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The Wrong Choice on Disarmament


Later today, Pres. Barack Obama will chair a summit-level U.N. Security Council meeting on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament that is expected to be attended by the leaders of the body’s 15 members.

A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Obama will be chairing the Security Council. While it is not unprecedented for a U.S. president to participate in the Security Council, and while world leaders have participated in Security Council meetings four times previously, this will be first time the U.S. president has actually chaired the discussion.

There he will be, the leading “citizen of the world,” presiding over the U.N. to address nuclear disarmament, a longtime priority of internationalists. Obama will link disarmament to a real global threat — the illicit proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In typical fashion, the media has focused on the person of the president and the novelty of his appearance. This is a mistake. They should be asking what the likely outcome of the meeting will be and what the potential consequences might be of raising these issues at the U.N. when the Obama administration has decided not to mention any specific countries by name.

The central organizing principle of the United Nations today is the assertion of moral equivalency among its participating nations — in other words, the U.N. sees Iran and North Korea as having the same moral standing as the United States. In truth, Iran and North Korea are the most worrisome proliferators in the world today and are pursuing nuclear-weapons capabilities. Iran and North Korea have earned their reputations as aggressive powers with no claim to moral legitimacy. The Iranian president has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. North Korea deploys its military forces in a manner that would allow it to inflict massive damage on South Korea at a moment’s notice. Both governments brutalize their citizens in order to maintain a monopoly on power.

To equate these rogue states with the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and other law-abiding countries in the areas of proliferation and arms control is more than wrongheaded, it is dangerous. If President Obama is going to address these threats effectively, he must get the U.N. to confront proliferators such as Iran and North Korea as the preeminent focus of U.N. non-proliferation efforts.

Experience tells us this won’t happen. Past efforts to address North Korea and Iran in the Security Council have been rendered toothless, ineffective, and irrelevant because due to Russian and Chinese intervention.

The recently released book ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives spells out why the U.N. is a poor forum for addressing these issues. In his chapter, my Heritage Foundation colleague Baker Spring concludes that most U.N. arms-control and disarmament activities are counterproductive and, in some cases, harmful to international peace and security. Specifically, he observes: 

[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 to address North Korea and Iran in the Security Council have been less than satisfactory? This time will be no different. In fact, the draft resolution offered by the Obama administration for consideration at the meeting fails to even mention the world’s most preeminent proliferators — Iran and North Korea.

Worse, the terms of the debate in the U.N. are unfavorable. Most countries see the issue as evidence of U.S. hypocrisy. In their view, the U.S. has nuclear weapons and simply wants to keep others from having them. Look for this discussion to quickly devolve as countries such as Libya and Mexico call for nuclear states to disarm or for Israel to come clean about its nuclear program.

By taking this issue to the U.N. Security Council, President Obama is demonstrating a lack of understanding of its grave importance. It would be far better for the administration to focus on alternative multilateral efforts, such as the voluntary Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), that directly enable and promote non-proliferation activities — helping countries clamp down on proliferation and secure their nuclear materials, and bringing concerted pressure on the proliferating nations.

The U.N. Security Council can sometimes bolster these efforts, as it did when it supported the PSI in Resolution 1540 (2004). But Obama is damaging his own stated agenda if he is relying on the U.N. Security Council to lead the way.

– Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at the Heritage Foundation and editor of ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives.


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