Well-meaning arms treaties will not tame unruly nations


WASHINGTON -- This ninth year of the century's 10th decade is taking a toll on one of the century's characteristic chimeras. Liberalism and wishful thinking (which is much the same thing) favor arms control as a means of taming the unruly world with pieces of paper. However, two attempts at arms control are collapsing simultaneously, with reverberations in a third conflict that has an arms control dimension.

President Clinton says he is "encouraged" by Iraq's cooperation with United Nations inspectors who are attempting to eliminate Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. The head of those inspectors, Richard Butler, says there has been "virtually no progress" in six months. The president's U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson, says "there's been zero progress."

Weak authority

So Israel knows that the president makes foreign policy pronouncements that are disconnected from reality. Israel is in a "peace process" with an entity, the Palestine Authority, which, in violation of the Oslo accords, remains committed, in its unamended charter, to Israel's destruction. The accords contain arms control: The Palestine Authority is limited to a police force of 24,000. Instead, the Palestine Authority has an army twice that size.

The president, who is "encouraged" by Iraq's behavior, wants Israel to accept his estimate of Israel's security needs. He has helped China, by technology transfers, develop nuclear weapons and delivery systems. He has been relaxed about China's helping Pakistan toward nuclear capability. He is startled that India wants nuclear weapons.

India, although provoked by recent U.S. policy, would have acquired nuclear weapons anyway. With a population 45 percent larger than the combined populations of four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia), India is not impressed by "international norms" defined by others to ratify their advantages.

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush, and his colleague in a Washington consulting firm, David Sloan, express (in the Los Angeles Times) the foreign policy elite's dreamy disappointment that India has affronted "international norms." India, they say, must decide whether to "rejoin the global community." But it is peculiar to speak of a "global community" with India's one-fifth of the world's population exiled (by whom?).

And what is the pertinent "norm"? That there shall be no nuclear proliferation? Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, notes that U.S. policy (not quite the same thing as an "international norm") "all along has been one of selective and preferential proliferation." U.S. policy openly helped Britain to become a nuclear power, less openly assisted France, and did not become exercised about Israel developing such weapons.

For 50 years U.S. policy was that nuclear deterrence (remember "mutual assured destruction"?) can be conducive to stability. Now U.S. policy is to tell Pakistan that a nuclear imbalance is crucial to stability in South Asia. Perhaps it is.

However, arms control is usually impossible until it is unimportant. Arms control agreements usually renounce superfluous weapons or accept limits higher than anticipated procurements. Nations will abide by those arms limitation agreements that do not seriously inconvenience their pursuit of security and other national interests. As India's euphoria about the nuclear tests demonstrates, those interests can have a huge psychological component.

History of war

In "On the Origins of War," Donald Kagan, the Yale historian and classicist, notes that one current theory of war's obsolescence holds that free markets and the communications revolution have sublimated aggressive energies in commercial relations that are too valuable to disrupt by violence. But, Mr. Kagan notes, "over the past two centuries the only thing more common than predictions about the end of war has been war itself."

Remember, Mr. Kagan says, what Thucydides listed first among the three things that cause people to go to war: "honor, fear and interest." Liberal optimism about taming the world rests on the hope that fear can be assuaged and interests accommodated. But honor is a more volatile variable. Mr. Kagan says that if we understand the significance of honor to include deference, esteem, respect and prestige, it is an important motive of modern nations.

Honor, says Mr. Kagan, is desirable in itself and has practical importance in the competition for power, because a nation's honor and fame are apt to wax and wane reciprocally. Mr. Kagan believes that considerations of material gain or ambition for power frequently play a small role in bringing on war and that "often some aspect of honor is decisive." Which is one reason why threats of material losses from economic sanctions are weak enforcements of arms controls and will be utterly futile against an India feeling its oats.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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