CANBERRA — As the sole remaining superpower, not only does the United States have no peer competitor, its dominance is unmatched across a whole range of issues and areas of activity in world affairs.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is not the only actor in world affairs. Many countries are America’s traditional friends and allies of long-standing. The gap between their total capacity and the military, economic, diplomatic and information technology assets that can be deployed by Washington on any issue, in any theater of the world, has grown alarmingly wider over the course of the past decade. U.S. dependence on allies has diminished from the Persian Gulf to the Kosovo and Afghanistan wars.

U.S. interest in, and commitment to, multilateral regimes has waned in parallel to its accelerating dominance of the world stage. Paradoxically, the interests of its allies and friends have veered sharply toward multilateralism.

The Kyoto Protocol bears the footprints of Japan with regard to global warming; the Ottawa Treaty was signed against the backdrop of niche Canadian middle-power diplomacy; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT, was saved from its near-death experience in Geneva by Australia and taken to the United Nations in New York for an emergency, life-saving operation.

Most recently, it was the like-minded allies and friends who led the campaign for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which will come into operation later this year.

In unceremoniously rejecting all these painstakingly negotiated multilateral regimes, Washington is shortsightedly dismissive of its partners’ national interests, which are embedded in multilateralism. Like all countries, they too would like to be thought of as virtuous. But their security policy rests on hard-nosed calculations of national interests, not on the pedestal of moral virtue.

Allies like Australia, Canada and Japan construct their national security architecture on four pillars: modern defense forces nationally; a robust military alliance with the U.S. that is continually reinterpreted and reinvigorated to realign it with the changing international strategic environment bilaterally; active defense-cooperation arrangements with compatible partners regionally; and multilateral arms control and other security regimes internationally.

Their pursuit of multilateral arms control is based on a careful judgment that such regimes contribute to their national security. Precisely because multilateral agreements are negotiated outcomes, they are typically imperfect bargains, reflecting the compromises that all sides had to make in the interests of getting an agreement that meets the minimum concerns of all parties while falling short of their maximum ambitions.

Japan was the midwife to the Kyoto Protocol — despite the small but continuing level of scientific uncertainty about global warming — because of the precautionary principle. This is the environmental analogue of the common safety rule for driving: if in doubt, don’t.

Australia helped to broker the CTBT in the belief that technical improvements through continued nuclear testing were subordinate to the risks of nuclear proliferation if testing was not terminated.

Canada was the catalyst for the ban on antipersonnel land mines because their marginal military utility is outweighed by their antihumanitarian carnage.

The Bush administration has discarded the Kyoto Protocol, rejected the CTBT and, if it implements parts of the recently leaked Nuclear Posture Review, will risk the unraveling of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT — the most widely subscribed to arms control regime in history. U.S. rejection of the CTBT is especially egregious for, as India argued in opposing it back in 1996, it actually locks in U.S. margins of superior against all other countries.

While the CTBT and NPT, along with the chemical and biological weapons convention, the Ottawa Treaty and other international instruments, raise the threshold of proliferation and use, they simultaneously lower the bar to collective international responses for ensuring regime compliance. They thus lower the threat, reduce the need for counterproliferation preparation and strategies, and promote norms of acceptable international behavior.

In signing international arms control treaties, states accept binding obligations. If North Korea should seek to acquire nuclear weapons, NPT obligations give us significant leverage first to hold it to a legal contract, and second, if that is ignored, to fashion a collective response to noncompliance. It is far easier to form coalitions of the willing from those angered by noncompliance with international treaties and global norms — which is a good working definition of a rogue state.

Some fascinating recent research suggests that people will accept individual costs in order to collectively punish transgressors of key social norms. The same applies, I believe, to countries, for we all have a strongly developed sense of right and wrong.

Of course, no arms control regime can provide foolproof assurance against cheating. But the key issue, as in all aspects of life is risk management. We don’t stop driving or flying because of the risks of accidents. Rather, we take reasonable precautions, institute safety procedures, ensure minimum skills through approved testing procedures and set in place mechanisms and people for catching and punishing the violators of the collective norms of driving and flying.

There is no country on Earth in which people do not violate traffic laws and seek to evade detection. Some even succeed. It would be as irresponsible as it would be irrational to conclude that driving license requirements and traffic codes should therefore be thrown out in favor of a free-for-all on the nation’s roads.

So, yes, some states and groups will surely try to cheat on their international obligations. But the verification and monitoring mechanisms built into arms control regimes gives us a higher chance of catching them in efforts to cheat. The risk of detection acts as a deterrent against cheating, and the risk of being branded a cheat adds an element of compliance.

The U.S. can leverage its hard- and soft-power assets — its military might, economic muscle, diplomatic clout, voting weight in international financial institutions, etc. — to hold signatories to their international treaty obligations. If these are violated, the U.S. can leverage the same set of assets to forge coalitions of the willing, as in the Persian Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars over the past decade. The world needs American muscle and leadership on the side of the law-abiding.

The security guarantees of NATO across the Atlantic and ANZUS across the Pacific were invoked, both for the first time ever, in the war on terror, to help the U.S. Washington could reciprocate by underwriting multilateral arms control regimes that are important pillars of the national security architectures of most of its key allies, even if they be less relevant to U.S. security interests directly. Doing so may not serve narrowly defined U.S. national interests, but it would surely be in the U.S.’ enlightened self-interest.

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