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Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation UN General Assembly 2006

Growing U.S. Isolation at the United Nations on Disarmament and Security
Michael Spies
December 9, 2006

Since the Democratic sweep of Congress in the November 7 elections, and the ousters of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and UN Ambassador John Bolton, the U.S. position in the world has already begun to look better. The prospects of genuine congressional oversight, coupled with the shakeup of President Bush’s foreign policy team, has already helped restore the global reputation of the United States, tarnished by the unauthorized invasion of Iraq and a slew of human rights scandals, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay.

A turnaround in the steady U.S. slide into global isolation couldn’t come soon enough. Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has been characterized by the “with us or with the terrorists,” black and white unilateralism of the Bush administration. In global forums the United States now stands out as a true obstructionist state. This was more apparent than ever at the 61st session of the UN General Assembly. The already bleak U.S. record in such fora grew more dismal, as the United States fulfilled and even exceeded its increasingly common role as the “spoiler”. Out of 54 resolutions on disarmament and security the Assembly adopted on December 6, the United States voted against 26. In 12 of those resolutions, it cast the lone “no” vote (see table).

Incredibly, the United States stood alone even against measures intended to mitigate factors fueling civil wars and armed conflict, particularly in the developing world. These measures include curbs on the illicit trade of small arms, as well as initial negotiations towards a treaty “establishing common international standards for” regulating the international sale of conventional weapons. The United States also provided the sole opposition to two resolutions aimed at preventing the deployment of weapons in outer space.

In its resistance to nuclear disarmament measures, the United States sometimes finds common cause with its most ardent adversaries. This was particularly true for the resolution on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The resolution urges states that have not yet ratified the treaty to do so, particularly when additional ratifications, including that of the United States, are still needed to bring the CTBT into force. The CTBT also calls upon states to continue observing the moratorium on nuclear test explosions and condemns North Korea’s October 9 nuclear weapons test. The General Assembly approved the resolution overwhelmingly, with 172 countries voting in favor. Only two states voted no: North Korea and the United States.

The CTBT is crucial to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and constraining the modernization of existing arsenals. Many arms control experts view U.S. opposition to the CTBT as supremely unwise because additional nuclear tests would allow potential U.S. adversaries to qualitatively improve their arsenals. Now we can add “blatant hypocrisy” to an assessment of the Bush administration’s already misguided and increasingly incoherent policy on nuclear testing. The administration reserves the right of the U.S to conduct nuclear tests, and recently directed the Department of Energy to increase its level of readiness to conduct future test explosions. At the same time, in an October explanation of its intention to vote against the CTBT resolution, the United State ironically expressed support for the paragraph condemning North Korea’s nuclear test, which further demanded that North Korea not conduct additional tests. The subtext of this statement could not be clearer: do as we say, not as we do.

Fueled by neoconservative skepticism toward democratic international institutions, on the global stage the Bush administration has been increasingly willing to selectively apply international norms in asserting an illusory national interest. These policies have succeeded only in promoting the law of the jungle over the rule of law, and have proved disastrous in practice. They have also undermined the realistic, collective efforts of the international community to solve global problems. Given the repeated failures of the “my way or the highway” approach to security exemplified by the quagmire in Iraq and the failure to halt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the time is past ripe for the Bush administration to change its course and finally give cooperation a chance.

Michael Spies is program associate for the New York-based Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy and co-editor of the forthcoming report, Nuclear Disorder or Cooperative Security? U.S. Weapons of Terror, the Global Proliferation Crisis, and Paths to Peace.


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