it regarding the development of weapons of mass destruction. It cheated, harassed inspectors, and finally threw them out. The response of the international community? The Security Council -- the international community in executive session -- loosened the embargo on Iraqi oil.

 

VI


SUCH INCONVENIENCES are generally explained away as the growing pains of a new international system. The goal remains: to establish a binding network of norms to transcend power politics, to transcend narrow national interests, and ideally to transcend the nation state itself.


But such a project must necessarily bind the dominant world power more than any other. Whether consciously or unconsciously, whether out of a utopian vision or out of an enduring distrust of American power, the effect of this binding network is to restrict the freedom of action and diminish the power of the United States. After all, to achieve this vision of an international system transformed into civil society writ large, ruled by paper and not by power, the superpower must be brought to heel. American hegemony is an affront to the project. Hence the entangling web of interdependence, tying Gulliver down with a thousand strings. Who, after all, would the chemical weapons convention, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the land mine treaty seriously restrain? Gabon? Iran? Slovakia?


And who is restrained by the most egregiously disarming treaty of all, the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty? The ABM treaty is the repository of all the totemic properties of arms control. It was perhaps once a contributor to nuclear stability. It is now entirely obsolete, no longer even legally binding, having been contracted with a state that no longer exists. Its original purpose was to promote strategic stability and prevent an offensive weapons race between the United States and the Soviet Union. But its only effect today is to prevent the United States from building effective defenses against the real threat it faces: limited attack with weapons of mass destruction launched either deliberately by rogue states or accidentally (or without authority) by others.


The ABM treaty prevents the United States from defending itself. It has no similar effect on Russia, because Russia is incapable of building the kind of sophisticated defenses that American technology uniquely makes possible.


Yet rather than abandon the ABM treaty, the Clinton administration has actually strengthened it. In 1997, it signed an agreement in New York recognizing Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus as well as Russia as successor states to the Soviet Union for the purposes of this treaty. Which would be a meaningless provision, except that making five countries party to this treaty rather than two makes it more difficult for the United States ever to amend the treaty to allow us to build needed defenses.


The 1997 agreement also "demarcated" between the prohibited long-range ABM systems and the permitted shorter-range systems. But it did so in a way that forces us to dumb down and slow down the interceptors we want to build, by putting a ceiling on their speed and by restricting the kinds of sensory information they may use to track incoming enemy warheads. Even now, with the North Korean threat growing and with missile defense technology advancing, the Clinton administration goes hat in hand to the Russians to ask them to permit us to build the defenses we need to protect American cities.

 

VII


THAT IS WHY THE DEFEAT OF THE TEST BAN TREATY is so important. It is not just one treaty. It is not just puncturing the theology of arms control. It is a small detonation in the new legalist-internationalist structure that the United States has for almost a decade been imposing on itself.


The Democrats have threatened to make the test ban treaty a campaign issue. Republicans should welcome the opportunity. Of course, a 15-second sound bite can make a test ban sound lovely. But even a 30-second sound bite suffices to make the counterargument that the treaty is unverifiable and, for the United States, disarming. A debate, moreover, could illuminate the various other ways that the Clinton administration has, with its fetish for treaties, constrained American power and constricted American freedom of action to the detriment of national security.


If the Democrats want to make the safety of American citizens an issue, they should be taken on. What will make your children sleep more safely in their beds: a treaty signed by Iran and Iraq, or the kind of missile just tested in the Pacific that shot an incoming warhead out of the sky at a combined speed of 15,000 miles per hour?


November 9 marks the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There will be many speeches and much celebration. Let us ask the Clinton administration, the proponents of the CTBT, and the architects of the new era of universal arms control to tell us how the wall was brought down by SALT I or SALT II or the ABM treaty. The fact is that it was brought down not by paper but by steel and technology, by an arms race and an iron will.


The challenge to American security today does not require an iron will -- we do not face that level of risk or require the same resolve. But it does require a clear head -- the ability to see through the illusions of arms control and the courage to resist the lure of parchment.




Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, an essayist for Time, and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.