It’s no secret that President Obama has a great interest in nuclear arms control. In Prague last year, the President said, “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” President Obama chaired a session of the United Nations Security Council last September to shepherd to approval a resolution aimed at ridding the world of nuclear weapons. As for curbing nuclear proliferation and overseeing disarmament efforts, the President’s recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit relies heavily on voluntary cooperation, poorly verified international treaties, and the ability of international organizations to police and enforce agreements and prevent violations.
Although nuclear disarmament may be appealing in the abstract, the policy is very troubling in practice. In his devoted belief in the effectiveness of international arms control efforts, President Obama may be doing more than squandering the time and effort of America’s diplomats. He may actually be doing substantial harm to U.S. national security. The book ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives, in which Heritage arms control expert Baker Spring wrote a chapter on international arms control efforts, explains why:
Arms control and disarmament sit at the intersection of foreign and defense policy. With the possible exception of policies governing decisions to use force or to form or break defense alliances, arms control and disarmament policy has the greatest potential to further or damage a state’s national interest… Given the compelling national interests at stake, it would be expected that the United Nations and its affiliated international organizations would be expected to play at most tangential roles in arms control and disarmament. This was certainly the case during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union addressed the most important arms control issues on a bilateral basis. The problem is that the United Nations and other international institutions have ambitions that far outstrip this appropriate and modest role. On this basis, they organize their institutions to address matters of arms control by raising the pursuit of irresponsibility to an art form.
Spring sees most U.N. arms control and disarmament activities as counterproductive and, in some cases, harmful to international peace and security because the U.N.’s arms control and disarmament processes are increasingly focused on the goal of disarmament divorced from accountability.
[T]he U.N. as an international organization has no direct stake in the substantive outcome of any arms control or disarmament issue, only the purely procedural accomplishment of concluding agreements. The people who serve in the U.N. and its affiliated international organizations are not held accountable for protecting the lives and well-being of the people who may be made vulnerable by poorly conceived or biased arms control agreements and implementing measures. U.N. officials are not elected and claim no constituencies other than their colleagues and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with which they work closely. These NGOs frequently see arms control and disarmament measures as ends in themselves and regard the national security interests of particular nations as only tangential concerns. Unsurprisingly, the U.N. disarmament and arms control structures tend toward far-flung and overlapping institutions that diffuse responsibility and accountability rather than a tight structure focused on outcomes and effectiveness.
When this reality is combined with the strongly divergent interests of the member states, is it any wonder that past efforts by the Security Council or key U.N. disarmament agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) fall short in detecting and curtailing efforts by North Korea and Iran to acquire and to proliferate nuclear weapons have been less than satisfactory? Unsurprisingly, Spring concludes that the U.N. has demonstrated a troubling tendency to “avoid confronting the arms buildups of forces for repression.”
When navel-gazing about a nuclear free world, a college student causes little harm except to those forced to listen to their inanities. When the President indulges his utopian desires to pave the way toward a nuclear free world through efforts backed by the vagaries of U.N. sanctions and inspections, the potential harm can be incalculable.