Fighting terrorism first, multilateralism second

While Europe fusses about biological weapons treaties and the rights of terrorists, America is acting, says Amity Shlaes.

The mood towards the US among its allies has shifted. Where before Europe was ready to supply unstinting support - "We are all Americans now" - today there is hesitation and, behind closed doors, even some scolding.

When it needed the allies, the US called on continental Europe and the UK to join it in its new war. But now America is accused of behaving like a cowboy - reverting to "the old Bush 'up yours' unilateralism," as The Guardian put it. America is not doing its part to support great multilateral causes ranging from biological weapons diplomacy to international justice for terrorists.

But the trouble with multilateralism is that it has become a game - a game for its own sake. Multilateral institutions are, after all, only as good as the goal they serve. And at this crucial moment, that goal is ending the global threat that gave us September 11.

Seen in this context, US departures from various multilateral agendas cease to look like cowboy antics. Rather they represent leadership that can make the world safer, including for the nations doing the scolding.

Take a security issue at the top of the mind of many citizens of Western nations: germ warfare. This month, at a conference of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, the US renewed its objections to a new draft for the treaty. John Bolton, the State Department's under-secretary for arms control and international security, pointed out that the treaty had not prevented signatory nations from developing biological weapons. Instead, the treaty had afforded a cover to nations that continued to mill anthrax.

So, Mr Bolton said, will the new protocol. That is because it does not contain any effective means for verifying whether signatory nations are keeping their word. The plan requires advance notice, allowing laboratories there to conceal their work.

Additionally, the US said that Iraq, a 1972 signatory, "developed, produced and stockpiled biological warfare agents and weapons and continued this activity even after ratifying the [biological weapons convention] in 1991". It took advantage of the absence of United Nations inspectors since 1998 to continue such work. Iraq denied it, a statement carried all over the world.

The US also pointed a finger at North Korea's Kim Jong-il and was backed by South Korea's defence minister, who has announced that Pyongyang now controls as much as 5,000 tonnes of biological and chemical weapons. Tehran and Libya, the US said, are also developing biological weapons. Syria "may be capable of producing small quantities of an agent" and there is disturbing evidence about Sudan.

To deter scientists and their masters from developing such weapons in future, the US wants the treaty to require signatories to prosecute those in their countries who work in germ warfare laboratories. It has also called for a new international code of conduct for all scientists and monitoring of individual scientists.

By ostentatiously listing signatory offenders, America has cast doubt on whether reliance on the treaty alone can prevent rogue nations from fortifying their germ arsenals. One might think that European governments would side vociferously with the US on this issue. After all, last week brought news of another case of inhalation anthrax involving a woman in Connecticut.

A reminder of the futility of the biological weapons convention also came with news of the death of Vladimir Pasechnik, a former official in the Soviet Union's germ warfare programme. After his defection to the west, Mr Pasechnik said he never knew his research violated the Soviet Union's legal commitment not to engage in such work.

Yet when the Iraqi regime objected to the US claim, European governments kept silent, or isolated the US by accusing it behind closed doors of being "counterproductive". The same habit - favouring multilateralismper se over the recognition of bitter realities - is showing up in other arenas. A Spanish judge announced that Spain would not hand over suspected terrorists to the US for trial unless it promised not to try them under military tribunals, or to subject them to the death penalty. If the US did not agree, the implication was, it was not measuring up to the new global standard on human rights, as embodied in such multilateral documents as the European convention on human rights. The truth is that this would slow down the US in what everyone says is crucial work: bringing terrorists to justice.

Cowboy has become code for "dumb Republican"; implicit in the scolding of the US cowboy is the argument that the Clinton administration played the multilateral game better. This is true, insofar as that administration took greater pains not to upset others. It did not name names (aside from Iraq) at weapons convention meetings. But this focuson finesse failed to prevent rogue states from building up their stockpiles.

It may well be that there are motives for the new scolding. The US is weighing seriously toppling Saddam Hussein, germ war factories and all, and Britain may not want to go along. The Spanish government may value its opposition to the death penalty more highly than pursuing terrorists. But neither of these goals has much to do with multilateralism.

For its part, the US does not have the luxury of fussing about diplomacy; it must proceed as best it can, for it was Osama bin Laden's initial target. When Europe hurts the US it also hurts itself, because it makes its own citizens more vulnerable to future terror attacks. When we support multilateralism for its own sake, we all lose.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
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