Dealing with the Hydra?

Proliferation and Full Spectrum Dominance


PressInfo # 190

 October 3, 2003


Ken Coates, TFF Associate

"The horror scenarios of the Cold War have disappeared, but the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has not.  Like the monstrous Hydra of Greek mythology, modern weapons of mass destruction are sprouting new heads faster than anybody can cut them off."

So wrote Anna Lindh and Erkki Tuomioja, the Foreign Ministers of Sweden and Finland respectively, in an article in The International Herald Tribune, whose title gives their answer to the threat:  "Slaying the Hydra - together".  As they conclude:

"Even Hercules could not kill the many headed monster alone.  Only by acting together will we safeguard the security of all."

In spite of strenuous combined efforts, the hydra of proliferation remains very much with us, and it has certainly not been caged by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The most recent NPT preparatory conference, held in Geneva, between April 28th and May 9th 2003, resounded with reproaches, notably those of the United States against North Korea and Iran.  The Americans were also most concerned about the possibility that Libya might become a proliferator.  Delegates in Geneva will have been actively wondering how far these kinds of proliferation match the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the phantasms for which the British-American coalition went to war, and which have totally eluded the occupiers of Iraq. 

None of us should be surprised that the United States has been fixated by the question of horizontal proliferation, and almost oblivious to that of vertical proliferation, which is likely to provoke the sharpest concern when the next Review Conference of the Treaty takes place in the year 2005.

At the full-scale NPT Review Conference of 2000, thirteen practical steps for nuclear disarmament had been agreed. These were designed to satisfy non-proliferating objectors that the apparent immunity of the nuclear powers to Treaty action for actual disarmament would, by agreement, be ended.  But in 2002, at the earlier Preparatory Conference in New York, the American Ambassador declared that he no longer supported many of the conclusions which had been agreed two years earlier.

During the two years of the Bush administration which had seen the modification of American views on these thirteen practical steps, a marked swing to unilateralism had affected numerous other areas of United States policy.  Unilaterally, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty;  it declined to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which had been signed by 164 nations;  it had caused the ousting of the Director General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  In lesser disarmament decisions, the United States had also rejected the Landmine Treaty of 1997, endorsed by 122 Member-states, which meant that anti-personnel bombs, banned by most countries, could be used by American forces  in the bombardment of Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and in the second Iraq war.  Additionally, the USA had been alone among nations in opposing an agreement in the United Nations to restrict international trade in small arms.  Of course, the Bush administration also rejected the Kyoto Agreement and forced the resignation of the Chairman of the United Nations Panel on Climate Change because his views were disapproved in the administration.  And the United States not only opposed the creation of the International Criminal Court, but demanded immunity from prosecution for all American citizens.

The thrust of unilateralism has intensified the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the development of smaller, "usable" weapons designed to implement the new military doctrines which were being developed. These consistently undermine  the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, partly by requiring ever more horrific conventional armaments. It could be argued that the distinction is further undermined by the category "weapons of mass destruction", which takes the focus off specifically nuclear explosives. In this context, we now hear of a  new generation of low-yield and "bunker-busting" nuclear weapons, to match recent developments in high-powered conventional bombs.

Unilateral instincts have also been given free play in drafting the original United States resolution on the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, somewhat satirically entitled "To Assist the People of Iraq".

All of these initiatives have attracted publicity, not excluding a great deal of adverse commentary.  But it is possible that the most serious impact of unilateralism will be judged to have been the decision to back-pedal on those NPT Review Conference decisions of 2000.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty was fundamentally a voluntary engagement by signatory States who foreswear the development of their own nuclear weapons, and reliance on nuclear arms.  But a significant part of the shift in United States policy to "going it alone" has been the abandonment of the language of non-proliferation, and the substitution of an apparently similar, but in fact diametrically opposed, language of "counter-proliferation". 


Counter-proliferation is not a voluntary engagement, but a policy of compulsion, which can be prayed in aid against States which are, or are thought to be, considering the acquisition of nuclear armaments or other so-called "weapons of mass destruction", particularly chemical and biological weapons.  Up to now, this policy has been slowly crystallising.  For example, although the United States has expressed its disapproval of the decision of Pakistan and India to acquire nuclear warheads, there has been no threat to compulsorily disarm either country.  Of course there has also been scant recognition and no threat whatever, to effect the nuclear disarmament of Israel, which is believed to have a very large nuclear arsenal, including thermo-nuclear warheads.  This military commitment could have been challenged at the time that the related South African move to nuclear disarmament was undertaken:  but no such benign action took place.  However, States designated by the United States as rogue States have all been the subject of threatening messages, outstanding cases being those of North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya.

The foundation of these threats will be more widely questioned in the wake of the occupation of Iraq, which has yielded up none of the suspected weapons, and appears rather unlikely to find them in future.

In spite of these difficulties, the zeal of the American President for counter-proliferation was not tempered by his victories in Iraq.  At the Evian summit on the 1st June, President Bush "injected a surprise element into what had been expected to be an informal discussion on weapons of mass destruction". The Financial Times (June 2nd 2003) reported:

"US-UK officials said the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative would seek an international agreement to intercept ships and aeroplanes suspected of carrying shipments of arms, or nuclear, chemical and biological cargo."

This appears to seek to legitimise unilateral action against proliferators, given that the power of interception necessarily imposes quick decisions on those exercising it.  If interception were to be the prerogative of a duly constituted international authority, working under appropriate controls, then this might act equally promptly and effectively against all proliferation, horizontal or vertical.  There are no indications that such open-handedness is being proposed by either the American or British sponsors of this initiative.

It has been argued that the biggest shock to the non-proliferation regime has been the formal repudiation, by North Korea, of its adherence to the NPT.  But, in the words of one commentator:

"At least as damaging as North Korea's departure have been successive moves by Washington to distance itself from nuclear disarmament.  In the run up to the Iraq war, the US President, George Bush, signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, which said:  the United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including potentially nuclear weapons - to the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States …"  

The significance of this directive is not simply that it marks a higher level of bellicosity than has been customary among nuclear powers:  it also constitutes a serious undermining of the non-proliferation regime, by removing the "negative security assurances" made by all nuclear powers to NPT non-nuclear signatories in 1978.  This was indeed strengthened in 1995 by the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 984, committing the nuclear powers not to use nuclear weapons against the non-nuclear weapon States.

These commitments were of some considerable importance in encouraging what has been perhaps the most positive step against proliferation, the development of nuclear-free zones over wide areas of the earth's surface.  Without the guarantee that nuclear weapons will not be used against them, it may be increasingly difficult to persuade non-nuclear States that they will gain any advantage by maintaining their commitment to non-proliferation.

This commitment had been strained already by the time of the NPT Review Conference of 2000, which is why the thirteen practical steps which the US Government is now questioning, were needed to keep the show on the road.  Non-proliferators were absolutely impatient with the continued assumption of the nuclear powers that their own weapons were in a special category, beyond the reach of disarmament measures which would only apply to lesser mortals. 

Certainly there have been various agreements between nuclear powers which have reduced various kinds of deployment.  But the essential trend has maintained the predominance of nuclear States, even if the number of States involved has been seen to increase.  That increase has provided no reassurance, since the conflict in the Indian Sub-continent has manifestly been made more dangerous by the development of both Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons.  And the possession of a hundred or two Israeli nukes may give a sense of security to Israelis, or rather to some Israelis:  but it will do nothing to improve the prospects in neighbouring Arab States. 

To the extent that the NPT, and reliance on voluntarism, have been weakened, it is not surprising that we hear more and more talk about counter-proliferation.  This implies a policeman, and only one such policeman has presented itself on the scene.  The United States military preponderance is intuited by all, and the various wars which have been launched in recent years have all served to underline that message.  Military preponderance has in fact been codified in official American military doctrine.  In the years before the recognition of President Bush's unilateral policies, it was already stated, for instance in the US Space Command Vision for 2020, which opens with the claim:

"US Space Command - dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment.  Integrating Space Forces into war fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict."

This pretension is backed by some explicit reasoning:

"The emerging synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority, will lead to Full Spectrum Dominance.  Space forces play an increasingly critical role in providing situational awareness (e.g. global communications;  precise navigation;  timely and accurate missile warning and weather;  and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to US forces.)
Space doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leadership and personnel will evolve to fully realize the potential of space power.  Space power is a vital element in moving towards the Joint Vision goal of being persuasive in peace, decisive in war, and pre-eminent in any form of conflict."

The plain military version of Full Spectrum Dominance "implies that US forces are able to conduct prompt, sustained, and synchronised operations with combinations of forces tailored to specific situations and with access to and freedom to operate in all domains - space, sea, land, air, and information.  Additionally, given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the United States must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power world-wide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance."

With the visible and indeed spectacular augmentation of American military power, even before the rise of overt unilateralism under the Bush administration, we can easily see why there has been more talk about counter-proliferation, where persuasion has been seen to give place to direct compulsion.

However, military power is not everything, and subject nations in a complex and integrated modern world can find a variety of ways of containing militarism.  One is reminded of the Czech hero, the good soldier Schweik, who knew how to reduce the might of the Habsburg Empire to gibbering impotence and rage, by assiduously obeying orders.  If for United Nations based on persuasion, we seek to substitute Dominated Nations, we shall find a great burgeoning of inventive ways of frustrating the dominators.

This is why the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, only caught half the truth when he tried to persuade his parliamentary colleagues in England, and the French and German Governments, that they should go along with the wishes of the United States in Iraq.

"… you are right it is the United States which has the military power to act as the world's policeman, and only the United States.  We live in a uni-polar world;  the United States has a quarter of the world's wealth, the world's GDP, and it has stronger armed forces than the next 27 countries put together.  So its predominance is huge.  That is a fact.  No one can gainsay it;  no one can change it in the short or medium term.  The choice we have to make in the international community is whether, in a uni-polar world, we want the only super-power to act unilaterally and we force them to act unilaterally or whether we work in such a way that they act within the multilateral institutions.  What I say to France and Germany and all other European Union colleagues is to take care, because just as America helps to define and influence our politics, so what we do in Europe helps to define and influence American politics.  We will reap a whirlwind if we push the Americans into a unilateralist position in which they are the centre of this uni-polar world."

However, the lesson of the war in Iraq is that the world is very far from uni-polar.  New military alliances will probably form because the material economic interests of France, Germany and Russia will require a counter lobby to that of the USA. (In the wings, waits China, not yet seen as a part of any axis of evil, but neither yet seen as an acceptable world partner.)

But the military cannot do many necessary things.  Often, it seems, it cannot maintain the basic fabric of civil society.  The civil power came first, and may even have the last laugh.  No doubt the conflict between the United States and Iraq was exacerbated by the decision of Saddam Hussein to trade oil for Euros instead of Dollars.  The heightened tension in Saudi Arabia and the continued pressure on Iran, may quickly persuade the two other major oil exporters to do the same. Already Venezuela is moving in that direction.  So, the good soldier Schweik may get his revenge. 


If oil is traded in Euros, then petro-dollars will no longer bridge the yawning gap in the United States balance of trade, and it will be necessary for the Americans to vastly increase their exports, or reduce their imports, in order to reach a balance.  Full Spectrum Dominance financed by petro-dollars will be a thing of the past, and the fate of the Soviet Union, which over-reached itself because successive Soviet Governments spent more and more on military technology at the expense of popular contentment, may yet visit the United States. 


           Even so, the proliferation of nuclear weapons remains a serious danger.  Yes, weaker nuclear powers may well be visited by thieves and terrorists who wish to find the means of punishing their adversaries.  For some years the major fear was that the Russians might not be able to control their crumbling nuclear arsenals.  If economic weakness overtakes the world's solitary megapower, who dare argue that this pattern may not recur? 


But all this is somewhat speculative.  What has already left the area of speculation is the fact that what Donald Rumsfeld calls "old Europe" is finding a necessity for closer diplomatic and military co-operation.  An alignment with Russia is already likely. Miscalled "new Europe" may well seek closer affinities with the United States, based largely on ancient ideological prejudice and modern nationalism. None of the parties threaten a "New Cold War": ideology is absent, but conflicts of interest are not. For this reason, the economic future of Rumsfeld's new Europe is far more likely to turn on its relations with Germany and France than it is to prosper from transatlantic aid.  There is no pot of gold or Marshall Plan which will relieve Eastern Europe's needs:  so the resurgence of Nato on an Eastern basis is likely to be more an affair of trumpets and drums, not to say flags, of which there will be an abundance, than it is of serious and sustained military power. Nato is founded on a Treaty, and its members therefore have rights, which sit ill with unilateral policies by the senior partner. The planting of impressive new bases will not consolidate, but aggravate, this redivision of Europe's military space.  A new set of alignments is emerging, perhaps reluctantly, but driven by a powerful sense of necessity, from the turmoil which has recently hit Iraq.  The effects of that turmoil are likely to be even more profound than the dire effects of coalition policies on Mesopotamia.


All these speculations serve only to show that vertical proliferation is still both possible and likely to continue. Horizontal proliferation may be thought to have been deterred by the adoption of policies to "counter" it by the megapower: but to the extent that these encourage duplicity, they will merely make more difficult its detection. There can of course be endless attempts to restrict the spread of nuclear technology, and its refinement into ever more damaging areas, but so complex is this territory that more and more of us are coming to the conclusion that the simple solution is the most practical one. In the words of General Lee Butler, formerly of the United States Air Force, "standing down nuclear arsenals requires only a fraction of the ingenuity and resources that were devoted to their creation". General Butler was following in the footsteps of another distinguished military man, Lord Mountbatten.

"As a military man who has given half a century of active Service, I say in all sincerity that the nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our perils because of the illusions which they have generated. There are powerful voices around the world who still give credence to the old Roman precept …if you desire peace, prepare for war. This is absolute nuclear nonsense, and I repeat - it is a disastrous misconception to believe that by increasing the total uncertainty, one increases one's own certainty."         

Butler's conclusion is that "a global consensus that … nuclear weapons have no defensible role … is not only possible, it is imperative."

It is understandable that the investment of a prodigious treasure gives an institution the semblance of permanence and indestructibility.  To imagine all that to be dispensable, indeed to think we could be better off without it, is widely described as "utopian". But this utopian decision is more practical by far than the endless pursuit of lesser agreements to regulate powers, which continually escape all efforts to confine them. The price of establishing a controlling agency strong enough and extensive enough to enforce counter-proliferation could all-too-easily be the price of universal enslavement, and the enthronement of one power over all. A movement to disarm all, by contrast, enfranchises all who participate, and is by its nature pluralistic and inclusive.

Of course, if such a great human resistance begins to emerge, Anna Lindh and Erkki Tuomioja will remain right throughout all the interregnum before it takes effect. Short of comprehensive nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation cannot be abandoned without enthroning brute force. But real disarmament is the overcoming of force.

Hercules had the very great advantage that he was a God. But some of us think it is a disadvantage that he is also a myth. If we want to solve our problems we must do it ourselves.


© TFF 2003



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