News | May 15, 2018

The Politics of Weapons Inspections: Assessing WMD Monitoring and Verification Regimes (Book Review)

By Dr. Margaret Sloane and Dr. Justin Anderson PRISM Volume 7, no. 3

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The Politics of Weapons Inspections: Assessing WMD Monitoring and Verification Regimes

By Nathan E. Busch and Joseph F. Pilat
Stanford University Press, 2017
400 pp., $ 29.95
ISBN: 9-781-50360-160-4

Reviewed By Margaret Sloane And Justin Anderson

Dr. Margaret Sloane and Dr. Justin Anderson are Senior Research Fellows with the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction at National Defense University.

Nathan E. Busch and Joseph F. Pilat in their book The Politics of Weapons Inspections: Assessing WMD Monitoring and Verification Regimes draw attention to the important role that politics can play within weapons of mass destruction (WMD) verification, but the title promises more than the authors deliver. The authors analyze three cases of disarmament using inspections (South Africa, Iraq, and Libya); examine how the verification of global nuclear disarmament might or might not work; and apply the book’s lessons to what they term difficult cases, which may be subject to future inspections (North Korea, Iran, and Syria). The studies provide a useful survey and side-by-side comparison of the successes, pitfalls, and likely future challenges of efforts to verify individual state compliance with WMD agreements. The authors on occasion fail to place the case studies within a broader geopolitical context, leaving important gaps in their analysis, which makes for an uneven read. As an example, the authors point to shortfalls in multilateral verification regimes without fully assessing how these regimes are limited and sometimes hamstrung by the external and internal politics of sovereign states.

In the post–World War II era, the threats posed by WMD led states to negotiate multilateral agreements that sought to limit or prevent the development and proliferation of these weapons, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The terms of these agreements varied, but the NPT and CWC both included provisions for verifying compliance. An important tool for verification is on-site inspections, which feature experts who visit sites and through observation, collection of samples, and other activities gather evidence to be used to assess compliance. The experts report their assessment to the political authority responsible for overseeing the agreement. This authority (or authorities) makes the ultimate decision about whether the inspected party is in compliance with the agreement and if not, whether its failure to comply was through honest error, negligence, or willful noncompliance. Verification and monitoring agreements result from states’ negotiations to address a security threat and state governments make the final judgment about compliance or noncompliance.

Despite the origins of these agreements, the authors seem to expect the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to be larger than the sum of their parts and independent from them as well. Their verification processes, however, are deliberately embedded—by the states that negotiated the agreements and who provide the funding, authority, and means of enforcement for verification regimes—within a political framework and therefore they are constrained by the calculations and actions of independent, sovereign political actors. Both organizations reflect their members’ wishes and have little agency to act independently, although individual leaders and inspectors can certainly have an impact. But these political dynamics are not addressed within the book’s case studies, as the authors fluctuate between explaining the limits of inspections, verification, and monitoring and calling for actions by the IAEA and OPCW that may exceed the wishes of the member states.

While they recognize the limitations of means of conducting verification and monitoring, including possibly greater difficulty inherent in verifying chemical and biological weapons-related activities in comparison to nuclear, Busch and Pilat nevertheless argue that the IAEA and OPCW are “not sufficiently utilizing all of the tools at their disposal.” They repeatedly criticize the IAEA and the OPCW for not going further in investigating suspect states by exercising options such as special or challenge inspections. The two organizations, they write, are pulling their punches with regard to these types of non-routine inspections, which are designed to catch potential violators. This criticism, however, overlooks important aspects of how these organizations operate, particularly given the book’s focus on politics.

While both the IAEA and OPCW are international organizations supported by civil servants, they exist and operate within political environments and report to and are sustained by their member states. Their actions are conditioned by, and in some cases constrained by, political imperatives. The criticism also overlooks an important difference between the organizations’ legal mandates. In the case of the IAEA, the Secretariat can request a special inspection, which the country in question can accept or refuse. (In fact, the IAEA called for a special inspection in North Korea in 1993. After North Korea refused to accept it, the IAEA Board of Governors concluded that the country was in non-compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.) In the OPCW’s case a member state must call for a challenge inspection; not the organization itself. This call can be blocked by a three-quarters majority of the states seated on the organization’s Executive Council. If the inspection is not stopped, the subject country can still refuse to accept it. Given these onerous constraints, it is no surprise that thus far no member state of the OPCW has requested a challenge inspection. While the OPCW’s member states and the IAEA’s Secretariat may need to further utilize special or challenge inspections, recommending how they should do so within their political context and legal mandates would have been more useful and realistic.

The authors present an adequate summary of the Iraq case, which one of us has researched extensively and participated in as a member of the Iraq Survey Group, without delving too deeply into the politics and details of inspections and what transpired in the multi-year process of verification and monitoring. Perhaps this is too much to require of a single case study, but the omission of details (to include the politics and geopolitics that shaped, and ultimately significantly constrained, multilateral weapon inspections in Iraq) makes the discussion less rich and informative than it might have been. It is not possible to understand the complexities and limitations faced by international inspection teams in Iraq without a discussion, which is largely absent in this case study, of the divergent and often conflicting political agendas of different members of the UN Security Council. The lessons learned discussion for this case overlooks the importance of intelligence sharing and the work of inspectors, leaving the reader with an incomplete view of what is needed to successfully accomplish verification and monitoring.

The book is on stronger ground when the authors shift to a discussion of some of the scientific and technical challenges to developing and implementing verification regimes. The fifth chapter about how verifying global nuclear disarmament could work is thought-provoking and adds depth and reality to a lofty goal whose fulfillment would rest on verifiable compliance. It is an interesting exercise that highlights the limits of verification and its reliance on political will and trust. Without both factors verification may be limited to a point of uselessness. As the authors acknowledge at the end of the chapter, “Ultimately, verification requirements and their prescribed effectiveness will be decided politically. . .” This underlines a hard fact that deserves more attention in the wake of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, open for signature at the time of this writing: future deep cuts of nuclear arsenals and promulgation of a verification regime, not currently part of the treaty, will require fundamental political changes to both the international system and the internal politics of several current nuclear weapon states. Prism