Is the Non-Proliferation Regime at Risk? Stuart McMillan Explores the Threats to the Existing System of Arms Control Posed by Recent Events

Article excerpt

The war in Iraq could be seen as an attempt by force to find weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and to stop these being passed to terrorist organisations. The war was an alternative to the system of international agreements which has governed arms control. Many knowledgeable people in the non-proliferation community doubted from the start that any weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, would be found but considered that the inspectors were looking for revitalised programmes dismantled after the 1991 Gulf War. The apparent switch of the search for actual weapons to weapons programmes announced in Washington and London, which came across as a shifting of ground, might be seen as more precise, but it leaves open all the questions about why it was presented as a search for actual weapons in the first place.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction or evidence of programmes for their acquisition, and the strong doubt that if it had such weapons Iraq would supply the technology to terrorist organisations, do not alter the fact that conflict was seen as the solution to the problem of stopping nuclear proliferation and possible nuclear attacks. The post-war justifications for the war, some of which differ from the prewar justification, likewise should not divert attention from the original purpose of the war and the questions about arms control it leaves hanging. Nor should attention be deflected by the belief that various members of the present Bush administration were determined to have a war with Iraq, or the possibility" that the Bush administration wanted to find something tangible to strike at after the terrible events of 11 September 2001. Without the weapons of mass destruction rationalisation there would have been no war.

The fundamental question after these developments is whether the treaty system and the system of international law in which it is rooted is going to be the way in which nuclear proliferation is stopped and controlled or whether there will be other methods. This article seeks to explore some of these issues. (1) The first part outlines the reasons for considering that the treaty-based system of arms control is under threat; a brief second part gives one rationale for holding to international law; and the last part considers a few of the suggestions that have been made to control the spread of nuclear weapons and weighs some of the complications these face.

Continuing threats

The threats to the treaty-based system of arms control existed before the war hi Iraq and have continued since. Any break-down of the treaty-based system has implications for international law, for multilateral institutions and for multilateral approaches to world problems. The question of how to control the spread of nuclear weapons is not purely theoretical. The end of the

Cold War brought relief from fears of nuclear destruction from conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. It has not brought relief from fears of widespread destruction from other actors.

Some of the assumptions made during the Cold War period no longer serve as reassurances. Chief among these is that a country would not want to risk nuclear war because it would suffer retaliation. This was the basis of the trust placed in mutual assured destruction (MAD). Much has been written challenging the basis of nuclear deterrence. No discussion of these challenges will be entered into here. It is merely observed that suicide bombers do not fear retaliation. Furthermore, terrorist groups cannot be immediately identified with any particular country, so mutual destruction of anything in retaliation cannot be assured.

In the interests of simplicity the treaty system may be said to have three parts. The five nuclear-weapons state parties recognised in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)--the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China--undertake not to make nuclear weapons available to others. …