Let 1998 Be the Year of Arms Control

An increasingly chaotic world demands US leadership across a wide front. From NATO enlargement to Bosnia to Iraq to the Asian economic crisis to the United Nations, the US carries a heavy load.

But those aren't the only problems we face. Arms control has become the forgotten stepchild in foreign policy. We face grave threats to the safety and well-being of the American people. To meet them, the president and Congress should give higher priority to critical arms control initiatives this year.

First, we should implement the Chemical Weapons Convention. Last April, the US ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention outlawing poison gas. Russia, China, India, Iran, and many others also joined. China and India admitted for the first time to having chemical weapons and related facilities, which must be destroyed under the treaty.

But the US is now in violation of the treaty because Congress has failed to enact legislation needed to bring us into compliance. The national security consequences are serious. Until we come into compliance, for example, the US cannot effectively demand that Iran declare and destroy all its chemical weapons facilities - which potentially threaten US forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

Second, we should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. CTBT will inhibit nuclear powers from developing new classes of nuclear weapons and make it extremely difficult for non-nuclear countries to develop sophisticated nuclear weapons at all. Limiting other countries' nuclear efforts will enhance our deterrent posture, which remains vital to world security. It is no accident that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and his four immediate predecessors have all endorsed ratification of this treaty.

Backing nonproliferation

The non-nuclear states consider CTBT an act of good faith by the nuclear powers, in return for their agreeing to permanent nuclear nonproliferation. If we were to reject CTBT and resume testing, as treaty opponents have urged, the nuclear nonproliferation regime could well collapse.

Third, we should ratify the START and ABM Treaty "strategic package." After the Russian Duma ratifies START II, President Clinton will submit to the Senate a package of modifications to the START treaties and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. These needed modifications will pave the way for further control of strategic missiles and nuclear warheads under START III and safeguard our ABM research programs.

Some Republicans would kill the ABM treaty outright. That, in turn, would kill the START process: Russia will not give up its dangerous multiple-warhead missiles if the US moves to build nationwide missile defenses. Scuttling START would be costly and harmful to US national security and would undermine continued adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by non-nuclear states.

Rejection of the ABM treaty succession agreement would also alienate Ukraine and Kazakhstan. These two nations view the ABM agreement as validating their sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia. If we reject the treaty, they might seek nuclear weapons for protection, thus increasing the risk of a nuclear war in Europe.

Fourth, we should ratify an Anti-Personnel Landmine Protocol. Landmines have produced carnage from Angola to Bosnia, from Afghanistan to Cambodia. The Ottawa Convention banning these mines is controversial. As an alternative, the Senate can and should approve the amended landmine protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which would limit their use, require safety features, establish an obligation to clean up minefields, and extend the law to civil wars, as well as international ones.

The protocol, which is supported by many powers that would not sign the Ottawa Convention, could save innocent lives while we work to make a world-wide ban feasible for all countries.

Include light weapons

Fifth, we should seek to control light weapons. We limit weapons of mass destruction, but there are few if any restraints on the most pervasive weapons. From border wars to civil wars to drug wars, the weapons of choice are the military assault rifle, the grenade, and the mortar. American tourists, students, missionaries, and businesspeople have already fallen victim to these weapons. It is in our national interest to control them. The US supports voluntary bans on arms sales to the warring parties in Afghanistan and should explore the potential for other embargoes. The most effective short-term approach may be embargoes on ammunition. But this will work only if other light-arms producers join in. As a first step, Congress should urge US discussions with our European allies on a joint policy.

Arms buy-back programs can also work, if we help protect people who turn in their arms and offer them a decent livelihood. The US assisted a successful buy-back program in Mali, and Congress should fund more such efforts.

This ambitious wish-list will not be completed in a single year. But these issues affect the safety and lives of our citizens, and we should start addressing them.

* Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D) of Delaware is ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

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