National Security and Neo-Arms Control in the Bush Administration

1 November 2005

Jeffrey A. Larsen

President George W. Bush's emphasis on self-reliance, preemption, and preventive war against terrorism represents a new, radically different means of handling international challenges formerly dealt with through arms control. Yet in many ways, the Bush administration's key national security documents attempt to achieve many of the same effects as formal arms control treaties.

An argument over the pros and cons of current US national security policy must have two sides if there is to be a debate. This cannot happen if one of the sides opts out of the discussion, or is deemed irrelevant by making the same shop-worn points that it has for decades. The challenge for arms control advocates today, therefore, is the same challenge facing defence planners: they must learn how to adapt their policies, strategies, and institutions to changing world conditions. The arms control community must envision a future that is based on pragmatism as much as a set of ideological positions that seem, to some, to belong to an earlier era.

Arms control by different means

In the first years of this century, the perspective on cooperative security displayed by the White House has seemed particularly discouraging for the arms control community. The series of national security papers that have been published since George W. Bush took office in 2001 convey the message that arms control has no further role or purpose in US national security policy. Instead, it appeared that the administration was shifting its foreign relations focus away from cooperative instruments (such as arms control) to an approach that emphasises active self-help and coalitions of the willing.

Rather than adapting to these developments and critically analysing these new policies for threads of traditional arms control and ways to build on its past successes, some elements of the arms control community reacted with fervent opposition to virtually everything the Bush administration has done or stands for. Some analysts have argued that the key US security documents published since 2001, including the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the National Military Strategy (NMS) show that the direction currently being taken by the Bush administration in terms of US national security is fundamentally incompatible with the goals of nonproliferation and, by implication, arms control in general. But I argue that the Bush approach to world affairs is, in fact, arms control - it is just being accomplished by different means. The Bush administration's emphasis on self-reliance, preemption, and preventive war against terrorism reflects a different, activist approach to arms control that pursues many of the same objectives that were sought by the traditionalists in the heyday of arms control during the late Cold War. This is a viewpoint that many in the traditional arms control and disarmament community - as well as members of the current administration - find difficult to accept.

In 1961, Thomas Schelling and Morton Halperin reported the findings of a group of academics and policy makers who came up with a definition of arms control that has been generally accepted as the sine qua non for determining if an agreement or treaty is valid. According to the Schelling-Halperin taxonomy, any agreement must: (1) reduce the chances of war occurring; (2) reduce the consequences should war occur; and (3) reduce the costs of preparing for war.[1] They recognised that war was a viable policy alternative, and sought practical means of controlling some of its negative consequences. Today's arms control community, by comparison, seems to have adopted a disarmament agenda that seeks the elimination of war as a policy alternative.

The Bush administration's preemptive policy and the NPR's recommendations all meet Schelling's and Halperin's criteria. They represent a new, radically different means of handling international challenges formerly dealt with through arms control. In effect, and in what will seem to many a counterintuitive concept, the NPR and its related documents are arms control - but what we might call "neo-arms control". Paradoxically, the administration itself does not seem to recognise it as such, and have accordingly failed to mount a good public relations effort to highlight their approach. Speaking of one element of current national security policy, for example, Frank Gaffney recently wrote that, "You would think the arms control community would be grateful [for the NPR]. After all, they have championed such ideas for decades... Instead, they are denouncing the NPR. What's going on here?"[2] It is a good question, which this article attempts to answer.

A decade of change

The key policy documents of the Bush administration represent a fundamental shift in how the US leadership views the world. The current administration recognises that the world is different from during the Cold War and concludes: America faces new threats from new adversaries; traditional deterrence may no longer work; traditional arms control negotiations will not suffice; long, drawn-out negotiations leading to formal treaties may not yield the best results; and there is a new requirement for offensive counterproliferation efforts. One can see these influences when comparing two version of the same document published seven years apart: the NPR.

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was conducted at a time of considerable optimism about arms control and its future central role in international relations. The early to mid-1990s represented the high-water mark for arms control. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I, provided the parameters for options and changes that would be acceptable for the 1994 NPR. In particular, the NPR had to justify its findings and recommendations by calling on the United States to lead the world toward a reduced prominence for nuclear weapons, while at the same time keeping a hedge against surprises. This hedge included a stockpile of warheads that had been withdrawn from service and removed from their delivery systems, though they remained in storage and available to the military on short notice.

There were no such prejudgments restricting the 2002 NPR. Instead, the participants pursued more radical thinking about the future of nuclear weapons and their use in US military policy. The US view of the post-Cold War world shifted fundamentally in the first years of the new century as the George W. Bush administration came to Washington. The new government looked out at the world and perceived many new threats from previously unseen sources, as well as a more benign Russia that could become a great-power partner of the United States in its international endeavours. These perceptions were strengthened and to some extent validated by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The primary authors of the 2002 NPR came from the nuclear community. Most were conservative in political orientation, and nearly all had prior government experience in earlier presidential administrations. They all had one other factor in common: few if any of them had any appreciation for arms control or its achievements over the previous decades. The Bush administration was filled with neo-conservatives who believed in a strong military and an America that could take care of business, unilaterally if necessary. They distrusted or discounted multilateral negotiations and arms control treaties that hampered the United States' ability to meet its security goals. While not all of them necessarily opposed the outcomes of arms control, many members of the new administration were concerned with the way previous arms control treaties had been enforced.[3] If the enforcement and verification mechanisms were good enough, perhaps arms control could play a role in US foreign policy, but Cold War history had given them serious doubts about the efficacy of such mechanisms.

All of the major policy papers published by the administration since 2001, including the NSS, the NPR, the QDR, the NMS, the National Security Strategy for Homeland Defense, and the National Strategy for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction, reflect this new view. The concordance of the language among all of these documents is striking. Rarely has an administration put forth such a focused perspective of its place in the world. And never in living memory has there been less mention of the role arms control measures could play in achieving these national interests. The QDR, for example, contained four major categories of discussion and recommendations: assuring friends and allies, dissuading competitors, deterring aggressors, and defeating enemies. None of the sub-bullets in any of these four categories were related to traditional arms control.[4]

The Bush administration's key policy positions were previewed in a report by the National Institute for Public Policy that was published January 2001.[5] Many of the participants in this study became leading members of the administration following the November 2000 election. The report's bottom line concerning arms control was summed up in the following sentence: "Strategic adaptability...weighs heavily against continuation of the traditional bipolar Cold War approach to strategic arms control."[6] In the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "arms control treaties are not for friends."[7] In 2003, Thomas Barnett, deputy director of the Department of Defense's Office of Transformation, bluntly said "arms control is dead... The answer to dealing with nations that harbour terrorists is not arms control; it is to go in there and disarm them."[8]

At the press briefing when the NPR was released, Assistant Secretary of Defense J.D. Crouch said, "One of the things to come out of the NPR is that there is not a single solution to the problem of weapons of mass destruction. It is not entirely a military problem; it is also a diplomatic problem. It is also a problem that will involve other aspects of national power... We are trying to achieve these reductions without having to wait for Cold War arms control treaties." [9] And Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute has written of the NPR: "The new stance is an effort to maximise the incentives of other countries to avoid using such weapons... an overdue response to shifts in the global security environment." [10]

The NPR had few specific phrases linking arms control concepts and existing treaties. It discussed a new relationship with Russia, and called for future deals between the United States and Russia that would minimise negotiations and result in less detailed treaties. It also required the United States to develop strategic defences at the earliest opportunity, necessitating withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT), a step the United States took in June 2002. The Bush Administration states that it currently has no plans to resume testing its nuclear weapons, but will keep that option open. Hence, the NPR reiterates George H.W. Bush's testing moratorium, but his son will not seek to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Rather than pursue the fully verified START II and START III that were in the arms control pipeline, the NPR suggested using the existing verification regime put in place for START I as the basis for a new approach to reductions. This became the 2002 Moscow Treaty (formally known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT). The NPR also recommended that US warheads that are removed from the deployed force should be stored rather than destroyed. This position was carried over into the Moscow Treaty as well.

"Neo" Arms Control

Despite the publicly reiterated positions of many in the Bush administration, as well as its critics, the White House does have an approach to arms control, whether planned or fortuitous. The Bush administration's unilateral decisions and actions to further US national security have direct and indirect effects on existing arms control regimes. For example, the United States has made it clear that it wants to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to prevent such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states, and to make examples of such groups or nations when they do attempt to acquire WMD. The new approach raises the prominence of dissuasion and proactive defences over deterrence. Such positions support the basic precepts of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The Bush administration's foreign and security policy reflects a new way of approaching arms control. This President's way is unilateral and self-sufficient, and it attempts to stem proliferation by making examples of proliferants. It seeks to end the adversarial, Cold War relationship with Russia, which was based on mutually assured destruction, and to develop and exploit advances in non-nuclear strategic strike forces that can reduce US dependency on nuclear forces. The approach seeks continued unilateral or multilateral reductions in nuclear forces, but without lengthy negotiated treaties; it sees no need for codification or irreversibility. Administration officials have an aversion to binding legal constraints that might hinder the US ability to adjust to unforeseen changes in the strategic environment, including the development of new weapons. This administration also seeks to strengthen the negative security assurances made at the 1995 NPT Review Conference, reinforcing the US promise not to target or use nuclear weapons on non-nuclear states that meet certain conditions.

The desire to continue reductions in the US and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals, exemplified by the Moscow Treaty, reflects a core objective of traditional arms control. It also serves another goal of the NPT: to proceed toward nuclear disarmament by the nuclear weapons states. While the new focus is on quicker results with less time-consuming diplomacy, the overall goals remain the same. The new approach focuses on close consultation, coordination, and transparency among the states parties to the agreement to achieve results, rather than on process and strict, legally binding inspections or monitoring. It differs from traditional arms control in that it avoids locking in specific numbers of weapons or specific types of technologies. New treaties are not meant to overturn the old agreements, but to build on past experience and precedent, while recognising that the world is constantly changing and avoiding built-in constraints on the nation's flexibility. In this, the Bush administration's new foreign and defence policy remains surprisingly in line with the traditional tenets of arms control.

In terms of nuclear force reductions, for example, the NPR dismisses arms control as outmoded and unworkable. Yet, the fifteen-year tradition of ever-increasing cuts in the strategic nuclear warheads (SNW) of Russia and the United States is continued in the Moscow Treaty, which the Bush administration proposed and signed. The following table on progressive decreases in superpower strategic nuclear weapons shows this trend.[11]

Treaty Year Allowable deployed SNW End of Cold War Approx. 1990 10,000-12,000 on each side START I 1991 6,000 START II 1993 3,000-3,500 START III Initial discussions 1997 2,000-2,500 SORT (Moscow Treaty) 2002 1,700-2,200

Is Neo-Arms Control Really Arms Control?

Let us now return to the Schelling/Halperin criteria to see if the Bush national security strategy meets their definition of arms control.

The original goal of arms control was to promote national security by making the country safer. It was conceived by its founders as a multilateral process, although this nuance was lost by most observers during the bilateral negotiations of the Cold War. Many political leaders and the media seemed to keep the definition limited to a set of activities dealing with specific steps to control a class or related classes of weapons. These activities were then codified in formal, diplomatically negotiated agreements or treaties. Over time, however, arms control was broadened to include goals in addition to constraining arms competition or proliferation-punitive disarmament of aggressor states, for example. Arms control negotiations were used to improve communication and relations among antagonists. As one writer put it, "We define arms control as a process involving specific, declared steps by a state to enhance security through cooperation with other states. These steps can be unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral. Cooperation can be implicit as well as explicit."[12] Using this broadened definition allows us to see many of the recent US policy pronouncements, decisions, and diplomatic and military actions in a new light.

Reducing the Chances of War
The first rationale for arms control, reducing the chances of war, has been strengthened by the Bush administration's recent national security documents, including the NPR. Its call for a mix of strategic options, including an offence-defence mix and advanced conventional strike capabilities, should convince potential opponents that they have nothing to gain by attacking the United States or its global interests. This should, the argument goes, reduce the chances of a cataclysmic nuclear war, as Schelling and Halperin opined 50 years ago, or even an attack using conventional or WMD weapons. There has never been a nation-state as singularly powerful as the United States is today, and the provisions called for in the Nuclear Posture Review will only add to this strength. Deterrence and dissuasion, whether through the threatened use of nuclear weapons, modern precision conventional forces, or any of the multiple other means of national power, can achieve the goal of avoiding war in the first place by cowing an adversary into compliance or acquiescence.

Reducing the Consequences Should War Occur
By enhancing conventional strike capabilities, the NPR provides a way to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons for some missions. The NPR also calls for a parallel effort to develop smaller, more precise, more discrete nuclear weapons that hold out the prospect of further reducing collateral damage. In fact, reductions in civilian casualties and other kinds of collateral damage are promised by a host of new technologies: precision guided munitions, including deep earth penetrating warheads; the Global Positioning System (GPS) to improve targeting; other improvements in the targeting cycle, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and more flexible command and control arrangements to react to time-critical targets; and the development and use of more sophisticated computer programmes for determining and minimising collateral damage and casualties. Being able to conduct a strategic attack using minimal force, applied in a precise way on a specific target, while minimising collateral damage, makes a measurable difference in the consequences of war for both sides. Gone are the days of the early Cold War, when war plans called for all-out, counter-value attacks that relied on huge thermonuclear weapons punishing the unprotected populations of major cities.

Of equal importance is the development and deployment of active defences, particularly missile defences, to protect the homeland, and the rehabilitation of air defences over North America since September 11, 2001. During the Cold War, the belief in the value of mutually assured destruction drove US perceptions about the best way to protect its society and citizenry. This approach meant eliminating missile defences, minimising air defences, and leaving the country open and vulnerable to any attack. Today we have tasted in small measure what such openness can bring and found it bitter. Hence, the Bush administration has decided to mount modest air and space defences against incoming threats to reduce the consequences of a small attack should diplomacy, dissuasion, and deterrence fail.

Reducing the Costs of Preparing for War
The direct and immediate cost savings of changes called for by the NPR and associated documents are readily identifiable. The 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives already removed most tactical nuclear weapons from the army and navy and cancelled all future tactical nuclear development programmes, saving untold millions of dollars in costs, both direct (e.g., systems development and maintenance; warhead storage) and indirect (e.g., training and organisation). The United States also truncated all of the strategic weapon systems on the drawing board. Gone were the Small ICBM, half of the Peacekeeper ICBM purchase, and the remainder of the B-2 buy, all of which saved billions. The continuing reductions in strategic arsenals, exemplified most recently in the SORT Treaty's limit of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads by the year 2012, have the same positive fiscal impact with respect to land and sea-based strategic systems. While modern advanced conventional weapons are not inexpensive, they are still less costly than the huge and far-flung nuclear infrastructure that the United States built and maintained during the Cold War. Moving toward the changes called for in the NPR holds out the prospect of even more long-term savings, even with the planned increase in spending needed to bolster the nuclear infrastructure.

The Challenge for Arms Controllers

Criticisms of the Bush administration's defence policy by the arms control community are fairly well known but worth reiterating here:[13]

  • The prescriptions of the NPR will lead to greater reliance by the United States on nuclear weapons in future conflicts.
  • The development of new designs for nuclear weapons, as called for in the NPR, will increase the likelihood of their use and lower the nuclear threshold.
  • The NPR expands the set of countries targeted by nuclear weapons, thereby hurting diplomatic relations with these and other states and potentially undermining the concept of negative security assurances.
  • Relying on long-range, precision conventional weaponry will increase the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as other states and groups seek asymmetric responses to American military might.
  • Recent nuclear reductions, as called for in the Moscow Treaty, are a sham because the warheads will be placed in reserve rather than destroyed. This practice will be potentially destabilising and could lead Russia to follow suit rather than destroying its large arsenal.
  • Current nuclear reductions are still not deep enough and are not in keeping with the commitment of the nuclear weapon states to pursue nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT.
  • China will react to the deployment of missile defences by building up its own strategic arms or developing asymmetric means, thereby triggering another, albeit different kind, of arms race.
  • The retention of US nuclear weapons and the nuclear development and testing infrastructure is used by other states' to justify their efforts to acquire nuclear weapon capabilities. It also increases the possibility of a nuclear accident.
  • The actions recommended by the NPR and other recent policy papers threaten to undermine two generations of norm building: specifically, the taboo against nuclear use, and more generally, the rules of international cooperation (often achieved through arms control venues).

Such views are epitomised by the following quotation from a US member of the Abolition 2000 network: "The recent Nuclear Posture Review tells us that US policy-makers are still thinking that nuclear weapons make us safer, when, in fact, they remain weapons capable of destroying us. Their desire to retain flexibility is in reality a recipe for ending four decades of arms control. Their push for ballistic missile defences is a formula for assuring that US taxpayers enrich defence contractors while diverting defence expenditures from protecting against very real terrorist threats. The Bush promise of nuclear weapons reductions turns out to be a policy for missing the real opportunities of the post-Cold War period to not only shelve these weapons but eliminate them forever.[14]

Rather than looking at the Bush administration's approach to national security in light of Schelling's three rules for arms control, traditional arms control and disarmament advocates decried the NPR for its warlike tone and its shift in means and emphasis to ensure US security. They took the Bush administration's leading figures at their word when they claimed that there was no place for an outmoded approach like arms control in the new world, and this blinds them to the fact that the NPR and other Bush administration policies advance traditional goals of greater security at less risk and smaller cost. Moreover, their antagonistic attitudes risk alienating many in the conservative community who have for years supported the goal of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and using verifiable arms control agreements to do so. If US arms control advocates had thought through the implications of these new positions, rather than merely reacting to oppose them, they might have been able to steer the debate along more constructive tracks, thereby lessening the acrimony of the debate over the NPR and its effect on security.


Disarmament is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but its advocates weaken their position with an unwillingness to entertain the possibility that there is another approach to secure a nation. They need to keep in mind three important factors that a government considers as it as it develops a national security strategy: the requirement of deterring a potential adversary; the wartime military utility of particular weapons in specific circumstances; and the fact that there are other US foreign policy goals beyond disarmament.

This article has argued that the NPR contributes to the battle against WMD proliferation, large nuclear arsenals, and unprotected societies. If the arms control and disarmament communities wish to remain relevant they need to remove their ideological blinders and take to heart the positive elements in recent US national security documents.

Arms control treaties are vested with normative value and are seen as evidence of the good will and peaceful intentions of the states that sign them. As such, it is difficult for Western societies to change or withdraw from treaties, even when the agreements have served their purpose or no longer seem to enhance national security. The Bush administration recognised this dilemma and chose to reverse the course of previous administrations by extricating the United States from outdated treaties, refusing to enter new agreements that did not seem to offer enhancements to US security, and suggesting changes to existing treaties to better reflect American security needs better. Yet at the same time the United States continues to undertake multiple arms control efforts in many areas, whether called nonproliferation, counterproliferation, or threat reduction.

Arms control should not drive national strategy; in the United States, it should be seen as a tool to support national defence policy. The current administration takes the view that national defence strategy goals cannot be achieved by negotiated agreements to control arms. Yet the NPR and related national security documents can achieve many of the same effects as formal arms control treaties. The nuclear reductions that the Moscow Treaty calls for further the goal of eventual disarmament that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty seeks. There has been more progress in reducing the chances of mutually assured destruction in the past fifteen years than in the previous forty. The ability to conduct strategic strikes using conventional and information operations, something that could previously only be done using nuclear weapons, may actually raise the nuclear threshold, making the use of nuclear weapons less likely than in the past. In sum, the new strategies of the Bush administration, with their emphasis on preemption, preventive war, enhanced national military capabilities, and a willingness to undertake unilateral actions, are simply a different, more effective means of handling challenges formerly dealt with by arms control. The arms control community must accept, adapt, and embrace these new approaches if it wants to avoid becoming marginalised.


[1] See Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin, Strategy and Arms Control (New York: Twentieth Century Fund, 1961). For similar sets of rules and definitions that were promulgated during this fertile period for arms control, see Hedley Bull, The Control of the Arms Race (London: Bradbury Agnew Press, 1961), and Donald G. Brennan, Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security (New York: George Braziller, 1961).

[2] Frank Gaffney, "Alternative Arms Control Reality," National Review on-line, 21 January 2002

[3] For more on the movement of neoconservatives into the Bush administration see Michael Krepon, "Dominators Rule," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2003, 55-60.

[4] For details of these categories, see slide 7 from "Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review," US Department of State, International Information Programs, January 9, 2002 Or see the full QDR report at Donald Rumsfeld, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, September 30, 2001

[5] This document, National Institute for Public Policy, Rationale and Requirements for US Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, volume 1, executive report, January 2001, pointed away from reliance on deterrence and soft power to secure the nation, toward a more activist approach.

[6] Rationale and Requirements for US Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, op. cit. iii.

[7] Donald Rumsfeld quoted in Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, "A New Agenda for Nuclear Weapons", The Brookings Institute, policy brief no. 94, February 2002, 2.

[8] Thomas Barnett quoted in Amy Svitak, "A Decades-Long Policy Shifts", Armed Forces Journal, September 2003, 12.

[9] J. D. Crouch, quoted in "Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review", US Department of State, International Information Programs, January 9, 2002 Highlights of the NPR and a discussion of its implementation can be found at James J. Wirtz and Jeffrey A. Larsen, eds., Nuclear Transformation: The New U.S. Nuclear Doctrine (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[10] Loren Thompson, "How to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2002.

[11] For an expanded and detailed look at these treaties and associated numbers, see Anthony H. Cordesman, "US and Russian Nuclear Forces and Arms Control after the US Nuclear Posture Review" (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 10, 2002). Also see Rose Gottemoeller, "Beyond Arms Control: How to Deal with Nuclear Weapons," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, policy brief 23, February 2003.

[12] Gregory J. Rattray, "Introduction," in, Jeffrey A. Larsen and Gregory J. Rattray, eds., Arms Control Toward the 21st Century (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1996), 7-8. See also Thomas C. Schelling, "Foreword," in, Jeffrey A. Larsen, ed., Arms Control: Cooperative Security in a Changing Environment (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002).

[13] Expanded discussion of most of these points can be found in Mark Bromley, "Planning to Be Surprised: The US Nuclear Posture Review and its Implications for Arms Control," BASIC Papers, no. 39, April 2002,

[14] David Krieger, "Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Press Release Regarding the January 9 Nuclear Posture Review," Waging Website of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Dr. Jeffrey A. Larsen is president of Larsen Consulting Group, adjunct professor of international studies at the University of Denver, and a senior policy analyst with a major defence contractor in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He holds a PhD from Princeton University.