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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

Nagging Uncertainty and Growing Concern: The Bush Administration's Arms Control Policy

By Fan Jishe


The international arms control regime has suffered multiple setbacks in recent years. Its future is highly uncertain and much depends on the new Bush administration's policies. Support for National Missile Defence (NMD) in the US has steadily grown, especially following the release of the Rumsfeld Report, by now US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in July 1998.1 The rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by the Republican-controlled US Senate in October 1999 dealt a heavy blow to the credibility of international arms control and non-proliferation efforts. President Bush is a strong proponent of NMD, and does not favour the CTBT. Thus, the policies of his administration are likely to generate more instability and uncertainty in the arms control regime than those of President Clinton. Many countries are closely watching developments, trying to gauge the early signals and trends emerging from Washington.

Bush's Declared Arms Control Policy and the Current Arms Control Regime

According to one US academic, "The fabric of nuclear arms control is woven of four main strands, each the product of decades of negotiations".2 These strands are: the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction (START) and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties, and the multilateral CTBT and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By significantly reducing strategic warheads, the START treaties make the world less dangerous; in helping to prevent one side achieving offensive superiority, the ABM treaty makes the negotiations and implementation of START treaties possible. The NPT acts to limit the membership of nuclear club and facilitate the final elimination of nuclear weapons, while the CTBT makes the acquisition of nuclear weapons much more difficult than before.

During the 1990s, global arms control and non-proliferation trends were mixed. On the one hand, President Clinton contributed a lot to the strengthening of the arms control regime, particularly through the constructive role played by the US in the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the negotiation of the CTBT from 1994-96. On the other hand, for various reasons, the arms control regime was also damaged during the Clinton era. US missile defense policy, combined with other security issues, delayed the ratification of START II by Russia for several years and exerted a serious and persistent influence over Russia's attitude toward arms control issues. The rejection of the CTBT by the US Senate dealt a heavy blow not only to hopes of securing the treaty's entry-into-force, but also to general efforts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Since then, US leadership in arms control has wavered and the future of the global arms control regime stands in serious doubt.

George W. Bush's inauguration as the 43rd US President presents the prospect of even greater uncertainties and setbacks. His arms control policies - the details of which are currently being determined in a number of policy reviews - will likely endanger the four main strands of arms control and challenge the survival of the arms control regime. Responding to questions posed by the Arms Control Association in September 2000, candidate Bush articulated his views on arms control and security issues without much ambiguity. He said that his NMD would be robust, and he would not submit the CTBT for ratification since it "is not the answer to curbing proliferation."3 He also indicated that if Russia refused amendments to the ABM Treaty allowing NMD deployment, the US would withdraw from it. Notwithstanding some positive commitments - pledges to pursue another round of reductions in the American nuclear weapon stockpile and remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert/hair-trigger status - it is clear that the health, and even the future, of the arms control regime is at stake. It is possible, however, that declared US policy may differ from the policy actually pursued. There are several factors which might influence the President's approach.

Three Factors Which Will Influence President Bush's Arms Control Policy

Three factors are certain to influence Bush's arms control policies. First and foremost of these will be the various strategic reviews, including reviews of US military strategy, missions, modernisation priorities and nuclear posture. During a recent visit to a Washington public school, President Bush said, "It's important for us to do a top-to-bottom review, to review all missions, spending priorities," and added that "before people jump to conclusions, I think it's important to get that review finished."4 No doubt, President Bush will base his arms control policy on these reviews, especially with regard to NMD and reductions in the US nuclear arsenal.

The security environment will be the first issue to be reviewed. Actually, there is not much disagreement on the identity and nature of security threats to the United States. In reports written in recent years by executive branches, Congress, and numerous think tanks, there is a basic consensus that threats are emerging from 'rogue states', terrorist groups, and other adversaries seeking weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery. However, strategists disagree on the seriousness of the threat posed by the 'rogues' and others, and on the best means to respond.

The US national security community is generally divided into two groups. One group supports cooperation with other countries concerned to curb the proliferation before it occurs. They argue that deterring the use of WMD once proliferation has occurred is the best way to address the threat. They insist that the missile threats to American homeland are made to loom too large by partisan politics,5 and that it is too early to make a decision on deploying NMD, given the major issues of technical feasibility still to be resolved, the high financial costs involved, the real nature of the current missile threat, and the potential impact of deployment on the arms control regime.6 The other group doubts the effectiveness of arms control in general. They assume that the proliferation of WMD and their delivery means is inevitable, that traditional non-proliferation cannot prevent its occurrence, and that determined proliferators cannot be stopped.7 These pessimists are enthusiastic NMD supporters and dismissive of the ABM Treaty. As Senator Arien Spector (Republican - Pennsylvania) explained recently: "Some of my colleagues are philosophically opposed to arms control... [T]here are some who just want to have Fortress America."8

According to statements made during the presidential campaign and in office, President Bush identifies himself with the latter school of thought. Thus, once the reviews are completed, Bush is likely to support any recommendation to proceed with NMD. The question then becomes what kind of NMD it will be, and how quickly can and should it be deployed? Regarding the nuclear reductions, the reviews will need to clarify major uncertainties. Bush has argued that there is no longer any need for the US to depend on a nuclear balance of terror. In order to adapt to the new security environment, he will pursue "the lowest possible" number of nuclear warheads without compromising American security. But how "low" is "possible"? He has not said, and no one yet knows.

The second major factor which will influence's Bush's policies, particularly with respect to NMD, will be the status of negotiations and consultations with Russia, China, European countries, and others. Although a number of his statements have aroused great anxiety, President Bush will certainly not wish to jeopardise the arms control regime by fulfilling his campaign promises unilaterally. President Bush has called for "a distinctly American internationalism", and emphasized that "America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice".9 Secretary of State Colin Powell has also said there is no inclination whatsoever on the part of the new administration to have the US "withdraw from the world into a fortress of protectionism or an island of isolation."10

If President Bush is committed to staying involved in global affairs, there is no advantage to be gained by ignoring legitimate Russian, Chinese, and European security concerns about NMD. So far, a number of positive signals, indicating a desire for genuine and detailed consultations, have been given by his administration, and these early conciliatory utterances have been well-received in Moscow, Beijing, among NATO allies, and elsewhere.

Central to the whole issue is the Bush administration's position on "the cornerstone of strategic stability", namely, the ABM Treaty. If President Bush proceeds with NMD, he will either have to negotiate the modification of the treaty or withdraw from it. He has indicated his willingness to negotiate treaty changes with Russia. The outcome of such negotiations will not only influence his NMD policy, but also, directly or indirectly, influence other arms control policies, particularly with regard to US support for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Programme in the former Soviet Union, and the desired level and operational status of the US strategic arsenal. Even though President Bush wants to take the lead to reduce and de-alert nuclear weapons unilaterally, if Russia does not take reciprocal actions - which it may be reluctant to do until doubts over the future of the ABM Treaty are resolved - he will encounter countless domestic barriers to implementing his strategy. The history of arms control politics shows that any treaty or agreement should be based on parity and reciprocity. Although the United States successfully invited Soviet Union to join in removing tactical nuclear weapons from its arsenal in 1991, this precedent does not mean the new President will succeed this time round; due in part to the massive irritant of the NMD issue, relations between US and Russia have changed significantly.

The third main variable is whether President Bush can generate bipartisan support from the Congress. During President Clinton's eight years' stay in the White House, he fought bitterly with conservatives about arms control issues. The CWC was ratified in the Senate in 1997 only after tough bargaining and the dissolution of the independent Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). The CTBT encountered tragic failure. When Clinton wanted to reduce funds for NMD, the House increased the budget drastically. When he sought negotiated modifications to the ABM treaty, Republicans in both houses urged him to press ahead with NMD deployment without taking Russia's security concerns into consideration. Partisan politics played a major role in all these decisions. If President Bush wants to successfully implement his arms control policy, he will need to build consensus and forge a bipartisan support for his policy. Important steps in this direction include: clarifying where he wants to go, and how quickly he intends to move on key issues; explaining his arms control policies to the public and Congress before they become controversial; and building personal relations with members of Congress.11

Bush's Future Arms Control Policy: Three Scenarios

President Bush plans to deploy NMD while reducing the US deployed strategic nuclear arsenal. President Putin wants to reduce Russia's nuclear arsenal while preserving the ABM Treaty and strategic stability. If the two countries can not reach an agreement, there is a danger that the stalemate in arms control and disarmament will persist and even worsen.

There are three scenarios concerning negotiations on the major nuclear issues confronting the arms control regime. The first scenario is that America will not deploy NMD or modify the ABM treaty, and the arms control regime will completely survive. As mentioned above, there are diverse means by which to address the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery. Russia favours a combination of international diplomatic, political, and military cooperative measures, brought together under a Global Control System (GCS) to permanently monitor and address current and evolving threats. On the bilateral level, Russia and United States have already concluded agreements on the monitoring and notification of missile launches. In the European context, Russia has advocated consideration of a non-strategic missile defence consistent with the ABM Treaty. Officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, have stated that this latter option would insufficiently address US concerns. Regardless of specifics, if the US were to accept Russia's broad approach, the arms control and non-proliferation regime could be strengthened. This would require a political acceptance in Washington that the proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery can be solved, or at least effectively addressed, in a step-by-step manner, and that US security concerns can be accommodated, rather than constrained, by cooperation and negotiation.

The second scenario is that the two sides fail to reach agreement. Russia refuses to make any modification of the ABM Treaty; the United States decides to abrogate the treaty and deploy NMD. Politically, the kind of NMD deployed in such drastic circumstances would make little difference to Moscow's response, namely a fundamental rethink of ways to assure the deterrent credibility of its nuclear forces. Part of this rethink may involve Russian withdrawal from other arms control and disarmament agreements achieved in the past decades. When ratifying START II, Russia established linkages between its entry-into-force and US adherence to other arms control agreements, especially the ABM Treaty.12 While it is not a foregone conclusion that Russia will withdraw from many of the arms control and disarmament treaties and agreements to which it is party, high-ranking Russian officials have warned continuously of this prospect in recent years.13

Were this scenario to materialise, it is likely that the arms control regime would die a slow, distressing death, and the world would become a much more dangerous place. In recent decades, international cooperation and negotiation has proved its effectiveness in establishing norms and barriers against proliferation. With the collapse of the US-Russia arms control relationship, multilateral arms control would be left without foundation or momentum, and the likelihood of proliferation, horizontal and vertical, would greatly increase. Countries committed to acquiring WMD and ballistic missiles would almost certainly find it both easier and more tempting to further their ambitions by illicitly purchasing weapons-grade fissile materials. Russia does not have enough money to secure its surplus nuclear materials or dismantle nuclear warheads, and it will also be reluctant to de-alert its nuclear weapons; thus, the possibility of accidental launches will increase. The Russian response to NMD may also include the deployment, on a state of high alert, of intercontinental ballistic missiles fitted with multiple, independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), capable of carrying numerous warheads each capable of destroying a separate target. Russia is entitled to protect its security in this way. This is the worst scenario, but still possible.

The third scenario, raised by a number of western analysts, is that the United States and Russia will strike a compromise on NMD and that the arms control regime can be maintained. They ground such a hope on four related assumptions. First, President Bush will not be prepared to run the risk of destroying the arms control regime for the sake of NMD before he actually has a dependable system to deploy. The President wants to "begin a new era of nuclear security, a new era of cooperation on proliferation and nuclear safety". If the United States withdraws from the treaty, it will bring about the reverse, a dangerous era of nuclear insecurity and non-cooperation. Second, the United States and Russia still have strong, common reasons and incentives - strategic and financial - to negotiate further nuclear reductions in START III and beyond. Due to its economic situation and logistical overstretch, some experts estimate that over the next ten years Russia's strategic nuclear weapons could shrink from thousands to hundreds.14 In 1997, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that START III should aim to establish a ceiling of 2,000-2,500 strategic warheads. Russia would now like to see this lowered to 1,000-1,500. While this was opposed by the Clinton administration, the Bush administration may be more disposed to explore Moscow's suggestion. Third, the joint statement by Presidents Clinton and Putin in June 2000 recognised that "the international community did face a dangerous and growing threat of proliferation of WMD and their means of delivery, including missiles and missile technologies", and committed Russia and the US to further increase the viability of the ABM Treaty, taking into account any changes in the international security environment.15 In February, Russia's Foreign Minister told the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva that Russia was ready to undertake an "active and meaningful" dialogue with US as soon as possible.16 Fourth, if one recalls the history of the negotiation of the ABM and Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT) I treaties, it is clear that success was achieved by linking strategic offensive and defensive systems. If the two sides can reach an agreement on NMD by establishing a linkage between offensive weapons and defensive weapons systems in the new context of the shrinking of Russia's nuclear arsenal, then the existing arms control regime may still survive. The key, and the difficulty, is in establishing a firm and lasting linkage limiting the size and capabilities of NMD.

Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities

No one can deny that WMD proliferation threatens US security interests. No country can veto American security, and no country can prevent the United States from closing "the window of vulnerability." However, other countries' legitimate security concerns also matter to the United States. International cooperation is central to solving global and regional security problems. The Bush administration's declared arms control policy has already introduced more uncertainty into the shaky arms control regime, while possible US plans to reduce its arsenals remain unclear. We cannot rule out the possibility of the collapse of an arms control regime built up through decades of diplomatic blood, sweat and tears.

American leadership and responsibility is badly needed. If the United States wants to repair and preserve the arms control regime, the best way forward is to go slow on NMD and review its policy on the CTBT. The US should also stay committed to other key global agreements like the NPT. In terms of regional security issues, it is surely better to negotiate with North Korea on the missile issue than take a hardline approach. Isolation, threats, and arbitrary Congressional sanctions are worthless non-proliferation tools.

Last year, a prominent US expert wrote that, when it comes to making progress in arms control, "Republicans do it better".17 We hope this is true. However, the same expert also said, "we won't know if arms control is alive or dead until the Bush team finally assembles, conducts their strategic reviews, and opens the box."18 The fate of the arms control regime remains to be determined.

Notes and References

1. Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, July 15, 1998. See http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/missile/rumsfeld/index.html.

2. Jonathan Schell, "The Folly of Arms Control", Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2000, pp.22-46.

3. "Presidential election forum: The candidates on arms control", Arms Control Today, September 2000, pp.3-7.

4. Jonathan S. Landay and Ron Hutcheson, "Bush orders defense review", http://inq.philly.com:80/content/inquirer/2001/02/10/front_page/DEFENSE10.htm.

5. Joseph Cirincione, "Why the right lost the missile defense debate", Foreign Policy, Spring 1997,pp.39-55.

6. John Isaacs, "'Go slow': the people speak on missile defense", Arms Control Today, January/February 2000, pp.3-6.

7. Leonard Spector, "Neo-nonproliferation", Survival, vol.37/no.1, Spring 1995, pp.69-77.

8. Eric Schmit, "Why Clinton plea on pact left Lott unmoved", The New York Times, October 15, 1999, A13.

9. "President George W. Bush's inaugural address", Backgrounder, Public Affair Section Embassy of the United States of America, February 8, 2001, p.3.

10. Colin Powell, "America must be involved in the world" (Powell statement before Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 17, 2001), Backgrounder, Public Affair Section Embassy of the United States of America, February 5, 2001, p.4.

11. James M. Lindsay, "Looking for leadership: domestic politics and foreign policy", The Brookings Review, Winter 2000, pp.40-43.

12. "START II Resolution of Ratification", article 2, 4 and 9, Arms Control Today, May 2000, pp.26-28.

13. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov warned in early March 2000 that US proposed modification of ABM treaty would "devoid it of any meaning and render it impossible to reduce strategic offensive weapons". Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov remarked in late Feburary 2000 that if Washington withdrew from the treaty, Moscow would withdraw from START I and SART II. See Wade Boese, "NMD Testing Schedule Slips, Delaying Pentagon Review", Arms Control Today, April 2000, p.24, p.26.

14. "The Incredible Shrinking Russian Nuclear Force", Proliferation Brief, Vol 3. No. 17, May 31, 2000, http://www.ceip.org/files/Publications/ProliferationBrief317.asp?from=pubauthor.

15. "Joint Statement by the Presidents of the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Principles of Strategic Stability".

16. Patrick E. Tyler, "Russian Wants Dialogue with U.S. on Limited Missile Defenses", February 2, 2001, The New York Times.

17. Joseph Cirincione, "Republicans Do It Better", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sep/Oct 2000, pp.17-19.

18. Joseph Ciricione, "Prospects for Arms Control in the Bush Administration", Article presented in the International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament, Berlin, Germany, September 25-26, 2000, http://www.ceip.org/files/publications/bushadminprospects.asp.

Fan Jishe is Research Associate in the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Research at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing.

The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his institute or government. The author would like to express his special thanks to Senior Research Associate Evan S. Medeiros at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for his insightful comments on the draft of this paper.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.