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[Published in the New York Times, Sept. 24, 2001]

America's Sovereignty
in a New World


President Bush says that the Sept. 11 attack on the United States marks a new kind of war, the first war of the 21st century. There is a sense in which that's true, but what's chilling is the sense in which it's not, the sense in which the attack was old-fashioned. The terrorists didn't use biological or nuclear weapons, and next time they well could. A future enemy assault could kill not 6,000 people on American soil, but 600,000.

What would it mean for the United States to get serious about fighting that kind of war? For one thing, Colin Powell would have to prevail over Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in a struggle for the administration's foreign-policy soul. This is not just a question of "multilateralism" versus "unilateralism." President Bush has been consulting with our allies during this crisis, and that's good. But to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists, the president will have to go further and rethink an issue that has long divided Republican moderates and conservatives: the extreme devotion of the conservatives to national sovereignty.

The problem of sovereignty, in this context, is that controlling the spread of lethal technologies outside your borders often means giving the world more control over your own behavior. One example is the nuclear test ban treaty, which Mr. Powell endorsed years ago but the Bush administration opposes. Though President Bush would be happy for other nations never again to test nuclear weapons, he isn't willing to have America's hands tied.

Will the president now reconsider this policy? After all, the testing of nuclear weapons often leads to their development, creating more weapons-grade materials that could fall into the hands of the well-financed, well-organized and infinitely hate- filled terrorists whose existence is now manifest. If the president won't reconsider, that is a bad sign. The sacrifice of sovereignty entailed by the test-ban treaty is trivial compared with the sacrifice necessary to address the nuclear and biological threats in truly serious fashion.

What would an accord that was up to this challenge look like? The best existing model is the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Mr. Powell supported and Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld opposed. Under the convention, any member nation can demand, on short notice, that an international team inspect a given building in any other member nation.

This agreement had a loophole to address concerns over sovereignty. Though a nation would be obliged to escort inspectors to the perimeter of a search site, it could thereafter stall them indefinitely through legal maneuvering (though such resistance would draw global attention and suspicion a service in its own right). Even with this weakness, the convention is the closest thing yet to a weapons-of-mass-destruction accord with teeth: intrusive, short-notice inspections, and trade sanctions (if mild) against nonmember nations.

Conservative concerns about sovereignty aren't wholly frivolous. Which American buildings get searched has always been determined by American courts. Ensuring that searches authorized by an international body are constitutional and that they don't become tools of espionage or simple harassment is a stiff challenge. (And it is only one of many challenges. For example, enticing or even coercing reluctant states to participate is vital in the long run, since the strongest accord is a global one.) But the point is that however stiff the challenges seem, we can no longer dodge them.

Yet so far President Bush has done just that. In July, the United States angered Europe and much of the world by rejecting a draft protocol that would have added enforcement mechanisms to the 1972 ban on biological weapons.

By itself, the administration's decision is not inexcusable. Controlling biological weapons is much harder than controlling nuclear weapons. They're microscopic, after all, and the devices that make them have legitimate medical and industrial uses. Further, inspections raise particularly thorny issues of industrial or national espionage. So inevitably this first stab at controlling biological weapons, even though seven years in the making, had real flaws. What is alarming is that the administration has so far offered no alternative.

And how could it? An administration whose currently dominant foreign-policy faction opposed both the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty both tame compared to what is needed is just not up to the challenge. Unless, that is, it recognizes that the war on terrorism truly is of a wholly new kind that it must be fought on many fronts, including the creation of international policing mechanisms that could impinge on national sovereignty as never before.

To some, agreements among nations may seem like hopelessly weak weapons against the Osama bin Ladens of the world, who aren't known for consulting international law before acting. But terrorists have to get their weapons of mass destruction somewhere. The tighter the world's control on the ingredients of those weapons, the more trouble they'll have.

Clinging to American sovereignty at all costs isn't just wrong. It's impossible. When a few dozen people can destroy the two largest buildings in your largest city, it's safe to say that some portion of your national sovereignty has been lost. And technological evolution will make it easier and easier for small groups to violate sovereignty on a larger and larger scale.

And the problem is not limited to nuclear and biological weapons. The Internet can spread dangerous information relentlessly and offers terrorists a cheap means of international organization. If governments don't respond with new forms of international organization, civilization as we've come to know it could truly be over.

So the question isn't whether to surrender national sovereignty. The question is how carefully and systematically, or chaotically and catastrophically? Would you rather that your office building face a remote risk of being searched by international inspectors, or the risk of being blown up? Like everyone else, I wish we didn't have to make that choice, but the direction of history demands that we do.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of ``Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.''