A question in Blix
Now that terrorism has become an important ingredient in world politics, can the objectives of disarmament be reached, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
When Hans Blix, the noted UN expert on weapons of mass destruction, visited Egypt a month ago, I had the opportunity to put to him a question that had been troubling me for some time. We are now at a critical stage, I said, where highly destructive weapons are no loner the monopoly of specific states. The overspill of the secrets of their production and the depreciation of their cost have reached a point where they are now accessible to non-state actors who are not bound by the rule of law and international legitimacy.
Indeed, with the existing world order unable to contain WMD and prevent their proliferation, it has become possible for international terrorism to acquire such weapons. This means that total disarmament has become an unattainable objective, because no state will agree to give up its WMD at a time terrorists can acquire them easily and secretly. Given that achieving complete disarmament at the state level leaves the field wide open to international terrorism, are we to accept that arms control can never be complete and is possible only within certain limits?
Blix replied that the world is so oversaturated with WMD that the most we can hope for in any foreseeable future is to reduce them to manageable limits, not to abolish them altogether. The disarmament equation in the coming period depends on a whole spectrum of enforceable developments in the international political sphere as well as in the area of science and technology. But it seems the realisation that the total elimination of WMD is an unfeasible proposition is setting in earlier than expected. This was a key element in the talks between Bush and Putin when they met in Bratislava on 23 February.
The two presidents agreed that Iran and North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. They also agreed to consolidate the strategic partnership between their two nations by enhancing cooperation on nuclear security and the war on terror. But both nonproliferation and terrorism are ill-defined concepts. Contemporary international law does not prohibit states from developing nuclear reactors if they are to be used for peaceful purposes. And the need for such reactors is bound to increase with the gradual depletion of sources of energy in general, and of petroleum in particular.
Moreover, international law upholds the right of peoples to resist military occupation and the violation of national sovereignty by all available means, including armed struggle. But how to determine when the use of military means in conducting a conflict is illegal in one case and not in another, given that it is often very difficult to draw demarcation lines between what is condoned as legitimate resistance and what is condemned as terrorism?
This is a grey area which leaves the door open for aggressive acts of a terrorist character, as a result of defining illegal acts as legal and vice- versa. Things become even more ambivalent if we take into consideration the impossibility of completely eliminating WMD at the state level as this would leave the terrain free for terrorism.
This scenario is behind Bush and Putin's decision at the Bratislava summit to prevent Iran and North Korea from developing their nuclear capability. Because of the ambivalence surrounding the issue, the attempt by a state to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes can be construed as an act of terrorism. That is why we cannot separate a strategy aimed at banning the use of nuclear weapons in the near future from one dealing with concerns in the distant future. It is clear that WMD can never be totally eradicated. The only way to confront the threat they pose is to develop technology to neutralise the effect of such weapons in the hands of so- called "rogue" protagonists anywhere in the world. It is possible to slow down the pace at which WMD are produced, but it is not possible to halt their production altogether, at least not in the context of the present state of military technology.
No wonder, then, that the summit meeting in Bratislava did not produce the satisfactory results the protagonists hoped to realise. Putin openly declared that he had come to improve Russia's relations with the United States, not to be given lessons on what democracy should be.
Putin's image in America has deteriorated in the recent period for more than one reason. There have been the measures the Kremlin has taken to increase the prerogatives of the president. There has been the Russian intervention in Ukraine on the eve of its Orange Revolution. There have been Putin's strong words recently voiced in Brussels before coming to Bratislava. Putin was keen to show Russian public opinion that he was dealing with Bush on an equal footing, not as somebody being bullied by a stronger interlocutor.
The Russian president has expressed the hope of achieving closer rapprochement with India and China, especially in the field of energy, thus portraying the post-9/11 world as multipolar, not unipolar. An issue of particular importance for Putin is his feeling that Russia no longer enjoys the special status it had in the past, especially that what happened recently in Georgia and Ukraine provoked an upsurge of nationalistic fervour that has harmed Russia's image abroad.
The main achievement of the Bratislava summit is the signature by Bush and Putin of a bilateral "strategic partnership" agreement which aims primarily at adapting nuclear warfare to the requirements of anti-terrorist warfare, at combating man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and other miniature WMD that terrorists could easily use and conceal. The main pillar of today's global nuclear order is that understanding prevails between Washington and Moscow in this field in particular. And there is nothing so far that guarantees that understanding and comprehension between the two parties has been reached.