In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, analysts said everything was going to change and they were proved right. Just as the decades following the two world wars were heavily influenced by their outcomes and atrocities, the ‘war on terror’ has been the backdrop and set the tone for most international interactions for the past 20 years.
And yet just weeks before the attacks, two international arms control measures were coming to a head at the United Nations (UN) which – without the impact of 9/11 – could have changed the future history of arms control for the better. But as the world changed course, both measures ended up creating major repercussions still being played out now.
The first measure was an international effort to address a problematic illicit trade. The UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons was adopted in July 2001 – following repeated attempts to weaken its language from a then newly-elected Bush administration in the US – and later built on to include legal instruments for tracking small arms and light weapons.
This eventually led to the Arms Trade Treaty of 2013 to prevent weapons being sold to human rights abusers. But, as witnessed all too clearly in recent weeks with the Taliban’s ability to accrue weaponry, transport it to Afghanistan, and secure further weapons on the way to the takeover of Kabul, its effectiveness has proved to be far too limited.
Just a few weeks after the small arms and light weapons measure was adopted, a long-standing attempt to improve the Biological Weapons Convention via a strengthening protocol was curtailed by the US and, by December 2001, all hope of strengthening the Biological Weapons Treaty via a legally-binding protocol had been killed off completely.
This protocol would have strengthened scientific knowledge and capacities worldwide, especially in areas on the frontline of animal-to-human disease mutations – now so relevant following COVID-19 – as well as establishing ways to monitor and clarify concerning behaviours in countries with bioweapons capabilities, such as visits to Level 4 biolabs in Russia and China.
Resilience must be built in
The journeys of these two measures matter because arms control, while not needing to be 100 per cent effective or perfect, is a major tool for ensuring transparency, accountability, constraint, and predictability in keeping the world safe – but it needs a resilient, long-term, strategic framework in place to succeed.
If the Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the subsequent Arms Trade Treaty had been given teeth and properly implemented, terrorist organizations would now find it much harder to procure weaponry for their attacks, and the Taliban could have been slowed in acquiring the wherewithal to overwhelm the Afghan army.
If the US had supported strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention in 2001, monitoring and clarification measures would have been allowed in the Wuhan laboratories, and the hypothesis which took root regarding COVID-19 and its possible ‘accidental release’ may never have arisen or, at least, been resolved more cooperatively.
Around that time in December 2001, the US also gave notice to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which had provided a significant part of the framework for strategic discussions between the US and Russia particularly over the issue of nuclear weapons and the prevention of weapons in space.
Although the withdrawal was no surprise following years of concerns being raised about Russian non-compliance and counterclaims from Russia, it removed constraints on the development of new space weaponry, setting the tone for US-Russia arms control – or lack of it – from then on.
The fallout from 2001 to now
It is no coincidence that following all these momentous decisions in late 2001, concerns in the US over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came back to the fore just one year later. But with the failure to find any bioweapons or unaccounted-for chemical weaponry, and no evidence of a renewed clandestine nuclear programme, it was clear Western intelligence – uncertain of its knowledge and understanding – and its political interpretation had got it wrong.
Despite these uncertainties, the US and its allies went to war in Iraq anyway, settling old scores, rewriting the rule book in the Middle East, and taking away much-needed military resources from Afghanistan – all decisions which have contributed to region’s problems and undoubtedly have been part of what led to the fall of Kabul in August 2021.
This huge mistake continues to undermine any concerns the US and its allies raise about compliance with arms control agreements – particularly from Russia, Syria, and Iran. Diplomats, officials, and the public in many countries no longer trust US intelligence in the way they used to, while those seeking to undermine these agreements and wriggle out of their commitments use the mistakes made over Iraq to their advantage.
Of particular note is that the pattern over Russia’s compliance with arms control agreements – the US calls it out, threatens to withdraw, and Russia calls the US’s bluff – keeps repeating. During the Obama administration, the US and Russia did negotiate New START which put strategic nuclear arms control back on track, but major concerns were also being raised over Russia’s compliance with two long-standing agreements, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Open Skies Treaties.
In both cases, Russia countered claims about issues of compliance, the US threatened withdrawal, its bluff was called, and the US pulled out, playing right into Russia’s hands. This pattern of behaviour results in the US being viewed as the ‘bad guy’ for pulling out, Russia is no longer held to account, and international controls on their weaponry is removed.
Opportunities exist to effect change
But even after 20 years of repeat behaviour, it remains possible to put this right. The election of President Biden in the US has resulted in New START being extended and strategic discussions with Russia reignited. French president Emmanuel Macron has laid out a Strategic Vision for Europe which calls for a new, concerted, international approach to deal with the crisis in arms control and recently NATO’s Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg called for the modernization of arms control with the inclusion of China.
Although COVID-19 has disrupted much of the international discourse on arms control, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the much-delayed nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, and the first meeting of states party to the new Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons could all work – with urgency – to collectively forge new international consensus on a long-term, resilient, and effective framework for arms control.
Just as 9/11 itself became a major turning point, its 20th anniversary is an opportune time to develop a new international approach, to recognize analysis has not always been robust, and that arms control progress has been erratic at best. A new wave of nuclear proliferation, weapons in space and an untrammelled arms trade is looming unless world leaders use the opportunities which lie ahead.