US president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev are planning to make unprecedented cuts in their strategic nuclear arsenals. But the arms reduction talks when, or if, they begin, will certainly be a hard slog.
The Russians know that the US as a nation has a low threshold for treaty tolerance. Former US president George W. Bush, for instance, believed tearing up a treaty was a step toward lasting peace. In December 2001, he decided to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. As Bush put it bluntly in his first major foreign policy speech that year, "We must move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM Treaty."
But then, the US entered into the pact with great alacrity because the Russians had closed the missile gap and were developing monster weapons such as the SS-18 ICBM. This was missile impossible – the 10-warhead, 200-tonne missile was by any reckoning the ultimate doomsday weapon. One single SS-18 could deliver the explosive power of 1540 Hiroshima type bombs (or 20 million tonnes of TNT) over US cities. Such was the fear it caused in the Pentagon that they promptly named it Satan.
The Americans knew that the SS-18s would have simply dug up their ICBM clusters in North Dakota. The ABM Treaty allowed the Americans a defence shield – however flimsy – over its missiles, while the Russians, confident of their anti-ballistic system, preferred to protect Moscow.
But after the Cold War turned to thaw and the Russians destroyed huge numbers of their strategic weapons (and poured concrete down the silos!) the US felt that the window of vulnerability had finally been shut. For the Pentagon the ABM Treaty, which now stood in the way of its Star Wars fantasy, had outlived its utility.
So why thrash out a treaty, if only to trash it later? Treaties are signed when countries want to buy time – a little breathing space before the next round in the diplomatic tug of war. Look at the record.
Even as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was being signed, Hitler had no intention of abiding by it. The Nazis were consolidating their Eastern European conquests before launching their ill-fated blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union.
When Japanese ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura and special envoy Saburo Kurusu were negotiating with the Americans in Washington in December 1941, the Japanese imperial navy had set sail to bomb Pearl Harbor. And as US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was negotiating with his Vietnamese counterpart, he was urging President Richard Nixon to intensify the bombing of North Vietnam.
India has gone through the misery of drawing up treaties that should never have been allowed to disgrace the negotiating table. After dealing with Pakistan in seven summits, the Lahore Declaration was signed. But even as he was signing it, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif had initiated incursions into Kashmir in 1999.
The Pakistanis were following precedent. Prime minister Z.A. Bhutto signed the Simla Agreement in 1972 ostensibly to make peace. He begged Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi not to make a spectacle of the over 93,000 soldiers of the beaten Pakistan army. This was the biggest surrender of troops since WW II, and the Indian Army held them in camps for nearly a year. But once the PoWs were home, Bhutto was back to his “Indians are dogs” routine.
Every time there is a flashpoint in India-Pakistan relations, the influence czars in New Delhi call for the abrogation of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan. They say that parched Pakistan will then be forced to behave. The Indus Waters Treaty is perhaps the only pact between the two nuclear-armed neighbours that’s working.
But the US has been the prime culprit. It has a long history of breaking treaties. The idea of Manifest Destiny gained popularity in the US in the 1830s and 1840s. As people began settling the western territories, wresting control of the land from the original Native American inhabitants, many Americans came to believe that it was their nation’s “manifest destiny” to possess the entire North American continent.
Every treaty the US entered into with the Red Indians was revoked and the natives were herded into reservations. Ask almost any Native American how Manhattan Island was bought and he will almost always say “with beads”.
Mexico has had the misfortune of being America’s neighbour. The US leveraged peace treaties to lull the Mexicans into a false sense of security and then sliced away chunks of the country. Texas, California, Florida – prime Mexican real estate.
Take the mother of all treaties, the Treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648. The treaty put an end to decades of bitter fighting in Europe. After four years of talks the rulers of Europe decided the only way to end wars was to declare that the internal affairs of a nation were off limits to external meddling. This system worked, notwithstanding the ideological hiccup of the Napoleonic wars, to preserve the general peace in Europe for another 300 years.
The Treaty of Westphalia paved the way for nation states to come into existence and limited the church’s overbearing role in politics. US president John Quincy Adams’ view that the US must work toward fostering friendship among nations has its origin in this treaty. In the last 18 years, in its role as the world’s policeman, the US has well and truly buried that hallowed notion.