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JEJU, South Korea — Adultery or promiscuity: Which is worse? Oddly enough, that question hung over discussions at the United Nations-ROK conference* that convened last week at this South Korean resort. Those of us debating “changing security dynamics and their implications for disarmament and nonproliferation” used that question as a metaphor for the organizing principles of the international system.

Although it sounds gratuitously provocative, this question goes to the heart of the most basic question in international diplomacy: Is it better to have international regimes that are weak but inclusive, or rigorous and exclusive?

Should we aim for the lowest common denominator — which typically means stripping an institution or treaty of its “teeth” and render it unable to enforce noncompliance — or do we set the bar higher, demanding that states face real costs if they break the rules and, consequently, risk leaving some governments out of new international institutions?

The metaphor works like this: A weak institution runs the risk of a country joining and not complying with the norm (adultery). The alternative is a state that does as it pleases without restraint (promiscuity).

Some argue that a norm that can’t be enforced isn’t a norm at all. Allowing countries to claim that they are following a rule without actually having to behave according to it erodes the norm itself. Proponents of inclusive arrangements say only by bringing all states in can an institution claim legitimacy, for only then does it reflect the will of all nations rather than just a few. Moreover, once in a group, a member gains a stake in the organization’s survival. It will defend those norms (the arguments justifying participation in the first place can’t be easily dismissed and there are usually perks associated with membership), and behavior and attitudes change over time.

This sounds awfully abstract, but it has powerful implications in the world of disarmament. At Jeju, Anton Khlopkov, a researcher at Moscow’s PIR Center, delivered a depressing recitation of international arms control regimes. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has become virtually universal; with 188 signatories it is second only to the U.N. Charter in terms of membership. Yet the three holdouts, India, Pakistan and Israel, are “gray” states — their claims that they don’t have nuclear bombs area assumed to be technically in question. There is little prospect of bringing them into the NPT regime, and the world’s willingness to tolerate their “gray” status could encourage other countries to behave similarly if circumstances warranted.

Next, turn to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. While the CTBT has been signed by 166 nations, and ratified by 97, it must be ratified by 44 specific states — those that have or have a potential to develop nuclear weapons — before it can go into force. Only 31 have done so and there is little indication that the rest will fall in line. As a result, many argue that the CTBT is a dead letter.

The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty could become a pillar of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The FMCT is designed to cap production of fissile material needed to make bombs and make the disposal of such material subject to international safeguards. Khlopkov noted discussions on a FMCT “have been stalled for six years and the parties cannot even come to an agreement to start negotiations on the FMCT, despite the 1993 unanimous decision of the U.N. General Assembly to this effect.”

Then there is the failure of nuclear-weapons states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. That was an essential part of the NPT bargain: States not possessing nuclear weapons agreed to forgo those arms for peaceful nuclear technology and a pledge by the five nuclear-weapons states to disarm. There has been little of that. While the U.S. and Russia have agreed to mutual strategic arms reductions, there is no guarantee that those cuts are permanent. Moreover, all the “haves” are modernizing their arsenals.

Jayantha Dhanapala, undersecretary general for disarmament affairs at the U.N., provided a grim summary in Jeju. “The 2000 NPT Review Conference identified 13 steps needed for progress in nuclear disarmament. Many of these steps, however, have either been abandoned — like the preservation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the entry into force of START II — or postponed indefinitely, like the CTBT. Other steps included the need to improve transparency, the issuance of regular reports and the application of ‘principle of irreversibility’ in disarmament agreements — and new progress is needed in each of these areas.”

Fortunately, this grim recital doesn’t tell the whole story. A few decades ago, it was generally believed that there would be a couple of dozen nuclear-weapons states. Instead, the world has managed to hold the line; even with the fuzzy exceptions, the forecasts are off by an order of magnitude. The worst nightmares have been averted. A little over a decade ago, two nuclear-weapons states — China and France — remained outside the NPT framework; now all five recognized nuclear-weapons states have joined. Countries that once reserved the option to go forward with nuclear-weapons programs — Argentina, Brazil and South Africa — have given up those ambitions and joined the NPT. Former Soviet Republics that inherited nuclear weapons willingly returned them to Russia and remained nonnuclear.

Yoshifumi Okamura, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Division in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, takes issue with the pessimistic assessment of the CTBT. He points to the continued moratorium against nuclear testing by the five recognized nuclear-weapons states. In addition, neither India nor Pakistan has resumed testing since their 1998 blasts. Okamura believes that the CTBT has actual effect even though it does not have any binding power.

Nuclear idealism remains alive in the form of nuclear-weapons-free zones that dot the planet. Today, more than 100 nations and virtually the entire Southern Hemisphere are covered by such zones. Southeast Asia’s own nuclear-weapons-free zone went into effect in 1997. In September, a U.N.-sponsored expert group concluded negotiations on the text of a Central Asia nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Many strategists dismiss those efforts as naive since the effectiveness of such zones depends on the willingness of the nuclear-weapons states to respect them. In other words, we’re back to the adultery vs. promiscuity debate. But that formulation omits an important fact: There is evolution in the international system. States and regimes adapt to new conditions. For example, Okamura noted that the International Atomic Energy Agency, the enforcement arm of the NPT, has developed measures that strengthen its safeguard system. “The IAEA verification system has gone from a system detecting the existence of violations only at declared facilities to a system catching violations in any part of the country.”

New norms, such as the one against nuclear testing, are continually emerging. In Jeju, there was considerable discussion of the growing consensus against the development and possession of all weapons of mass destruction. The rising awareness of the threat posed by international terrorism and the possibility that such groups might procure such weapons and use them indiscriminately have helped consolidate agreement on this point.

Taking action against this growing concern will require considerable movement on another critical diplomatic issue: the inviolability of national sovereignty. Here, too, the process has begun — witness the debates over humanitarian intervention. There will be considerably more discussion — much of it heated — on this question in the future. Look for equally provocative metaphors as well.

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