NEW DELHI — U.S. President Bill Clinton’s weekend announcement to delay a decision on deployment of the U.S. national missile defense system will do little to end the gridlock at the United Nations’ main disarmament body, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The CD has been without work for four full years, and last month’s failure to reach agreement on next year’s work program shows that the deadlock will continue into 2001.

China almost single-handedly has held up the CD, using U.S. development of missile defenses as justification. This has meant no negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which had been proposed as a naturally corollary to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China’s logic, stated privately if not publicly, is that if the United States goes ahead with missile defenses, it would need to produce more fissile material for a larger nuclear arsenal. FMCT talks have yet to start five years after a negotiating mandate was agreed upon.

The CD has engaged only in procedural squabbling in the past four years since concluding the CTBT. Even the CTBT has run aground, with no clear sign whether the test ban in its present form can still be salvaged or whether it is beyond redemption. The CD’s only other success during the 1990s, the Chemical Weapons Convention, has been damaged by the U.S. decision to attach 20 different conditions to its ratification.

With this record, the question is how much longer can the CD survive. Its gradual expansion from 40 original members to 66 has only compounded its problems since, by its rules of procedure, the organization conducts its work and adopts decisions by consensus. The consensus rule applies to all questions, included procedural and organizational issues. China has blocked the start of FMCT negotiations by linking them to its demand for a legal regime on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS).

In the past, the United Nations was often paralyzed by the veto exercised by one or more of the five permanent members of the Security Council. In contrast, the CD now has more than 60 members that enjoy effective veto power. The CD’s consensus rule originally came into being at the instance of the five traditional nuclear powers because they did not like the formation of a U.N. disarmament negotiating body and wanted the power to block any proposal.

In practice, however, it is not easy for any CD member other than the strong-willed to exercise a veto, especially once procedural obstacles are out of the way and the major powers have begun exerting pressure on others after sorting out differences among themselves. Even a large, proud country like India finds it difficult to hold up work on a proposal that runs counter to its security interests. For example, India first allowed CTBT negotiations to begin even though it was clear the planned treaty would close its last window of opportunity to test. It even permitted the negotiations to reach the concluding stage before exercising its veto reluctantly and belatedly when it found itself completely outmaneuvered.

Thanks to China’s pig-headedness in linking FMCT with PAROS, the G21 has been able to recover from India’s abandonment and bring nuclear disarmament back as an issue at the CD. A view gaining currency in Geneva is that the only way to end the impasse is to allow discussions (rather than treaty-related negotiations) at the CD on all three contentious issues — FMCT, PAROS and nuclear disarmament.

Only a determined, assertive state like China is able to hold up the CD’s work for so long — and get away with it without drawing much international flak. At the procedural level at the CD, however, it is possible even for weak-willed states to stall proposals because it is not easy to identify who is objecting to what. For instance, a recent, seemingly innocuous proposal to appoint a special coordinator to examine ways to improve the CD’s functioning was blocked, which shows how the consensus principle can easily be exploited.

It seems likely that the CD will remain hostage to the ongoing controversy over weaponization of outer space. The debate on that issue is essentially between those who played a key role in militarizing and nuclearizing the Earth and want to retain the option to similarly weaponize outer space (the U.S. in particular) and those who also had a role in militarizing the Earth but who now argue that, while it is OK to weaponize the Earth, it is improper to militarize outer space (China and Russia are advocates of this position).

The only country pursuing serious research and development programs on space-related weapons, such as antisatellite lasers, infrared system and x-ray lasers, is the U.S. The national missile defense program is itself a route to space-based systems. Any new technology of mass destruction, if it emerges, will utilize outer space. America’s current R&D on space-related weapons does not violate international law, but its opposition to PAROS negotiations flows from its determination to safeguard future deployment options from attempts to create a codified international legal regime.

The country making the most noise about the weaponization of outer space and NMD is the one with the weakest legal and political case. While Russia can justly point to the bilateral Antiballistic Missile Treaty as prohibiting the deployment of nationwide missile defenses by the U.S., Beijing does not have even the fig leaf of a bilateral pact, let alone an international convention, to support its arguments.

It is ironic that the nation that is exporting ballistic missiles and related technology should tell others not to set up even theater missile defense to meet some of the very threats caused by the missiles it is proliferating. It is also ironic that China claims an inalienable right to build up a missile arsenal at a frenetic pace and threaten other states with those missiles while contending at the same time that that very “right” is being infringed when one of the threatened nations tries to build a defensive shield against those missiles.

Several questions arise lie at the bottom of these debates. Is the present offense-based deterrence system better than a shift to defensive NMD and TMD? Should we preserve the traditional balance of nuclear terror or is the ABM Treaty a Cold-War relic? Are a sword and a shield indivisible in the emerging missile scenario?

The passions aroused by the NMD-TMD debate are more important to the future of the CD that they are for disarmament, a process that has been at a standstill since 1995 when the permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty removed incentives to move in that direction. The debate in the U.S. is not whether but when and in what form to deploy missile defenses.

There is danger that the CD’s paralysis could lead to its disintegration. A nonfunctioning organization of highly paid ambassadors cannot be sustained indefinitely. At a minimum, a continuing standoff will prompt states to lower the level of their representation at the CD or even lose interest.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.