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The UN's Defense(less) Policy By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 07, 2008

On July 29, the UN Conference on Disarmament opened its third (and final) session of the year in Geneva. The Conference was established in 1979 as “the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.” It has a work program of four issues: Nuclear disarmament and the prevention of nuclear war (Chile as Coordinator); a “non-discriminatory” and multilateral treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices (Japan as Coordinator); issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space (Canada as Coordinator); and discussions on ways to assure non-nuclear weapon States against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons (Senegal as Coordinator).


The press paid little attention to the announcement of the Conference program. It just seemed like more of the same diplomatic babble that consumes so much time and money without results. Russia and China, however, want to use the Conference to further their own ambitions to weaken the United States, and buy themselves more time to catch up in military capabilities.


Moscow and Beijing pushed for action on the third topic. Last February, they had introduced a draft treaty entitled the “Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” to the Conference. This was only 13 months after China had successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon. The Russian Counselor Victor Vasiliev declared at the July meeting, “The prevention of the arms race in outer space is the main priority of the Russian Federation in the Conference on Disarmament.” Russia and China then announced a special UN meeting on the question of ensuring security in outer space for August 6. The date coincides with left-wing protests around the world against the United States for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. The target of their diplomatic initiative cannot be more obvious.


The United States relies heavily on space-based assets for surveillance and communications. Its modernization plans call for increased use of space for “net-centric” warfare across all the military services. And any expansion of a national missile defense system will depend on space-based assets. One of the great accomplishments of the Bush administration was terminating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which had banned space-based missile defense systems. The Russo-Chinese treaty uses a very broad definition, “the term ‘weapons in outer space’ means any device placed in outer space, based on any physical principle, specially produced or converted to eliminate, damage or disrupt normal function of objects in outer space, on the Earth or in its air, as well as to eliminate population, components of biosphere critical to human existence or inflict damage to them.”


Space is the ultimate military high ground and critical to maintaining American military superiority. Potential adversaries know this, and have been seeking ways to undermine U.S. capabilities. In his annual threat assessment presented to Congress last February, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell noted, “The growing foreign interest in counter-space programs that could threaten critical US military and intelligence capabilities.” So an arms race is already under way. Moscow and Beijing would like to hobble Washington so they can catch up, and then pull ahead.


Using the mantra of “disarmament” has long been a diplomatic tactic to gain an advantage (or avoid a disadvantage) in military contests. The new Russian proposal is directly in line with a Russian proposal 110 years ago that launched the first world disarmament conference. On September 3, 1898, Russian Foreign Minister Count Mikhail Muraviev issued a call for a meeting of all the major powers to exchange “ideas in furtherance of national economy and international peace in the interests of humanity.” The objective was “to put an end to the constantly increasing development of armaments.” Behind this flowery rhetoric, Tsar Nicholas II had a more practical aim. Russia had just completed a buildup of forces in Asia and had recently reequipped its army with a new rifle. An arms race in Europe was heating up, and Russia did not have the economic strength to compete. Germany had just developed a new field gun with a much higher rate of fire than Russian artillery, and it was feared that it would be provided to Russia’s arch rival in the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Tsar needed a “freeze” on armaments to keep from falling behind more advanced rivals.


Finance Minister Sergei Witte thought that a multilateral conference would allow Russia to disguise its economic weakness behind a cloud of idealism. The other major powers were not fooled, but the strength of public opinion prevented any government from refusing to talk about arms limitation. Twenty-six nations attended.


There was an active peace movement then similar to what is seen today. It was a diverse coalition of religious pacifists; socialists who rejected nationalism in favor of the universal solidarity of the working class; businessmen seeking a stable world order conducive to commerce; and libertarians opposed to the demands of the national security state. When the conference opened on May 18, 1899 at The Hague, thousands of antiwar activists flocked to it. As one journalist reported at the time, “Young Turks, old Armenians, emancipated and enthusiastic women, ancient revolutionaries from the ‘forties buzzed around The Hague like bees.” The U.S. delegation was headed by Andrew Dickson White, the co-founder of Cornell University then serving as ambassador to Germany. He noted “the queer letters and crankish proposals which come in every day are amazing.”


The First Hague Peace Conference lasted until July 29, 1899. It ended with a ban on “dum dum” expanding bullets used in colonial warfare (a slap at the British); and prohibitions on the use of poison gas in naval warfare and on the dropping of bombs from balloons or aircraft.  A Second Hague Conference was held in 1907, but a third meeting had to be cancelled. It had been scheduled for 1915, but World War I had broken out in 1914. In that war, the advance in infantry weapons far surpassed the “dum dum” bullet, warplanes came into their own, and poison gas was widely used (though not at sea where it proved impractical).


On the eve of the 1907 conference, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the U.S. ambassador in London warning it would be “idiotic folly...if the free people that have free governments put themselves at the hopeless disadvantage compared with the military despotisms.” This is still very sound advice, but will the next American president heed it?


Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign website says under Defense, “An Obama administration will restore American leadership on space issues, seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites. He will thoroughly assess possible threats to U.S. space assets and the best options, military and diplomatic, for countering them...and accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack.” If this is as far as the Senator is willing to go, then he would be using arms control diplomacy to secure America’s current advantages. This is the exact opposite of the Russian and Chinese intentions, so an impasse should result.  Yet, it would be unwise for Washington to give any legitimacy to space disarmament negotiations that Moscow and Beijing could exploit for propaganda purposes or link to other issues.


In the Foreign Policy section of Obama’s website there is support for two of the other objectives of the UN Conference on Disarmament. The site claims, “While we work to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear material, Obama will negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.” And by global, he means it would apply to the United States too. Indeed, his campaign asserts, “Obama will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it. Obama will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. But he will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. He will stop the development of new nuclear weapons.” Of course, the only place he can stop weapons development is in the United States. Russia and China are moving ahead with their nuclear programs, and protecting various rogue states in their efforts.


In his Foreign Affairs article last year, Obama wrote, “We must work with Russia to update and scale back our dangerously outdated Cold War nuclear postures and de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads. And we should take advantage of recent technological advances to build bipartisan consensus behind ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.” So Obama embraces the idea of disarmament agreements and of talking with the Russians about arms limitations– while oddly ignoring the Chinese buildup.


Sen. John McCain does not separate Defense and Foreign Policy on his campaign website having only one section for National Security. There is no mention on his site of disarmament proposals or negotiations of new arms limitation treaties. Perhaps McCain does not pay as much attention to the work program of the UN Conference on Disarmament as Obama. There is certainly no sound reason why he should.

William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.

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