The End of Unilaterialism? Arms Control after September 11

By Korb, Lawrence J.; Tiersky, Alex | Arms Control Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The End of Unilaterialism? Arms Control after September 11


Korb, Lawrence J., Tiersky, Alex, Arms Control Today


The best course for a safer, more secure United States lies in the president returning to multilateral treaties and other forms of action taken in concert with the rest of the world.

Until a few weeks ago, the actions of George W. Bush's administration in the international arena had demonstrated a marked disdain for multilateralism, particularly in the area of arms control. During his first eight months in office, Bush's penchant for go-it-alone policies, particularly on ballistic missile defense, had alienated our allies and provoked our potential adversaries. The implicit message to the rest of the world was that we could do as we pleased; other states needed us more than we needed them.

And then came the morning of September 11, 2001, the day the United States as a nation awoke to the dangers of terrorism on its soil. Causing a death toll higher than the number of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor or at Omaha Beach on D-Day, the attacks signaled that the United States could no longer rest comfortably in its supposed security, isolated by vast oceans and docile neighbors from those who would do it harm. As Bush stated in his September 20 address to Congress, "Our nation has been put on notice: we are not immune from attack."

What he might have said was, "We cannot be immune from attack." The tragic events of "Black Tuesday" should be a wake-up call about the dangers of a unilateralist foreign policy. The best course for a safer, more secure United States lies in the president returning to multilateral treaties and other forms of action taken in concert with the rest of the world. International regimes are essential to Bush's "war on terror," if his objective is to diminish the threat and lethality of potential terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. Terrorism, by its very nature, is a transnational threat that cannot be dealt with by one country alone, super-- power though that country may be.

Bush's best bet to combat proliferation and thereby keep nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons out of the hands of those who would do grave harm to the United States lies in becoming a party to the established norms and agreements that the president has heretofore snubbed.

Entangling Alliances?

The allies and friends of the United States have been stunned by the apparent contempt of the Bush administration for treaty commitments during its first eight months. Torpedoing five treaties on everything from global warming to the international criminal court to the global small arms trade in just a few months, the new administration seemed to be making a point: the United States will do what it wishes, and those who wish to come along are welcome but not needed.

The list of damaged initiatives put aside, blocked, or undermined by the Bush administration in the arms control and disarmament field is well known to supporters of arms control: The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty: The Bush administration's singleminded pursuit of a robust ballistic missile defense system-less relevant now that the terrorist threat has been shown to be decidedly "low-tech"-has alienated our allies; irritated states such as Russia and China; and threatened to undermine the ABM Treaty of 1972, a cornerstone of the international arms control regime. Additionally, there is now growing anxiety that Bush's plans for a robust missile defense will have space-based components, violating the norm against placing weapons in space. If, as some defense planners have suggested, space-based nuclear weapons were used to thwart incoming missiles, the United States would be in direct violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.1

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): The CTBT was already in trouble when Bush took office, U.S. ratification having been rejected in a partisan vote in the Senate in October 1999. The current administration has expressed opposition to the treaty, maintaining that it will not ask the Senate to consider ratification again, and it will not commit itself categorically not to conduct future nuclear tests, which are banned by the accord. …

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