Beyond the NRA Doctrine

Beyond the NRA Doctrine

Mini Teaser: America should join with Europe in aggressively policing proliferation.

by Author(s): Charles D. FergusonPeter van Ham

The lack of a transatlantic policy to prevent the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction is perplexing. The United States has declared that the "proliferation of nuclear weapons poses the greatest threat to our national security", and that "there are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD." The EU equally proclaims: "WMD and missile proliferation puts at risk the security of our states, our peoples and our interests around the world. Meeting this challenge must be a central element in the EU's external action."

So what would be more commonsensical than tackling this existential threat jointly?

The reality is, however, that the existing U.S.-EU policy framework hardly goes beyond a polite exchange of views during bi-annual summits. The lofty U.S.-EU communiqués hide the fact that there is simply no transatlantic WMD proliferation policy to speak of. The status quo is untenable, and the United States and EU should work urgently to make amends.

Halting WMD proliferation tops strategic agendas on both sides of the Atlantic, but this is where the parallel ends. President Bush opens the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy with the ominous words "My fellow Americans, America is at war", whereas the EU's Security Strategy of 2003 begins with the blue-eyed statement that "Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free." The contrast could not be starker: the United States feels beleaguered, pressured to take rapid and proactive measures aimed at immediate success. In contrast, the EU sees security threats as management challenges, with time not running out, but often working in Europe's favor.

This disparity could have made for a well-functioning, complementary partnership, with the United States more gung-ho and Europe a bit more contemplative. Instead, it has resulted in a major strategic disconnect.

The most notable shift is that the Bush Administration no longer calls upon all states to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Instead, the 2003 State of the Union address argued that the "gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." Washington's strategic worldview accepts that its allies (the "good guys") may possess WMD (like Israel and, after 9/11, Pakistan and India as well), whereas its enemies (the "bad guys") must be disarmed or, preferably, replaced. The United States no longer puts pressures on India or Pakistan to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), even though both countries have nuclear weapons and have more than once been at the brink of nuclear war with each other. Moreover, although Pakistan has helped develop the nuclear programs of Iran, North Korea and Libya, Washington seems to place more value on Islamabad's assistance in fighting Al-Qaeda.

To Europeans, this U.S. shift is disconcerting since it further erodes the basic rules of existing non-proliferation treaties and regimes. Moreover, while Angela Merkel's "New Germany" has earned brownie points with the White House by taking a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran (not only due to Tehran's nuclear cheating but also because President Ahmadinejad's open denial of the Holocaust has set German politicians' teeth on edge), there is still hardly a European policymaker-or even a political analyst of some credibility and name-who prefers war to a nuclear Iran.

As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail. Lacking a hammer, Europe tends to wield a diplomatic pen, and in the process hopes to translate policy solutions into treaties. This approach explains why the EU remains as strongly committed to the NPT as before-probably even more so. At the transatlantic summit of June 2005 in Washington, the EU and the United States affirmed "that the NPT is central to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons." But this statement sounded rather hollow and obligatory since the United States faced severe European criticism for the failure of the NPT Review Conference of May 2005 in New York. At this NPT Conference, the U.S. delegation blocked any discussion on nuclear disarmament, but wanted to shift the debate to rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

A major transatlantic strategic disconnect is that even when the EU and the United States apparently agree on the technical assessment of a rogue state threat, they can fundamentally disagree on the urgency of that threat. For instance, the United States and the EU essentially converge on their intelligence estimates of when Iran could build a nuclear bomb. Both assess that Tehran is roughly five to ten years away, although a clandestine Iranian program could shorten the estimate to a few years. But the threat perception differs markedly. Washington sees a clear and present danger and feels that time is running out on acting to stop Iran's nuclear program through diplomacy. The EU, on the other hand, believes that it has time for more rounds of diplomacy with Tehran. Thus, the United States is pressing for hard-hitting sanctions against Iran while the EU is moving cautiously on sanctions to keep the door for diplomacy open. Remember: America is at war; Europe has never been so secure.

Another strategic disconnect revolves around the difficult and controversial question of how to combine diplomatic, treaty-based non-proliferation measures with coercive counter-proliferation methods, especially proactive military operations or even preventive war. In combating WMD proliferation, the United States wants to have its cake and eat it too: a strengthened traditional non-proliferation structure as the basis, but one that downplays the disarmament obligations of the United States, combined with maximum freedom to use military counter-proliferation measures to deter, prevent and defeat (potential) proliferators. The bumper sticker of American WMD proliferation policy should, therefore, read: "If nukes are outlawed, only outlaws will have nukes." This NRA approach to proliferation may play well at home, but it fails to convince across the pond.

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Germans protest America's nuclear arsenal

Nevertheless, U.S.-EU joint statements continue to call for strengthening "the international system of treaties and regimes against the spread of WMD. This implies the development of new regimes, as appropriate, and reinforcement of existing regimes." Both sides also agree that this should be an "effective multilateralism", and they "recognize that, if necessary, other measures in accordance with international law may be needed to combat proliferation." This opens up room for diplomatic and political maneuvering and puts the onus on both the United States and the EU to generate new and practicable ideas and solutions to close existing loopholes in the non-proliferation network. These new plans should be free of old orthodoxies and take the long view.

Some of the plans are already in place, or are being set up in a hurry. The Container Security Initiative (CSI), in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials work cooperatively with their counterparts in Europe and other regions to guard against terrorists using shipping containers to deliver WMD, and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which coordinates interdiction of suspected WMD-related cargo-both U.S.-initiated projects-are good examples of new ideas with concrete and immediate security benefits. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic should draw lessons from these successes in developing a "Transatlantic Homeland Security System" based upon close U.S.-EU cooperation. Continuing transatlantic teamwork in the areas of intelligence, CSI and PSI should be used as a model to spur joint political and military efforts working towards the same strategic goal: fighting the War on Terror.

PSI has especially proven useful now that the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's nuclear test bans trade with North Korea in any WMD-related materials and authorizes all countries to inspect suspicious cargo leaving or entering that country. Recent PSI experiences, which include conducting interdiction exercises and establishing rules of engagement, have provided readily available tools to contain WMD-related shipments to and from North Korea. But reluctance on the part of China and South Korea to implement PSI or PSI-related interdiction eviscerates efforts to halt WMD trafficking. Both the United States and the EU need to work together to convince Beijing and Seoul to support fully the Security Council resolution on North Korea.

Despite these cooperative EU-U.S. endeavors, the problem remains that whereas the United States is in a revolutionary mood, willing (and even keen) to pull the rug from under existing non-proliferation treaties and regimes, the EU may well be too conservative, defending the status quo despite the obvious need for reforms. In Washington, Europe's reluctance to challenge traditional thinking is seen as naive at best and deceitful at worst. In Europe, Washington's vigor to change is considered in the same light. So, do we need a "nuclear Pearl Harbor" or a "biological 9/11" before concerted and determined transatlantic action is undertaken to halt WMD proliferation? We certainly do not need new declarations and statements; plenty of good ideas are already expressed in those papers. Leadership and strategic vision, however, are required to set clear priorities in the Western strategic agenda. Here, at least, the two main problems are undisputed: Iran and North Korea.

Despite North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test, Iran remains the biggest direct challenge, and it must be faced head-on. The Euro-American good cop-bad cop approach has not worked, partly since the "cops" hardly have talked with each other. Europeans know all too well that American engagement with Iran is critical to any sort of solution to the current nuclear standoff. If no consensus can be reached on Iran, and if the United States-with or without Israel's input-strikes Iran militarily, the transatlantic alliance will die. The United States can expect no European backing for such a new war, not even from the United Kingdom. This would mean that the United States would stand alone, which is an unattractive scenario even for the most hawkish members of the Bush Administration.

Essay Types: Essay