NUKE-IN-A-SUITCASE scenarios and black market plutonium so dominate public perceptions of global arms traffic that the lethal spread of sophisticated conventional arms is often neglected. But, by widening existing wars and threatening to unbalance regions, nonnuclear weapons like state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and submarines may pose a more immediate risk to global stability than shadowy future nuclear programs.
This week's meetings in Moscow of US Vice President Al Gore and Defense Secretary William Perry with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin provide an opportunity for a breakthrough in this area. At issue is bringing Russia into a new international system to regulate the sale of arms and "dual-use" technologies (ones that have both peaceful and military uses).
Left unnoticed in all the attention given to nuclear reactor sales at the May Clinton-Yeltsin summit was President Boris Yeltsin's important agreement to provide critical data on Russian conventional arms sales to Iran. Ironically, a problem with implementing this agreement has delayed the creation of what is still known to bureaucrats as the "COCOM successor regime" (please, a new name soon!). COCOM, cold-war afficionados will recall, was the Western screen devoted to preventing vital strategic goods, technology, and secrets from reaching Moscow and its allies. Some countries argue that until Russia provides data on its sales to Iran it should not be a member of the son-of-COCOM organization aimed at world arms and technology transfers - and without Russia that regime should not commence.
When they previously met in Washington in September 1994, Clinton elicited from Yeltsin a commitment to make no new arms sales to Iran. This was not unimportant, considering that Russia is Iran's leading supplier of weaponry, including sales of Mig-29 supersonic fighters, Kilo class submarines, and T-72 main battle tanks. However, Yeltsin also insisted upon honoring existing contracts. A full account of what was already in the pipeline to Iran or under long-term contract was not made available for review until now, at the meeting of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.
Light should now be shed on the mostly hidden negotiations under way since November 1993 on this new international regime to replace COCOM - the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, which existed from 1950 to March 1994 and was tucked out of sight in Paris. The need has shifted from the West-East axis to North-South. A new regime is necessary to regulate the sale of weapons and technologies that can escalate local conflicts and stir up regional instability. Obviously Russia, with its still considerable defense industry and expertise, must be a member if such a regime is to succeed.
Twenty-three nations have been quietly meeting for 18 months. These include the 17 former COCOM countries (NATO plus Japan) and six others (Austria, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Sweden). Now, following the Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting, they could be joined by Russia and then the "Visegrad Four" (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Republic). Although significant progress has been made, critical issues remain unresolved. Their work needs to be energized and also subjected to greater public scrutiny.
Guidelines should be firmly established for (1) avoiding weapons transfers which could be destabilizing and (2) generally encouraging restraint in areas of conflict. These must include an effective mechanism for consultation and the exchange of information. The key question here is whether there will be sufficient prior-notification of a prospective sale so as to stop it if there are strong and sound objections by other parties in the organization. At a time of increased economic competition among the arms-exporting nations, this will not be easy, yet concerns related to international security must remain paramount.
Further progress must be made on establishing lists of military items and "dual-use" technologies that need to be controlled. Special attention should now be given to transfers that could have multiplier effects, encouraging the creation of military industries in problem states, as was the case in Iraq in the 1980s. Exports that have the potential of assisting the development of weapons of mass destruction should also be watched. Procedures are needed to prevent one nation from undercutting another that had agreed to give up a sale.
Finally, which are to be the proscribed states? Washington clearly has several "pariahs" in mind - Iraq, Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Some of the European nations are less inclined to publicly name specific countries to be targeted. The Europeans are right. Flexibility and discretion must be the hallmark of a regime dealing with emerging technologies and changing nations.
Today there are global regimes for nuclear, chemical, biological, and missile technologies. True, conventional arms are the most difficult to regulate. But isn't it about time we got started?