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The Paradox of Unilateralism: An Early Assessment of the George W. Bush Approach to Nuclear Arms Control

Strategic Nuclear Weapons in George W. Bush’s National Security Policy
The end-of-Cold War policies and agreements forged by the G.H.W. Bush administration demonstrated an understanding that America’s strategic environment was rapidly changing, and indeed that certain bold moves could shape the direction of these changes more favorably, resulting in a less high-profile role for nuclear weapons in American highest-priority relationships. National security policies between the two presidents Bush were dominated domestically by budgetary concerns and internationally by nationalist wars, humanitarian interventions, and an increasingly ad hoc approach to the nuclear proliferation problem. At the international level, the International Atomic Energy Agency did In the 1990s attempt to strengthen the performance of its tasks by demanding more full-scope safeguards in the inspection regimes it negotiates bilaterally with NPT member-states. However, these efforts were overshadowed by the activities of non-compliant NPT members such as Iraq and North Korea, and by non-NPT members India and Pakistan. Thus far in his administration, George W. Bush has elevated a neorealist view of national security above the concern for balanced budgets, and has initiated a broad restructuring of the U.S. nuclear posture. Three developments are essential to understanding this vision of national security: 1) the May 2002 Moscow Treaty, also known as the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT); 2) the May 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR); and 3) the September 2002 release of the U.S. National Security Strategy. The principles underlying these documents comprise the clearest illustrations of the unilateral mindset of foreign policy in the Bush administration. A brief discussion of each will lead to allow me to relate these national strategic principles to international regime ramifications.

The May 2002 Moscow Treaty between the United States and Russia had its origins in President Bush’s November 2001 announcement that the U.S. arsenal of deployed strategic warheads would be reduced from 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,200 over a ten year period. The policy would not be contingent on Moscow’s decision to act in kind or not. Rather, the cuts were part of a much broader realignment of the U.S. strategic posture in which future possible developments in Russia were taken into account but were in no way the sole driving force behind the restructuring process. As stated earlier, the overall perspective was not focused on identifying a hierarchy of threats and then adapting the national security policy to match, but rather was geared toward ensuring that the United States maintained flexible and asymmetric capabilities in order to deter and defeat any emerging threat, whether national or transnational, regional or global. The revolutionary advancements in both the precision and destructiveness of conventional weaponry provided the opportunity to remove thousands of strategic weapons from active deployment. Furthermore, the Bush administration saw no need for a return to the long, technically detailed treaty negotiations of the Cold War to implement these decisions.9 As one report summarized the view of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, “Treaties, he said, could be useful for dealing with enemies like the Soviet Union of 1972, but not the Russia of today. In a new era when America’s enemies are less powerful, less obvious but potentially more numerous, treaties might be too formal, too restrictive and take too long to negotiate to address fast-changing threats….”10 The Russian position, however, was driven both by domestic politics and diplomatic custom. Signing a strategic arms reduction treaty with the United States would gain President Vladimir Putin credibility against domestic political forces skeptical of an increasingly open relationship with the United States, especially with the American president traveling to Moscow to sign the accord.

The brief treaty, lacking in any verification measures and requiring only the removal – not the destruction – of nuclear warheads over a 10-year period was signed in May 2002 and the United State Senate voted unanimously in favor of ratifying the treaty in March 2003.11 However, the Russian Duma is once again linking arms control matters to broader U.S.-Russian relations, specifically, postponing a vote on ratification in protest of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. According to one Russian observer, “Not many in Washington will cry if the treaty is never ratified,”12 alluding to the degree to which the unilateral intentions behind Washington’s policy override concern for Russian reciprocation.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Pentagon released its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) calling for broad restructuring of military doctrine and structure. Inside the military there was dissatisfaction with both the process and the outcome, as radical change is often seen as threatening to careers and institutionalized habits. In the frenzy following the terrorist attacks, the Rumsfeld Defense staff continued to assess American strategic doctrine, and in May 2002 elements of a new document, the Nuclear Posture Review, were leaked to the press. The NPR picks up from the QDR a reconceptualization of the “strategic triad” away from the menu of deterrent land-based, sea-based and air-based offensive nuclear weapons and toward a more complex mix of offensive and defensive weapons of both nuclear and conventional quality. Deterrence remains at the heart of the American strategic posture, but in the post-Cold War anarchy, “regional powers are developing the capabilities to conduct strategic warfare against the United States.”13 In addition, threats from transnational actors such as al Qaeda create conditions under which contemporary deterrence is not defined against one clearly identifiable aggressor, but more broadly against a wide array of imaginable threats – and known ones: the Bush NPR specifically mentions potential targets of the administration’s ire, stating that Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and Syria are “among the countries that could be involved in immediate, potential or unexpected contingencies” and also mentioning China and Russia as worthy of sustained attention.14

The three elements of the new strategic triad are: 1) strategic offensive forces, both nuclear and conventional; 2) defensive forces, including ballistic missile defenses across the spectrum from tactical to strategic; and 3) a responsive military infrastructure, with emphasis on rapidly mobile forces empowered by technologically advanced capabilities to respond to a wide range of crisis conditions.15 The contrast with the old ICBM-SLBM-Bomber triad of means to deliver nuclear weapons is clear. The new triad encompasses the military instrument of national security in its totality, including space-based and information technologies, rather than focus only on the deterrent nuclear triad. In general, the new triad is one of a hegemon facing an uncertain world rather than of a superpower facing a peer competitor; the purposes of the new triad are four-fold: to assure Americans and allies of security as well as to dissuade, to deter, and to defeat potential adversaries.16

The NPR has come under criticism, though at least at this early stage (and with doctrines being tested on the ground in Iraq), the criticism is not monolithic – some say the Bush NPR is too radical of a change that will make the proliferation and the use of WMD more likely, not less, while others claim it does not sufficiently alter the U.S. strategic posture. Overall, the nuclear force structure will remain essentially the same, divided between air, land and sea-based arsenals, but the number of operationally deployed warheads will be reduced to by the amounts and on the timeline specified in the Moscow Treaty.17 For my purposes, Sokolsky’s conclusion about likely short-term effects of the NPR is most relevant:

In the near-term, the most serious consequences of the NPR are the diplomatic and geopolitical problems it causes for America’s standing and image in the world, rather than its direct effects on international security and the prospects for war and peace.18

The above quote is from an autumn 2002 publication, and thus did not take into account the fall 2002 release of the United States National Security Strategy and its emphases on preemptive military operations and American hegemony. The U.S. National Security Strategy provides the broadest political context within which the Nuclear Posture Review is infused with meaning.

Required by law since 1986, the U.S. National Security Strategy documents an administration’s vision of the challenges to and goals of American national security policy.

In the mid-1990s, the internationalism of the Clinton presidency was documented in the U.S. National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement. The principles therein promoted activist policies toward the expansion of democratic political systems, and are exemplified by the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance and the ties of this process to stabilizing the democratic transitions of Eastern European nations. The military operation against Serbia for human rights violations against the Albanian Kosovars illustrated the willingness to implement by force the democratic-expansionist aspects of the strategy; however, Operation Allied Force also revealed a risk-averse foreign policy in the Clinton White House in spite of an increasingly obvious lead in military technology over the allies that has since contributed to strains within the alliance.

The Bush National Security Strategy reflects many of the same values expressed in the Clinton documents regarding the national security value of democratic expansion; for example, the 2002 document proclaims the United States in support of a “balance of power that favors freedom.” In implementing his strategy against Serbia, Clinton established a precedent repeated by Bush in Iraq by initiating military force without an expressed resolution of the United Nations Security Council. Some important differences between the cases, however, are that the 1999 Operation Allied Force was an official NATO operation, however dominated it was by the United States, and received post hoc approval from the United Nations, whereas Operation Iraqi Freedom (like Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan) involved the United States leading an ad hoc coalition of the willing and created a troubling rift among Security Council members. While these and other differences between the military engagements are significant, there is a discernible progression from one to the other, actually from Desert Storm in 1991 to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 that reveals a continuum among the cases that overcomes their distinctions. The dominant characteristic of this progression is the waning of multilateral norms as an element of American national security policy. In the place of formal multilateral conflict management as institutionalized over the post-World War II era has emerged a process by which each security issue be addressed distinctly, driven by what is perceived as best for American national security. Put another way, the current Bush strategy is for the exact mix of unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral policy making and implementation to be determined on a case-by-case basis and so as to preserve American dominance in the international system. This is clearly illustrated in the war to restore Iraqi compliance with arms control commitments.

Implementing the Bush Strategy in Iraq and Consequences for Multilateral Regimes
The first nine months of the current Bush administration, and specifically of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, were occupied with a proliferation of tasks forces dedicated to assessing the threat-capability environments and recommending ways to transform the American armed forces correspondingly. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred as the Quadrennial Defense Review was being completed; while some key elements of the QDR would carry over to future documents, the Bush administration came away from 11 September with a strong determination to take national security reform further than the QDR process allowed. The terrorist attacks were followed within a year by the announcement (or revelation) of U.S. unilateral strategic arms reductions, the Moscow Treaty, the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Security Strategy. Soon after, American and coalition forces were massing in Kuwait and elsewhere in preparation for war, and the prospect of resolving the Iraqi compliance problem through diplomatic means was dissipating rapidly in a Security Council impasse.

In addition to the WMD allegations, Saddam Hussein’s alleged support for international terrorism and his legacy of brutal human rights abuses left President Bush with seemingly no lack of confidence in the appropriateness of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Around the world, however, a vociferous dissent from this view continued throughout the war and is having as of yet indeterminate effects on the ongoing situation in Iraq and on broader international relations. While it is too soon as of this writing to know the international ramifications of the war on Iraq, or if further armed conflict in the region is on the horizon, the war in several ways represents a clear manifestation of the Bush administration’s national security approach.

For example, the war was an application of the National Security Strategy’s expressed (previously implied) allowance for preemptive military action against a perceived adversary suspected of possessing WMD. In addition, the conduct of the war involving unified command over joint forces able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to carry out missions with unprecedented precision reflected the logic of military transformation and the new strategic triad as envisioned in the NPR. As succinctly summarized by the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard B. Myers, "When you can adjust your plan across the spectrum of all capable joint forces and focus that firepower, those combined effects, you can realize tremendous results."19

In sum, the national security strategy under the Bush administration has thus far disallowed multilateral norms from constraining sovereign choice, a predilection solidified after 11 September 2001. This has affected what we typically refer to as arms control in two ways.

First, the strategic posture of the United States is no longer subject to international negotiation. The Moscow Treaty does not contradict this assertion given the United States’ pronounced plans to unilaterally implement its terms regardless of whether it is ever ratified; the treaty itself, like its currently stalled status in the Russian Duma, was more a product of Russian President Putin’s domestic situation than it was of international engagement. One question that remains unresolved is whether the current strategic posture heightens, or lessens, the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy. On the one hand, the strategic triad that was once a purely nuclear construct now is formulated such that offensive strategic weapons are but one part of one leg of the triad that also includes non-nuclear offensive weapons. This could arguably mean a reduced role for nuclear weapons among a more complex mix of options. On the other hand, there is a greater potential under the Bush strategy for renewed nuclear testing, the production of new nuclear weapons, and discovering specialized usages for nuclear weapons such as to reach reinforced underground facilities.

This uncertainty is a contributing factor to the second arms control impact of contemporary American national security policy: the weakening of multilateral non-proliferation norms and institutions. The continued, and potentially enhanced, reliance on nuclear weapons even if greatly reduced in number does little to enhance confidence in nuclear non-proliferation norms. The same can be said for disarming even a “rogue” state like Iraq by unilateral military action and putting the world on notice that Operation Iraqi Freedom may not be an isolated case. The Bush approach to national security is generally indifferent-to-hostile in regard to multilateral norms and institutions, and so as in other areas of foreign policy, arms control and non-proliferation regimes are assigned value only in accordance to their contribution to American interests in given situations. Formally established diplomatic institutions such as the Conference on Disarmament and the five-year NPT Review Conferences are likewise accorded low priority in U.S. foreign policy. Absent this disdain for multilateralism, the likelihood would be higher that actions such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, if followed by determined leadership in the right forums, could spark a rejuvenation of multilateral regimes and diplomatic resolution to proliferation problems. For example, the United States could work toward strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency and its inspection regimes for deterring and detecting non-compliance with the NPT, taking full advantage of the technical expertise garnered since the IAEA’s founding in the late 1950s. The key problem with this scenario is that while the United States has embarked upon significant reductions in the nuclear arsenal, and has done so in a way that some argue lessens the country’s reliance on nuclear weapons, it does not appear to be associated with a full disarmament program or even apart of a general denuclearization philosophy, as the United States continues to rely on nuclear weapons for deterrence and maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding nuclear use. Indeed, the potential use of nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological weapons attack was clearly indicated in both Clinton’s PDD-60 and in George W. Bush’s Nuclear Policy Review.20 The point is that while significant nuclear reductions can arguably be cited as evidence of a nuclear power conforming to Article VI of the NPT, which calls on nuclear weapon states to work in good faith toward disarmament, it is clear that NPT-inspired disarmament is not the raison d’etre of recent cuts, even if the cuts are interpreted as lessening the chance of nuclear warfare. As former UNSCOM director Richard Butler pointed out in 2001, when Bush once said that “few other nations had nuclear weapons” during the Cold War, there was no credit to nor mention at all of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.21 Crediting multilateral regimes simply does not come easily to this administration. Butler critiques this approach: “The administration’s inclination toward unilateral action has the ring of single-minded dedication to national self-interest, muscularity and determination. That may play well in some reaches of the popular imagination, but it gravely misleads the public by implying that the United States can impose its preference.”22 Given the recent events in Iraq, one wonders if the Bush posture has been misleading after all.

Still, the decline in arms control regimes was not created by Bush administration policies. Rather, as demonstrated in this article, the changing role and status of arms control has long been determined by the evolving U.S. national security strategy. The rhetoric of national security strategy since 11 September 2001 has constituted more of a continuance than a departure from past policy, though in the post-9/11 era the willingness to take risks and the determination to assertively and unilaterally carry out national security policies have grown considerably. Still, important questions arise that cannot at this point be answered: which of the two following possible outcomes, or what combination of them, will result from current unilateral policies regarding the role of nuclear weapons in American national security strategy? Will the war on Iraq and the continued use of coercive diplomacy achieve disarmament results – returning rogue states to compliance with the NPT regime – without resort to military combat, and can this lead to a rejuvenation of the multilateral regime? Or will a policy based on hegemonic preferences and preemptive war be implemented militarily, while the institutions and conventions of non-proliferation continue to whither? And will this in turn legitimize preemptive war, setting a precedent for unilateral counter-proliferation measures by others?

Summary and Conclusions
In 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation creating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, an independent executive agency established to ensure that for arms control-related considerations were included in the design and implementation of national security policy. The agency was dismantled in 1999, its staff and functions transferred to a State department bureau. The demise of the ACDA was indicative of the diminishing role, indeed, the changing definition of arms control in the post-Cold War era. In addition, the failure of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty membership to prevent or reverse the non-compliance of Iraq, North Korea et al, or to convince non-members such as India and Pakistan that the regime’s benefits outweighed those of the nuclear option, indicated a marked decline in international norms as factors in national security policies worldwide. However, the heightened potential for catastrophic terrorism or interstate war employing nuclear or radiological weapons should alert the U.S. government like never before that these are threats not only to American interests but to international security, to the domestic well-being of all nations and to the relations among them.

Throughout the post-Cold War era the American advancement toward geopolitical hegemony was both sustained and driven by a growing tendency for independent action on the world stage. After 11 September 2001, the Bush administration released its National Security Strategy giving official notice that the United States was now far more prone to take risks and would not recoil from sovereign prerogatives in the name of national security. Broadly characterized as unilateralist, U.S. foreign policy under President Bush is less concerned with international norms than with internationalizing American norms as a means of protecting American interests. Therefore, when the opportunity was perceived as right for overturning a despotic regime while reversing alleged illicit WMD proliferation, the United States led an ad hoc coalition against Iraq. On the other hand, while it is too early to speculate with any confidence on the direction of the North Korean situation, thus far the Bush administration has insisted on a multilateral approach to resolving this crisis, either through the United Nations formally, or through ad hoc negotiations among states with the greatest interest in resolving it.

Far from challenging the unilateralist characterization of American arms control policy, this confirms the assertion that the Bush administration will choose on a case-by-case basis the political and/or military mechanism(s) with which to advance its interests.



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