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Beyond the NRA Doctrine

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Peter van Ham
Winter 2007
National Interest


The lack of a transatlantic policy to prevent the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) 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.

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.

The only way to avoid a transatlantic train wreck over Iran is for the EU to convince Washington to enter into direct negotiations, either bilateral or multilateral, with Tehran. The last script is most likely, and a leaf could be taken from the North Korea contact group model, where the EU-3 (France, Germany and the UK), Russia, China and the United States would deal directly with Tehran, working out a grand bargain taking in nuclear issues as well as the full integration of Iran into the Middle East’s regional security.

Following intensive EU-Iranian negotiations in September-October 2006, Tehran appears willing to shelve its uranium enrichment program temporarily, at least during negotiations with the United States and other world powers. For Iran, the big prize is entering into direct talks with the Great Satan, America, which seems a rather modest price to pay for the United States in exchange for keeping Iran from going nuclear. Given the escalating violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the North Korean nuclear imbroglio, the United States seems prepared to make this concession. As Secretary Rice argued on September 12, 2006, “[T]he question is, are they [the Iranians] prepared to suspend verifiably so that negotiations can begin?”

But before these talks start, the EU and the United States first need serious discussions between themselves to determine how much wiggle room they want to allow Iran to have. Whether the transatlantic partners like it or not, Iran will continue with its uranium enrichment program. Thus, the essential element of the EU-U.S. strategy toward Iran is figuring out how to limit this nuclear activity while leveraging this apparent concession to get Iran to agree to rigorous inspections of its entire nuclear program. Such a strategy could open the door for a grand bargain that lessens Iran’s perceived need for nuclear weapons.

Solving, or at least containing, the Iran problem has become all the more important since North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship has gone into overdrive with its nuclear test of October 9, 2006. With North Korea, the other constituent member of the Axis of Evil, the United States has already expressed more willingness to talk. But the so-called six-party talks stalled long ago, since Pyongyang refused to reengage in these negotiations in opposition to U.S. financial sanctions on North Korea’s counterfeiting activities. Stagnation of the six-party talks has been counterproductive across the board, leading to North Korea’s launching of several ballistic missiles in July 2006 and culminating in October’s nuclear test.

The EU, itself not involved in the six-party talks, needs to push Washington to test North Korea’s intentions to engage in serious bilateral or multilateral diplomacy. The EU should broaden its geostrategic horizon and directly deal with the North Korean challenge, jointly with the United States. Until now, the EU has left the North Korea problem in American hands, but given the stalled talks and the open confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang, Europe’s “good offices” may avoid head-on confrontation and further escalation. If the EU puts its economic and political weight behind the United States, North Korea may well be lured back to the negotiating table, and keep it there as long as possible. The EU-3, following their modestly successful overtures towards Iran, could sway Pyongyang by putting pressure on North Korea’s main “ally”: China. As the Iran example shows, the EU is rather good at jaw-jaw to avoid war-war. If there is one crisis that can be avoided through a good cop-bad cop scenario, North Korea’s WMD crisis is it, on the condition, of course, that both “cops” coordinate their policies.

In the end, the combined Iran and North Korea nuclear challenges show that the allies have to face their divergent ideas on the use of military force in dealing with WMD and terrorist threats. Ultimately, this explains why transatlantic action is so hard to come by. The Iraq War spurred the EU to evaluate and clarify its policy on using force to prevent WMD proliferation. As a result, European leaders decided that the EU would consider, “in case political and diplomatic measures have failed, coercive measures, including as a last resort the use of force in accordance with the United Nations Charter.” The EU position underscored that the decision to use force should in principle be endorsed by the UN Security Council. Still, self-defense, based on Article 51 of the UN Charter, remains a basic right for the EU as well, despite the European preference for nice and neat UN imprimaturs.

Just prior to the invasion of Iraq, the United States, at its peril, ignored the Security Council. The United States and its relatively small coalition acted without the final blessing of the UN. While not admitting that he made a mistake in invading Iraq, President Bush has since shown more willingness to work with the EU and other partners through the UN in dealing with WMD proliferation. But the United States still reserves its prerogative to use force unilaterally if necessary to combat WMD. Although as a sovereign entity the United States would not want to forsake this right, an EU-U.S. non-proliferation dialogue should endeavor to gain U.S. commitment for grounding decisions to use military force in the Security Council.

The most appropriate forum to reach consensus on these issues is within NATO. NATO’s Strategic Concept has remained unchanged since April 1999. Ideally, NATO allies would formulate a new one that would spell out the alliance’s geostrategic priorities, its policy stance on pre-emptive strikes, and the use of military force to deal with WMD and terrorist threats, as well as the role of nuclear weapons. Of course, arriving at a consensus on any of these contentious issues is extremely difficult, and allies have hence kept this can of worms firmly closed.

An effective transatlantic WMD proliferation strategy has to take into account two realities. First, despite the constant rhetoric that WMD proliferation tops the Euro-American strategic agenda, both allies pursue strategic agendas in which fighting terrorism, creating regional balances of power and safeguarding energy supplies every so often take precedence. Iran has the world’s second biggest gas reserves after Russia and the fourth biggest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iraq. Iran’s geostrategic position and its network of pipelines make it a key actor in the energy world. Do Europeans really want to antagonize such a country, knowing that energy-thirsty states like India and China are prepared to purchase energy and circumvent any reasonable sanctions regime? Similarly, should the United States isolate nuclear Pakistan and India, or chum up to the former as a crucial ally in the U.S.-led War on Terror, and the latter as the world’s biggest democracy and a crucial counterweight to a booming, expanding and volatile China?

Second, while the EU clings to the NPT and associated treaties and regimes, the United States prepares for a post-proliferation world where “allies” may go nuclear, but “foes” have to stick to non-proliferation rules. The case of Israel’s long-standing nuclear weapons program is another obvious case in point. But this U.S. approach has a long pedigree. Since 1981, Israel has been in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 487, calling upon Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s trusteeship. Equally, since 1998, Pakistan and India have been in violation of UNSC Resolution 1172, calling upon both states to end their nuclear weapons programs. However, ever since, Washington has treated these countries as strategic allies and has condoned their proliferation sins. Again, NRA slogans seem to inspire U.S. policy: “Nukes don’t kill, rogue states do!”

The realities of realpolitik, therefore, stand in the way of a forthright transatlantic WMD proliferation policy. It turns out that the rhetoric of non-proliferation comes more easily than its implementation. Halting the spread of WMD is a priority, but not at all costs. For the United States, winning the War on Terror is a competing concern, for Europe it is a complex mix of energy security and an almost fetishistic commitment to make multilateralism work. Allies realize that an effective non-proliferation strategy has costs, economic as well as political. Dealing with WMD proliferation sounds like a single-issue matter, but it clearly is not. An effective Western non-proliferation strategy requires a joint European-American approach to Russia and the Middle East, export controls and energy security, as well as, ultimately, the role of international law and the UN. This is a tall order. What is not required is another grand EU-U.S. statement.

Like cops, the EU and the United States must establish their non-proliferation partnership in the rule of law committing themselves to all parts of the law, including the nuclear disarmament duties in the NPT and making decisions to use military force consistent with the UN Charter. Also, like singers, they must stick to the same key and tempo, that is, engage in active and frequent consultations on tactics and strategy to produce a resonant harmony rather than the discord that has held back progress in halting WMD proliferation. Finally, they should resist singing the non-proliferation hymn alone. Thus, the United States should join with the EU and other partners in negotiating with Iran, and the EU should join the United States in the six-party efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

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