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

American national security policy has been rightly characterized as unilateralist since the inauguration of President George W. Bush, and especially since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.1 It is important, however, to clarify what unilateralism means in this context.

Rather than being an actual go-it-alone doctrine, unilateralism is practiced when going it alone is known by all to be a real option. For operations such as the British conducted in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands or the Americans in Grenada in the 1980s, literal unilateralism is sufficient and effective for the dominant power. However, in the current environment, with the United States involved in a multi-faceted, long-term effort to establish a favorable world order, foreign policies exhibit a complex mix of unilateralism, bilateralism, and multilateralism. Still, the unilateralist label persists and not without good reason. In some cases, it is the sheer dominance of the U.S. political and war machines that justifies the use of the term unilateral. For example, coalition warfare is the more accurate description of the war for regime change and disarmament in Iraq; however, unrevealed by the concept of coalition warfare is the discrepancy in capabilities and influence among the coalition members. In this case, the coalition is not subject to dissolution by the decision of any member except the United States.

In another indication of American unilateral impulses, there has been a shift emerging for some time in national security policymaking away from the Cold War threat-based perspective and toward a flexible, capabilities-based preparedness against a wide array of known and imaginable threats. This shift derives from the post-bipolar threat environment. In most policy areas the principle underlying contemporary American unilateralism is that national security measures should not be hemmed in by multilateral commitments except under conditions that allow specific and attainable gains. A premium is established on sovereign independence in framing policy options, implementing policies, and if necessary abruptly changing course to adapt to new circumstances.

It should be noted that unilateral foreign policy as currently practiced precludes neither bilateral nor multilateral negotiations, nor even commitments; the ongoing nuclear saga vis-à-vis North Korea testifies to this statement. However, old warnings about entangling alliances are getting a receptive audience in the Bush administration. To return to the case of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the American way of war is to establish rapid and assured domination over the enemy but also over the friendly alliance as well. By this logic, should military engagement proceed beyond the borders of Iraq, the United States would dissolve and/or remake the coalition as required.

Such preferences are illustrated clearly in the Bush administration’s approach to arms control as an element of national security policy. Formally institutionalized arms control and non-proliferation regimes are at best on the periphery of the Bush national security agenda. The record thus far indicates that American policies toward arms control and non-proliferation constitute a microcosm of the changes in national security strategy more broadly. The process by which institutionalized arms control is being replaced by unilateralism and counter-proliferation long predates the Bush administration but has been accelerated in the post-11 September environment. The priority for the president is flexibility in making, changing and implementing decisions affecting American national security. An alternative view would hold that the multilateral regimes disavowed for their constraining quality in reality offer opportunities for international leadership, crisis prevention and the peaceful management of cooperation. Restoring multilateral norms to American national security thinking may not obviate the need for coercive diplomacy or even the use of force. However, losing the diplomatic leverage and deterrent opportunities from the decline of multilateral arms control may leave the United States with fewer choices in reaching national security objectives, not more. In the current environment, implementing national security goals is a task increasingly concentrated in the Defense Department, and in particular in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).2 Consequently, counter-proliferation measures applied through military suasion are rapidly replacing non-proliferation policies typically involving regional and multilateral regimes.

Therefore, I take as my starting point Brad Roberts’ lead in his 2000 article, “The Road Ahead for Arms Control.”3 In this work, Roberts envisioned three paths requiring near-term attention: 1) continuing strategic reductions; 2) strengthening of the global treaty regime; and 3) restoring compliance by non-compliant states. In the section that follows, I briefly review the status of strategic arms reduction processes as part of broader changes in the American strategic posture, and of the multilateral nuclear non-proliferation regime in the post-Cold War era up to the Bush inauguration. Following that, I analyze relevant preferences and policies of the Bush administration over its first two years in office, 2001-2003, focusing again on the areas identified by Roberts – strategic reductions, global regimes, and problematic compliance with arms control commitments.

I conclude that failing to exercise leadership in the multilateral regimes dedicated to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the options for the United States policy in unilaterally pursuing the same non-proliferation goal are more likely than otherwise to be reduced to military counter-proliferation operations. This leaves few avenues for conflict prevention and crisis management that could be pursued through multilateral channels. Furthermore, unintended and possibly violent consequences of a military-driven policy of arms control can exacerbate existing conflict scenarios, and can indeed further legitimize the use of force – including the use of WMD.

A Brief Survey of Arms Control from the End of the Cold War to the George W. Bush Administration
Strategic Arms Control in the Aftermath of Bipolarity
In the latter half of the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union concluded arms control agreements unprecedented in the openness of each side to verification measures. The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) of 1987 stands out as the first arms control agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear-armed missiles, and for its on-site verification measures that were possible only in the rapidly changing strategic environment of the time. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Special Verification Commission (SVC) established by the INF Treaty has grown to a multilateral organization with the addition of the post-Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, each of which possessed nuclear arms in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Additionally, in July 1991 the treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START I) was signed, which included the establishment of the Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission (JCIC). The 1991 START I agreement would reduce the stockpiles of strategic nuclear arms in the United States and Russia to about 6,000 warheads each. The 1992 Lisbon Protocol added Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to the terms of START I, and the treaty entered into force in 1994 when all signatories deposited their instruments of ratification.

In 1991, President George Bush announced significant unilateral changes that greatly reduced the war-fighting role envisioned for nuclear weapons.4 The decision to remove short-range weapons from American ships and European bases and to “stand down” strategic bombers was taken in an international political context of great systemic change, and was both preceded and followed by arms control treaties with Mikhail Gorbachev’s and Boris Yeltsin’s governments. This context is vital to understanding Bush’s unilateral moves that otherwise would not be seriously considered by superpowers: in those turbulent times, the United States saw the opportunity to make a bold statement about the decaying security environment of the Cold War. The days of Mutual Assured Destruction as the determining factor in strategic stability were numbered. The post-MAD world would be threatened less by superpower standoffs and more by the potential for disaster from declining command and control systems in the collapsing Soviet Union.5

Arms control can provide the legal, political, and technical networks for productive relations in times like this, but only where there is the will to negotiate mutually acceptable terms. President G.H.W. Bush’s unilateral arms reductions would affect political relations with Moscow far more than they would affect military doctrine; rather, the reductions provided a budgetary savings to offer Congress and the people at home and a highly publicized demonstration of good will internationally. The impact of the Bush administration’s willingness to include major unilateral cuts in its nuclear arsenal during a time of great uncertainty is difficult to measure precisely, but surely it was a significant element in achieving strategic arms reductions in the post-Soviet era, given Russian President Gorbachev’s announcement of reciprocal unilateral cuts, and progress toward START II.

Further progress was indeed indicated when START II was signed in one of George Bush’s last acts as president in January 1993, and would have, if implemented, cut the strategic arsenals of the United States and Russia by another 50 percent, to about 3000 to 3500 warheads each. However, the United States would not ratify START II until 1996, and the Russian Duma did not ratify it until 2000. The lapse of time – and the strong conditions put in place by the Russian Duma that linked START II to U.S. behavior vis-à-vis the ABM Treaty – was filled with domestic political instability in Russia and strains between Russia and the United States brought about by such matters as NATO enlargement, the U.S.-led military operations Desert Fox and Allied Force against Iraq and Serbia, respectively, and continued advancement in the United States toward national missile defense in violation of at least the spirit if not the letter of the ABM Treaty.

In the Clinton years, scant progress was made in furthering strategic nuclear reductions. Rather, regarding Russia, the emphasis was on implementing the technical assistance policies under the Nunn-Lugar legislation to ensure the safety of Russian nuclear weapons technology, especially in the START I-mandated warhead dismantlement processes. There was a significant shift in attention toward China and the usual list of “rogue” nations, however, as revealed in Presidential Decision Directive-60, or PDD-60. This document presaged many of the elements of George W. Bush’s Nuclear Posture Review discussed below, although the Bush document takes a more strident tone, for example, by actually naming “rogue” nations seen as threats to American interests. In general, both documents touted a policy of “adaptive planning” with an emphasis on flexibility in targeting decisions that reflects the end of the Cold War single-minded focus on the Soviet threat; in one report a former Clinton official was quoted as saying, “There were no immediate plans on the shelf for target packages [for those countries] to give to bombers or missile crews, but we could produce targeting information for those countries within hours.”6

By January 2001, START II remained ratified but had not entered into force, as Russia would not exchange ratification instruments with the United States, the requirement for entry into force. Rather, the Russian Duma, controlled by communists and nationalists attempting to balance against the Russian presidency’s dominant position in government and also hoping to constrain U.S. advancement in missile defense technology, established conditions to which the United States would not agree. To the newly inaugurated George W. Bush administration, moreover, these considerations were exemplary of a relationship mired in the past. Arms control as a means of managing relations with Russia was and is seen as an anachronism, given the drastic political changes in post-Soviet Moscow and the growth in the United States’ wealth accumulation and technological advancements (particularly of a military nature) over the previous decade. Rather, U.S. foreign policy went truly global, for instance, bringing Russia into closer ties with NATO, a process begun under the Clinton administration but delayed by differences over Operation Allied Force, while waging war and establishing a long-term presence in Central Asia in the aftermath of 11 September 2001.

The Long Decline of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1970 has been at the hub of an international regimes network for the control of nuclear weapons technology. States attempting to manage their relations in regard to NPT-relevant issues have worked toward test ban regimes, export control regimes, and regional nuclear weapons free zones, among other confidence- and security-building measures. International commercial relations are also affected by regime commitments, given the treaty’s support for developing peaceful nuclear technology in states agreeing to remain non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).

However, the nuclear non-proliferation regime has suffered serious setbacks in recent years, certainly predating the Bush inauguration. The celebrated decision in 1995 to indefinitely extend the NPT was followed by challenging times for the regime and its verification agent, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The list of damaging events and decisions between the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference and the January 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush includes:

  • The weakening of the ABM regime of strategic stability, as the United States pursued missile defense research and the Russian Duma tied START II ratification to the preservation of the ABM Treaty;
  • Problems implementing and verifying the Agreed Framework vis-à-vis North Korea, a member of the NPT beginning in 1995 (although extent of these problems were not clear until the North Korean admission of non-compliance in September 2001);
  • The recall of UNSCOM inspectors from Iraq, a member of the NPT, and subsequent escalation of tensions regarding Iraqi WMD proliferation, including the use of force in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998;
  • The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests – although neither have signed the NPT, the norm of non-proliferation was dealt a strong blow;
  • The failure of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to garner consent for ratification in the U.S. Senate.
  • A marked lack of progress in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, since the 1950s the only multilateral arms control negotiating body, and which in previous years laid the groundwork for the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference.
  • The globalizing black market among state and non-state actors for radiological technology that can be used in fashioning a variety of “dirty bombs” has risen as a threat to the NPT regime.

It is worth mentioning that the multilateral regimes for the prohibition of biological and chemical weapons have not fared much better. The United States did ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) after a long-negotiated agreement between President Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Chairperson Jesse Helms (R-NC) that also resulted in the abolition of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). The United States ratified the CWC in time to qualify for membership in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), though reports on this international organization have emphasized leadership and budgetary struggles more so than mission success. Recent efforts to reach agreement on a verification protocol to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention were stalled in July 2001 when the Bush administration announced its withdrawal from any further negotiations toward the protocol, which at the time were nearing completion on a final text. This situation remains unresolved.

In sum, multilateral arms control efforts were beginning to fray on many fronts well before the inauguration of George W. Bush. As early as 1993, Roberts expressed concern over “disarray” and declining “efficacy” in the non-proliferation regime.7 Gilles Andreani employed similar characterizations at the turn of the century. His conclusions are worth quoting at length:

Non-proliferation has always been a careful balancing act between international consensus-building, on the one hand, and the development of punitive and defensive options to protect one’s security should non-proliferation fail, on the other. In reviewing American non-proliferation policy throughout the 1990s, one finds convincing signs of a gradual shift from the former to the latter: presentations of the proliferation threat as unamenable to deterrence or political persuasion; a growing appetite for military options designed to counter proliferation once it has occurred; and a distinct skepticism of treaty-based arms control, and especially of international verification.8

By 20 January 2001, the national security role of arms control as traditionally defined by negotiating processes and technical verification regimes was clearly diminished. The Clinton Administration’s balance sheet can be interpreted in many ways, but overall the United States ended the first post-Cold War decade with little progress either in keeping the non-proliferation regime a key ingredient of international security concerns or in replacing it. Meanwhile, bilateral arms control measures vis-à-vis Russia by the turn of the century were mostly concentrated on implementing the Nunn-Lugar assistance policy to ensure the safety of Russian nuclear materials. The effort to restore compliance in Iraq through the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) provided occasional high drama, as with Operation Desert Fox in 1998, and soon after was stalled until its replacement by the ill-fated United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC).

The Bush Administration and Arms Control
As is often the case, foreign policy-related matters were considerably less a part of the 2000 presidential election cycle than were domestic issues. There were a few strong themes of the Bush campaign, however, that would come to fruition early in the administration. Aside from critical statements regarding the Clinton-Gore administration’s nation-building forays, candidate Bush promoted a broad re-thinking of American nuclear policy, with particular attention given to advancing ballistic missile defenses and to restructuring the nuclear posture of the United States. Indeed, within the first two years of the Bush administration, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, redefined the long-standing concept of the strategic triad, and agreed to a bilateral arms reduction treaty with Russia. During the same period, the nuclear non-proliferation regime remained imperiled; the aftermath 2000 NPT Review Conference has been unremarkable, with little to celebrate after the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests and other countervailing developments, and the 2005 meeting is unlikely to be much different, given the unilateral and militarized counter-proliferation being practiced by the United States in Iraq.


Greg Granger earned a Ph.D. at the University of New Orleans. He is associate professor of political science, Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, La.


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