With such patriots, we need no enemies

September 20, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- America doesn't need enemies abroad when it has patriots at home like Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sees every step toward a more peaceful and law-abiding world, if internationally brokered, as an attempt to choke America's own freedom. So the Chemical Weapons Treaty must be stopped.

Mr. Helms' earlier targets included the Law of the Sea Treaty, a well-crafted, hard-bargained text for unmaking the lawlessness of the seas and oceans, whose imperative has just been underlined again by the wrangling between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of oil-rich, off-shore islands to which they both assert ownership.

The senator also stalled ratification of the SALT 2 Treaty. By holding up U.S. ratification at a critical time last year, he allowed his obscurantist counterparts in the Russian parliament a chance to assault it in Moscow.

Instead of the superpowers' nuclear armories coming down to a third of what they were in Cold War years, with the promise of future deep cuts in a new SALT 3 -- all agreed upon by President Bush and Boris Yeltsin -- the massive nuclear armories remain and the momentum toward nuclear disarmament is frozen.

India's role

Thus it can be no surprise that India has made it a condition for agreeing to the new Test Ban Treaty that the nuclear powers commit themselves anew to serious nuclear disarmament. Perhaps the treaty can be effective without Indian adherence, but the point is probably moot. Senator Helms will do his best to ensure that the one remaining superpower will not ratify it.

The great paradox of the Chemical Weapons Treaty is that while U.S. administrations have done most of the pushing to get it almost universally agreed, America needs it the least.

To call chemical arms ''the poor man's nuclear weapon'' is a half-truth. They are that only when used against a ''poor man'' -- as when Saddam Hussein used them in 1988 against the Kurds in Halabja and again in the final two years of his war with Iran. But an industrialized country can afford to protect its population with masks and suits, as Israel did during the Persian Gulf war.

Yet, even if America has little to fear from chemical weapons, it still should not allow Senator Helms his way. America has friends and investments all over the Third World -- and it has a serious vested interest in extending the rule of law.

An unplugged hole

Although the treaty cannot plug every hole -- like the use of the nerve agent sarin by a terrorist cult group in the Tokyo subway last year -- it will make it easier to identify and isolate major proliferators. It may not be possible totally to disarm a Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, even with the intrusive monitoring measures now deployed by the U.N., but the treaty can help define by international consensus what is regretfully permissible in war and what is outrageously not. It would work to narrow the number of outlaws.

All such treaties are part of a quilt of international ethics and legal norms that have been slowly stitched together since the early years of the century. Hitler ripped them asunder, and Saddam Hussein is the latest scofflaw. But we hardly need for Senator Helms to help in the task.

Why did the League of Nations fail against Hitler, and why is its successor, the United Nations, so disparaged today? Principally, because they lacked public support. Our political class, like that between the world wars, is not educating the public about the necessity for vital international institutions.

If we want to live in a lawless world that seeks no codes of BTC peace, then hurrah for the likes of Senator Helms. If we want it otherwise we will have to struggle for it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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