Offense, Defense, and Unilateralism in Strategic Arms Control

By Gottemoeller, Rose | Arms Control Today, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Offense, Defense, and Unilateralism in Strategic Arms Control


Gottemoeller, Rose, Arms Control Today


The United States and Russia appear to recognize the benefits of unilaterally reducing strategic offensive arms, but they differ widely on applying unilateralism to the strategic defense case.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have both spoken out in the last year on the idea of unilateral reductions in strategic nuclear forces. During his election campaign, Bush let it be known that he preferred to move quickly to reduce nuclear weapons, not waiting, as he put it, for "years and years of detailed arms control negotiations."1 Bush reaffirmed this view in his May 1, 2001 speech on strategic issues, when he said, "My goal is to move quickly to reduce nuclear forces. The United States will lead by example to achieve our interests and the interests for peace in the world." Putin, for his part, announced in November 2000 that he was ready to pursue strategic nuclear arms reductions "together or in parallel"-this, even before it was clear that Bush would be entering the White House.2 Putin stressed that Russia was ready to reduce its arsenal to 1,500 deployed strategic warheads or even lower, going below the 2,000-2,500 warheads that Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin had agreed to at Helsinki as targets for START III.

In short, the United States and Russia apparently share an interest in accelerated reductions in strategic offensive nuclear forces. Moreover, they both seem willing to conduct those reductions in a unilateral manner, due in part to a deadlock in the START process over the past few years. The approach, although undertaken independently, is essentially cooperative. It could include coordinated announcements of strategic nuclear reductions in a summit context, transparency measures during the process of implementation, or bilateral consent to use some existing regime measures-- such as the verification provisions of START I-to facilitate and build confidence in the reductions. Although it may seem paradoxical, this strategy could be called "cooperative unilateralism."

The strategic defense case, however, is much more troubled. From the outset, the Bush administration has stressed a preference to pursue unilateral measures to deploy missile defenses, while emphasizing that they would not be designed to counter the Russian offensive arsenal, but rather a more limited "rogue state" threat. The Russians, for their part, have tended to disbelieve these arguments. They stress that the wide-ranging research and development program that the Bush administration is pursuing conveys the impression that a much more ambitious national missile defense system is in the cards, one that would decisively threaten Russian strategic offensive capabilities in future years.

The rhetoric on this matter heated up in the summer of 2001, when a briefing that had been provided to U.S. allies became public. It emphasized that the U.S. missile defense testing program would be "bumping up" against the constraints of the AntiBallistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in "months not years." On that basis, the briefing implied, the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty within a year, with the required six months' notification perhaps being given before the end of 2001.

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton seemed to expand on this theme when he visited Moscow in August. He hinted publicly that November was the United States' informal deadline for convincing the Russians to join in abrogating the ABM Treaty and proceeding to a new arrangement on missile defenses.3 Although Washington backed away from talk of a deadline after Bolton's comments, President Bush clearly continued to support unilateral action should the discussions with the Russians fail to bear fruit. The United States will withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the president said, "at time convenient to America."4

Thus, discussions on strategic defenses have been flavored by a sense of U. …

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