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MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been beating his big diplomatic idea with the consistency of a drum. Either the great powers forge new security and arms control agreements with which all can live, he says, or the world will face renewed instability and the specter of a new arms race. A corollary to this is his idea that either NATO transforms itself into a security structure that Russia can embrace, or suspicion will again divide Europe, causing defense spending to remain higher than anyone needs. Putin’s diplomatic ideas don’t sit easily with either his reputation in the West as a KGB apparatchik, and his internal reputation as a hardliner on defense (born of the war in Chechnya). Indeed, coming so soon after NATO planes pounded Yugoslavia, Putin's statements about Russia’s possible membership in NATO were a bombshell within Russia: “How could we possibly join NATO after that?” peaceable, ordinary Russians asked. Most in the West scoff at the suggestion. NATO with Russia as a member? Absurd. But Putin is not joking, nor is he being absurd. Indeed, with patience and persistence he is articulating a coherent vision of what the post Cold War security environment should be, and is doing so in the face of the most revolutionary proposition international diplomacy has faced since Stalin and Mao were ruling. What is that proposition and who is the revolutionary? The who is easy. In proposing to build a defensive system for the US against a rogue missile attack President Bush is not only challenging the ABM Treaty of nearly thirty years ago, not the very foundations of not only arms control alone, but of international security, indeed of diplomacy itself. Bush's argument, in essence, is that treaties and detailed arms control agreements are superfluous in a world in which Russia and America are no longer enemies. Detailed balance of power arrangements, Bush's people insist, are for rivals. Between friends, an informal understanding of what people desire is sufficient. Of course, it is not. The point of security agreements for settled democracies like those in Europe and America, as well as for infant democracies such as Russia and dictatorships like China, is to establish predictability and so reduce guessing and the risk of war. Moreover, treaties are signed not only because they provide the signatories with standards and means of verification, but also because countries outside the agreement benefit from knowing what to expect. Economists call the external benefits that contracts such as treaties provide a “reputation effect.” Its importance lies in the fact that not only signatories to an agreement are bound by it, but others outside the agreement can depend on predictable behavior by the signatories. By making diplomatic bargains explicit in this way, deviations from the agreement are more easily detected and redressed. Everyone is better off because everyone knows what is promised by a treaty. President Bush and his people want to throw these benefits away. Indeed, it is not just arms control treaties that they want to nullify and avoid, but international treaties altogether. The Kyoto protocol on global warming might require sacrifice by America’s energy guzzling consumers? Undermine it. A permanent international court might dare indict an American soldier or official for war crimes? Prevent the UN from establishing such a court. The international nuclear test ban treaty might restrict development of new weapons by the US military? Don’t sign it. The same goes for the international convention on germ warfare. Even an international treaty to control trade in hand guns was treated as beyond the pale for America, as it seemed to insult the American “right to bear arms.” What the Bush administration seeks above all else is unbounded diplomatic freedom. Of course, when it suits American interests, the US will embrace multilateral agreements. In a speech last week the US State Department’s director of policy planning, Richard Haass, even provided a name for this US attitude: a la carte multilateralism. America under President Bush seems to think that international diplomacy is some type of smorgasbord, and can pick and choose which international rules it will play by and which it will ignore. Given America’s preponderant power today, most of the world sees this goal as extreme arrogance when they are not like China in seeing it as outright dangerous. Yet such freedom seems to be the Bush administration’s highest priority. With a dismissive sneer, President Bush and his advisors are willing to let the world run great risks in order to achieve it. What is national missile defense good for, but to increase America’s freedom? After all, conventional deterrence still works. Indeed, leaders in all the supposed “rogue states” know that their societies would cease to exist if they attacked America with nuclear or biological weapons. The Gulf War of a decade ago demonstrated this. Saddam Hussein possessed missiles and deadly biological agents yet did not use them because he was deterred by the implicit threat, made by former US Secretary of State James Baker, that the US would retaliate with all necessary means, including nuclear weapons. The Bush vision of diplomacy proposes a world that is both lawless and arbitrary. That combination of maladies is usually only associated with despotism, which can be described as the anarchy of lawless rulers. Now the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy seeks an autocrat’s freedom from restraint. Our world has become a strange place when the only person credibly challenging the premises behind such a lawless vision is a former KGB spy.
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