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Limiting the Tools of War



Time to Sign the Mine Ban Treaty

The U.S.'s stubborn refusal to accede to world opinion no longer makes sense and is further dimming its leadership status.

Throughout the twentieth century, U.S. foreign policy was pulled in contrary directions by the muscle-flexing appeal of realism and the utopian promise of liberalism. At the end of the cold war, many pundits suggested that liberalism, having won the ideological battle against Marxism, was now poised to shape and inform the policy realm. But as the debate over banning antipersonnel landmines (APLs) makes clear, the tension between realism and liberalism is alive and well.

The United States has refused to sign the international Mine Ban Treaty (MBT) because, it claims, APLs are vital to the security of U.S. soldiers deployed along the 38th parallel in Korea. At the same time, the United States played a key and perhaps decisive role in initiating the mine ban movement in the early 1990s, and it is the single largest supporter of international mine-clearing efforts in terms of funding, training, and technological support.

It is not unusual for the United States to express its commitment to liberalism by espousing an ideal (such as a mine-free world, diplomatic resolution of conflict, sustainable development, or an end to racial discrimination), and then, because of concerns about ceding relative power, demonstrate its equal commitment to realism by refusing to take the concrete steps other countries believe necessary for achieving the ideal. In the case of the mine ban, closing the gap between ideals and policies will be more difficult than is commonly thought, because although the Korea rationale for declining to sign the MBT is diminishing in importance, a new rationale for using APLs has emerged: low-intensity conflicts in remote areas in which special forces are involved. It appears that the United States will, unfortunately, continue to espouse the ideal of a mine-free world while refusing to take the most promising steps toward achieving it.

Although its position has some credence, the United States is wasting yet another opportunity (as it has done recently on the issues of climate change, racism, and biological diversity) to solidify the norms and institutions it has championed since World War II and on which its privileged position in world affairs depends. By not supporting initiatives such as the MBT, the United States is also putting unnecessary stress on multilateral structures such as NATO and the United Nations. This is a mistake at a time when the U.S. security agenda, centered on terrorism, Iraq, and North Korea, desperately needs the multilateral support the United States has cultivated for five decades.

Five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli, the father of realism, argued that in the long run, political position depends more on good laws than on good arms, although the latter always have a role. From Machiavelli's perspective, finding the proper balance between law and force is the key to maintaining political status and security. Today, placing some constraints on the use of force and adopting a higher level of commitment to international law as a solution to pressing global problems would best serve the long-term interests of the United States. In this regard, the costs of signing the MBT are small, whereas the benefits are great.

The human costs

In the mid-1990s, the problem of APLs entered the global agenda with a speed and urgency rarely seen in international politics. Bolstered in part by the publicity brought to the issue by high-profile figures such as Princess Diana and Queen Noor, its sudden visibility had its roots in the efforts of a network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that included Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

Mine ban advocates argued that these victim-activated devices often remained in the ground long after the wars in which they were deployed had ceased, ready to kill or maim noncombatants. Their long lives, ease of use, low cost, and high impact and the indiscriminate way in which they are often emplaced and then forgotten had, the advocates claimed, created a genuine humanitarian disaster.

By 1990, according to one estimate, as many as 110 million landmines had been buried in more than 60 countries. During the 1990s, APLs killed or maimed 26,000 people a year, 80 percent of them civilians. Children, attracted by the toy-like appearance of many mines, proved especially vulnerable. The long-term health costs have been enormous, and many countries have been unable to provide adequate care or rehabilitation services. Landmines have also seriously hindered postwar resettlement efforts and undermined agricultural productivity, because homesteaders and farmers have been afraid to use land that had been mined. In addition, removing mines is an extremely slow and expensive process. They are located and dismantled one at a time using metal detectors, search dogs, and other labor-intensive means. For most of the 1990s, the number of mines laid outstripped the number of mines cleared.

Recognizing these problems, a number of countries acted unilaterally to restrict and prohibit the use of APLs, and a sizeable portion of the international community mobilized against their use. Initially, advocates of a ban tried to negotiate an agreement through the UN system, but were frustrated by the slowness of the United Nations and the opposition of several major powers. They thus decided to work outside the UN framework. In 1996, Canada hosted an international conference entitled "Towards a Global Ban on Anti-Personnel Landmines." Representatives from 70 countries and 50 NGOs met in Ottawa and called for a total ban on the use of APLs. This meeting led to further negotiations in Oslo and ultimately the December 1997 signing of the Mine Ban Treaty.

In its final form, the MBT strictly prohibited the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of APLs. Article 2 of the treaty makes clear that only victim-activated mines designed to injure or maim people are covered. Of the principal types of mines used by the United States, self-deactivating APLs, which turn off automatically after a specified period of time, are included in the ban, but user-activated mines (mines set off by the troops that deploy them when enemy vehicles, as opposed to people, draw near) are not. User-activated mines include the Claymore, which upon detonation projects 700 steel balls in a lethal 60-degree arc. Troops usually set them in the ground attached to a firing device (pull wire) that is run at least 16 meters to another site. When enemy vehicles approach, it is set off by the troops.

At present, the treaty has been signed by 145 governments but not by the United States, which claims that the loss of this military capability would jeopardize forces deployed abroad. A number of frontline states--India, Pakistan, Russia, and China--have taken a similar position.

Landmines in South Korea

Landmines serve a number of important but largely defensive battlefield functions. They channel enemy forces into specific areas where they are more vulnerable to direct and indirect fire. APLs and antitank landmines (ATLs) also protect the flanks of armed forces, the weakest point of defense. In both these roles, mines provide advance warning of an attack and delay an enemy advance as invading forces try to breach these deadly obstacles. Mines also have what is called a "force multiplier effect" by causing direct casualties and by enhancing the effectiveness of other weapons. One study on mine warfare estimated that reinforcing a defensive position with mines enhances the effectiveness of all other defensive weapon systems by a factor of between 1.5 and 2.5.

According to U.S. policymakers, APLs play an indispensable role in defending South Korea from North Korea--the primary justification for the U.S. refusal to sign the MBT. Indeed, at first blush, the security situation on the Korean Peninsula might seem to provide a strong case for retaining APLs. The hostile peace that emerged after the 1953 Korean War continues today. The areas bordering the narrow demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries are the most fortified in the world. The situation is particularly tense because the South Korean capital of Seoul and a large part of North Korea's million-man army are both located close to the DMZ. Under these circumstances, landmines are viewed as a deterrent to a North Korean invasion, as well as delaying and degrading an assault should deterrence fail. They provide time, U.S. officials assert, for combined U.S. and South Korean forces to react without a significant loss of ground.

Even ex-U.S. military commanders in South Korea believe that APLs are not critical in maintaining the peninsula's security.

In reality, however, the case for the use of APLs in South Korea is a weak one. First, the military balance on the peninsula tilts strongly to the South, according to regional and military experts. South Korea spends three times as much as the North on defense, which has led to a considerable qualitative and technological edge over the North--an edge that compensates for the North's numerical superiority. About half of North Korea's major weapons date to the 1960s; the rest are even older. North Korea's aging T-62 tanks square off against fully modernized South Korean Type 88s and U.S. M1s. In terms of artillery, the North's largely towed arsenal is outgunned by U.S. and South Korean self-propelled howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems. In terms of aircraft, North Korea's antiquated Russian MIG19s and MIG21s would have to face modern AH-1 (Cobra) and AH-64 (Apache) attack helicopters and F16 fighters. In short, U.S. and South Korean forces would easily have control of both the ground and the skies.

Equally important, allied weapon systems would be served by sophisticated all-weather, day-night intelligence assets, including overhead reconnaissance satellites, radar-imaging aircraft, and ground-based detection systems. This equipment would not only coordinate friendly fire during an assault, it would degrade one of the North's perceived advantages--surprise--by detecting any large-scale massing of armored vehicles and troops prior to an attack.

In addition to possessing superior firepower and intelligence, the U.S.-South Korean forces would have the benefit of fighting on terrain that naturally favors the defender. Most of the land between the two countries is rough and mountainous; its few flat areas are rendered nearly impassible by marshy rice paddies. The natural axes of advance from the North have been mapped, targeted, and retargeted by numerous allied weapon systems.

Another factor is that the North's military readiness has been seriously eroded by economic decline. The loss of its cold war allies, its economic and political isolation, and bad weather have combined to produce chronic fuel and food shortages. These conditions have been linked to the deaths of as many as 2.5 million North Koreans and the migration of thousands of refugees into China. Moreover, they have prevented the country from conducting large military exercises. Indeed, the Pyongyang regime may very well have collapsed without the fuel oil and food donations it has received from the West during the last decade.

All these factors significantly reduce the likelihood of a North Korean assault as well as the likelihood of success if Pyongyang were foolish enough to attempt an invasion. Brookings Institution military analyst Michael O'Hanlon recently reviewed the military balance on the peninsula--a review that included quantitative analyses of a range of combat situations, including North Korean use of chemical weapons--and concluded that the combined U.S. and South Korean forces not only could defend South Korea without reinforcements but could stop a North Korean advance well north of Seoul. Any North Korean offensive, O'Hanlon said, would be "stopped cold."

Would landmines play a significant role in bringing about this outcome? Apparently not. The Department of Defense's standing response plan to a North Korean offensive does not call for the delivery of APLs to counter an initial attack. Furthermore, according to one Pentagon study, the APLs already in place would slow a North Korean advance by only a few minutes. This is perhaps because the psychological impact ascribed to APLs is overrated. In many instances during the Korean War, North Korean and Chinese soldiers quickly breached allied minefields by simply incurring heavy casualties. There is little reason to believe that today's highly disciplined, ideologically motivated North Korean soldiers would act otherwise.

Even former U.S. commanders in South Korea do not believe that APLs would significantly contribute to the country's defense. In a May 2001 letter to President Bush, a group of retired officers wrote that "APLs are not in any way critical or decisive in maintaining the peninsula's security." In fact, they noted, APLs might actually endanger U.S. soldiers by interfering with a counterinvasion of North Korea.

These arguments against the usefulness of APLs in South Korea are by no means meant to trivialize the real military threat posed by North Korea. Its forward-deployed artillery pieces and its long-range surface-to-surface missiles are capable of unleashing a no-warning and potentially devastating attack on Seoul. It is also on the verge of possessing a viable nuclear weapon assault capability. These are serious threats that the West must act to neutralize. But none of these threats are affected by the presence of APLs. In short, APLs are not significant in deterring or defeating a conventional North Korean attack, and they are utterly ineffective in dealing with the other kinds of threat posed by the North. The Korean case does not serve well as the foundation of the U.S. refusal to sign the MBT.

A potential new role for APLs

Throughout the 1990s, mine ban advocates assumed that once APLs ceased to play a role in South Korea's defense, the White House would agree to sign the MBT. Recently, however, the military has discovered a new role for APLs.

Many analysts today believe that the kind of conflict the United States is prepared to fight in Korea--two conventional armies squaring off against one another--is an anachronism. More likely are the types of operations that U.S. forces conducted in Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan: low-intensity conflicts in which U.S. troops face irregular forces and nonstate actors. Dealing with these threats may require small groups of forces to operate autonomously in remote, hostile areas. These light forces will have to be prepared to fight outnumbered and often without traditional backup air or artillery support. In these circumstances, the passive defenses provided by APLs could be important.

The lessons from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan are instructive in this regard. Although the United States established large bases at Bagram and Kandahar, the most damaging assaults against the Taliban and al-Qaeda were conducted by special forces units operating from remote bases in areas near the Pakistani border. These forces regularly deployed self-deactivating APLs and antitank systems to augment their defenses. In addition, during the Persian Gulf War, special operations forces working behind Iraqi lines also used APLs, and they will likely be used in a new war with Iraq and in its aftermath.

New nonlethal technologies such as sticky foam and antipersonnel microwaves can serve the same function as APLs.

Still, the utility of APLs in these situations should not be overstated. User-activated mines such as the Claymore could provide the same functions as APLs. Moreover, new nonlethal technologies could substitute for APLs. Examples include sticky foam, which impedes the progress of persons and vehicles; acoustic devices that emit intense high-power sound energy that disorients foot soldiers; victim-activated high-tension nets that immobilize groups of advancing enemy forces; and antipersonnel microwaves that temporarily raise body temperature to extremely uncomfortable levels. In addition, countries with highly effective special operations forces, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have managed to conduct combat operations without using APLs.

Despite the existence of alternatives, the Afghanistan experience will persuade many that APLs should be retained. The result will be continued reluctance to sign the MBT. But although the United States may benefit militarily by doing so, the long-term cost to the country will be considerably greater. From the perspective of much of the world, U.S. noncooperation on the landmine issue calls into question U.S. capacity to lead. It also risks undermining the multilateral structures that the United States has nurtured for more than 50 years and that have been integral to attaining and maintaining its preeminent position in world affairs.

The U.S. policy dilemma

At least since World War I, U.S. foreign policy has been guided by two priorities: the creation of a new world order based on liberal values and practices, and the preservation of U.S. preeminence through realist strategies of military dominance. During the cold war, the existence of a superpower rival made clear to all the severe constraints on multilateralism, and provided a virtually automatic justification for the use of force to address a wide range of problems. This helped keep tensions between these two foreign policy impulses from becoming unmanageable, and also persuaded many that they could be harmonized without much difficulty.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, the automatic justification for the use of force disappeared, along with many obstacles to multilateralism. As a stream of statements from UN officials and allied leaders makes clear, much of the world believes that the United States should now act on its own rhetoric and play a leadership role in consolidating and expanding the multilateral structures appropriate and necessary for global peace and prosperity. U.S. behavior is being carefully scrutinized: Is it using its unrivaled power responsibly as a world leader, or self-interestedly to maximize short-term national interests?

Initiatives such as the MBT offer low-cost opportunities for the United States to affirm its right to lead by sending clear messages to the rest of the world about its commitment to multilateralism. When the United States refuses to expand multilateral structures on pressing issues such as victim-activated mines, where it is clear that the costs of compliance are low, the world inevitably raises questions about the character of U.S. leadership and looks anew at its commitment to the guiding principles of larger structures such as NATO and the UN Security Council. Putting these institutions in jeopardy at a time when multilateral cooperation is clearly needed to combat terrorism and other transnational security threats is a grave mistake. The U.S. position in the world depends as much on the multilateral institutions that it helped to establish as on its national capabilities. Signing the MBT will help to reaffirm its commitment to providing the sort of world leadership that other countries will want to support.

Recommended reading

Maxwell A. Cameron, Robert J. Lawson and Brian W. Tomlin (eds.), To Walk Without Fear: The Global Movement to Ban Landmines (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Richard A. Matthew, Bryan McDonald, and Ken R. Rutherford (eds.), War's Hidden Legacy: Human Security and the Mine Ban Treaty (Albany: SUNY, forthcoming 2003).

Richard A. Matthew and Ken R. Rutherford, "Banning Landmines in the American Century," International Journal on World Peace (June 1999): 24.

Michael O'Hanlon. "Stopping a North Korean Invasion: Why Defending South Korea is Easier than the Pentagon Thinks," International Security (Spring 1998): 135.

The Military Balance 2002-2003 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Jody Williams, "Landmines: A Global Socioeconomic Crisis," Social Justice 22:4 (Winter 1995): 97-114.

Richard A. Matthew ( is associate professor of Planning, Policy and Design, and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, and director of UCI's Global Environmental Change and Human Security Project ( Ted Gaulin is a PhD student in political science at the UCI.