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Russia/U.S.: Does U.S. Withdrawal From ABM Set A Historic Precedent?

The U.S. recently told Russia it was withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in six months' time in order to pursue a national missile-defense system. The decision to pull out of a major international accord was billed as the first of its kind. But is it such a rare event?

Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "The end of an era." "Tearing up the treaty." "Burying the Cold War."

Those were some of the headlines used in U.S. and European papers last week to describe U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, announced on 13 December.

The treaty, signed by former U.S. President Richard Nixon and then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, barred both sides from developing national missile-defense shields. The idea was that the resulting threat of "mutually assured destruction," or MAD, would prevent nuclear war. Russia called it a cornerstone of global stability. Bush said it was a Cold War relic that prevented the U.S. from developing a missile-defense system to protect it from new potential threats -- so-called "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea who are suspected of trying to develop nuclear capabilities.

Bush's move -- though long-anticipated -- was seen as nothing less than historic. Although it is not a technical violation of the treaty, which requires only that signatories give six months' notice before withdrawing, the U.S. decision calls into question whether treaties and other international accords are largely symbolic agreements that it is not necessary to strictly uphold.

Trevor Findlay heads VERTIC, an international non-governmental organization that observes the negotiation, monitoring, and implementation of international agreements. Of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the 1972 treaty, he said, "The ABM case is extremely rare, and of course it's quite rare that such an important country should withdraw from an agreement."

Findlay says the only other similar example his organization knows of in the post-World War II arms-control era is North Korea. In the mid-1990s -- amid suspicion it was producing nuclear weapons -- Pyongyang said it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which had gone into effect in 1970.

Nicholas Sims, an expert on international treaties at the London School of Economics, picks up the story. He says the North Korean government, which retracted its withdrawal notice one day before it was due to abandon the treaty, has existed in a kind of technical gray area ever since.

"This was back in 1994 and one day before the three months' notice [of withdrawal from the treaty] was due to expire, [North Korea] announced that they [were] suspending the implementation of their notice of withdrawal," Sims says. "So ever since June 1994 they've occupied this rather unusual position where they regard themselves as not fully bound by the non-proliferation treaty on nuclear weapons, but everybody else regards them as still bound because they haven't yet implemented that notice of withdrawal."

Washington's decision to pull out of the ABM Treaty does have some historical precedents. In 1798, the U.S. pulled out of a 20-year alliance and commercial treaty with France. And in the 1840s, Congress gave President James K. Polk authority to withdraw from an 1827 treaty with Great Britain regarding the northwestern state of Oregon.

In those cases, the president sought congressional approval before abandoning the treaties. But the U.S. Constitution offers only vague guidelines on whether the president must consult with Congress before abandoning a treaty. In the case of the ABM Treaty, Bush warned members of Congress of his intention, but acted unilaterally in choosing to withdraw. Some members of Congress have indicated that they may challenge Bush's decision in the new year.

Some experts say the ABM is not the first treaty in recent history that the U.S. has abandoned, and cite then-President Jimmy Carter's move in 1979 to end the 1954 U.S.-Taiwan joint defense treaty. But Sims says that could not technically be considered a withdrawal: "That was just a consequence of the recognition of the People's Republic of China, and hence the 'de-recognition' of the so-called Republic of China in Taiwan. So I don't think that's fully a withdrawal from a bilateral treaty."

The U.S. has been close to pulling out of the ABM Treaty on at least one other occasion. Ronald Reagan -- who pursued his own strategic defensive initiative, dubbed "Star Wars," during his presidency in the 1980s -- also appeared to be looking for a way out of ABM.

The Reagan administration issued what it called a "broad interpretation" of the ABM Treaty. This stretched it to accommodate tests that it would probably have barred under a more conventional reading. In the end, the "Star Wars" program was shelved when research failed to show it was viable.

While it's unusual for a country to pull out completely from an international treaty, Findlay of VERTIC says countries often find "wiggle room" to maneuver.

"It's much more common for states to remain parties [to agreements] but not comply fully with their obligations," Findlay says. "It's such an extreme step to take, to withdraw from an agreement, that states normally find ways around the problem."

One prominent example of this approach is Iraq, which is still party to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention but is believed to have developed germ-warfare programs. Iraq has also refused to readmit UN weapons inspectors to prove it is not developing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

Critics point to this lack of effective verification as one of the flaws of such sweeping international treaties. Just because a country signs up does not mean it is meeting its obligations.