Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 196

On a day when Russian-U.S. arms control negotiations were taking place in Moscow, Russian diplomats at the United Nations in New York moved to internationalize the Kremlin’s opposition to proposed U.S. changes in the ABM treaty. The Russian action was not unexpected. Moscow had last week reportedly begun to circulate a draft resolution condemning both U.S. calls for revision of the 1972 accord and related American plans to develop a national ballistic missile defense system.

Yesterday Moscow formalized that initiative by introducing a resolution in the UN General Assembly’s disarmament and international security committee. The document, which was cosponsored by China and Belarus, called for “renewed efforts… to preserve and strengthen the ABM treaty through full and strict compliance.” The resolution also stated that “there shall be no deployment of antiballistic missile systems for defense of the territory of its country and no provision of a base for such defense.” Finally, the document ruled out any transfer to third countries of “antiballistic missile systems or their components.”

Before being submitted to the full General Assembly, the Russian resolution must first be approved by the disarmament committee. The United States, however, has no power to veto a General Assembly resolution, as it would a Security Council measure. General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding, and thus could not formally constrain any U.S. ballistic missile defense plans. Resolutions from the General Assembly do express the will of the UN’s 188 members, however, and therefore carry political weight. Approval of the resolution would clearly be an embarrassment for the United States.

Russian and Chinese diplomats at the UN yesterday denied that the introduction of the ABM resolution was intended to confront the United States directly. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy representative to the First Committee, described the resolution as a neutral document “based on the language of the [ABM] treaty itself and [on a] joint statement” of the Russian and U.S. presidents (presumably one of those issued by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton this past spring at a G-7 summit in Cologne). The resolution “is not targeted at any country and does not infringe upon anybody’s interests,” Antonov said.

That was clearly window-dressing, however. China’s own representative to the committee, Hu Xiaodi, described the resolution as “mild, reasonable and factual.” But he also spoke of repeated U.S. calls over many years for other countries to comply with existing international arms control treaties and Washington’s own penchant for tabling compliance resolutions at the General Assembly. He suggested that Russia and China were merely following the same principle in introducing yesterday’s resolution.

Anticipating at least one possible U.S. objection, the Russian and Chinese diplomats yesterday also denied that the ABM treaty–which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union–is a purely bilateral matter. They repeated the argument that the ABM accord is a cornerstone of the entire system of international arms control agreements and suggested thereby that it is a proper subject for consideration by the world community. Hu Xiaodi, who yesterday took what was described as the unusual step of briefing reporters on China’s position, charged that amending the ABM in pursuit of national missile defense would “tip the global strategic balance, trigger a new arms race, and put the world and regional stability in jeopardy.” That is precisely the kind of language that Moscow has used in voicing its own opposition to U.S. policies in this area (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, October 21).

The Russian resolution could garner support in the General Assembly. As Moscow and Beijing are certainly aware, there is some uneasiness in other foreign capitals over Washington’s missile defense plans and its efforts to revise the ABM accord. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate’s rejection last week of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was widely criticized and only reinforced concerns that the United States may be abandoning its role as a leader of nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. There is, finally, resentment among many UN members over Washington’s failure to pay off its debts to the UN. All of these factors could help build support for yesterday’s Russian-sponsored resolution and embarrass the U.S. government to some degree along the way.