A New Paradigm: Shattering Obsolete Thinking on Arms Control and Nonproliferation

By Ford, Christopher A. | Arms Control Today, November 2008 | Go to article overview

A New Paradigm: Shattering Obsolete Thinking on Arms Control and Nonproliferation


Ford, Christopher A., Arms Control Today


Challenging conventional thinking is rarely popular, even or perhaps especially when it is most needed. So it has been with the Bush administration's approach to arms control and nonproliferation issues. Determined to develop new approaches in arms control, nonproliferation, and strategic policy to deal with the new realities of a post-Cold War era, the administration found itself under fire from those determined to uphold traditional and often outmoded ways of thinking about these matters. Many of its critics doubtless now look forward to the Bush administration's departure.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the ad- ministration's nonproliferation innovations are likely to remain valuable components of the next president's toolkit no matter who wins this year's election. Moreover, the Bush administration's efforts to move arms control and strategic policy emphatically into new territory, focused on 21st-century threats and opportunities rather than reflexively pursuing older agendas, will likely stand the test of time better than its critics can today imagine.

Reconceiving a Post-Cold War World

Early in the administration, its willingness to rethink the conventional wisdom of the arms control community, particularly that community's reliance on the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and fear of missile defenses, led to dramatic and controversial results: withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; agreement with Russia on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, aka the Moscow Treaty); and firm moves away from Russiacentric strategic planning. There is irony, of course, in the fact that it took a hawkish Republican administration finally to make the U.S. government as uncomfortable with the balance-of-terror policies of MAD as the arms control left and the disarmament community had been since the 1950s.

In a 21st-century context in which the United States no longer engaged in a strategic face-off against a rival geopolitical bloc devoted to world domination, U.S. officials felt it possible and desirable to build the U.S. strategic posture increasingly on a mix of growing defensive and reduced offensive capabilities, instead of forswearing strategic defenses and relying fatalistically on the restraint presumed to be generated by the prospect of utter nuclear catastrophe. U.S. officials no longer saw the potential for existential threats to the United States solely through a bipolar prism, and they wished to pursue the potential for a convergence of interests with their former rival and to deal more forthrightly with the emerging threats. There might be little immediate chance to evolve to a fully post-nuclearweapon relationship, but U.S.-Russian strategic relations could nonetheless become much more "normal." This normal future, it was felt, should include strategic missile defenses and a growing reorientation of each nuclear superpower's strategic focus toward threats that did not come from the other.

Significantly, this focus on defenses did not mean that the administration expected to bulletproof itself against Russian nuclear attack, for even in the context of post-Cold War force reductions, reliable defenses always seemed highly improbable against the kinds of assault that Russia could mount. Rather, it meant that Washington had decided to end its monomaniacal strategic policy focus on a single superpower adversary. Especially for an administration staffed by senior officials painfully aware of the potential spread of ballistic missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-a threat emphasized, for instance, in the 1998 report of a commission headed by future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld1-it was important to improve the U.S. defensive posture. It was a testament to the end of the Cold War nuclear arms race that strategic relations with Moscow were no longer the driver for U.S. policy and that officials in Washington now made fighting such proliferation threats the centerpiece of their strategic approach. …

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