American Unilateralism

Journal article

Sauer, Tom (2002) American Unilateralism, Security Dialogue 33 (1).

In June 2002, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty – a cornerstone of strategic stability for 30 years – will be dead. The implications of President Bush’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM Treaty and, in its wake, to deploy National Missile Defense (NMD) are not yet fully understood.

Above all, the unilateral withdrawal is unwise. To rely mainly on defensive measures (like NMD) against dangers related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among so-called rogue states is short-sighted. For each defensive move, any number of offensive steps are prepared by other states in response. The Cold War may be over, but another expensive arms race may yet see the light of day. As a result, it will be nearly impossible to build a quasi-100%-safe missile defence system. In the absence of such a standard, is it in the interests of the USA to deploy a missile defence shield that is basically unreliable?

It might be if such deployment would strengthen deterrence. This, however, is highly unlikely. Either so-called rogue states (or rather the leaders of such regimes) are ‘rational’ and subject to deterrence, or they are not. Leaders who will not be deterred and who want to hurt the USA for ideological or religious reasons or out of pure revenge are still going to launch their missiles even if they know that the USA believes its system to be ‘highly capable’ (say, 95% effectiveness with 95% probability). NMD will not affect their deterrence calculations. Or, if it does, it may have an effect opposite to that intended. In addition, while it may make sense to worry about the existence of such leaders, it does not make sense for a democratically elected government to maintain a defence policy that relies on nuclear deterrence coupled with an ‘effective’ missile defence system that has never been tested in real time. And with regard to those leaders subject to the ‘rational’ logic of deterrence – including probably all political leaders of the existing ‘rogue’ regimes – what prevents the USA’s current nuclear (or even conventional) weapons deterrent from doing the job?

Even in the unlikely event that NMD would slightly enhance the deterrence threshold, the question is whether the whole project is worth it, especially looking at its negative side-effects. There are serious indications that the situation regarding the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might significantly worsen as a result of building NMD, because the latter undermines the basic instrument aimed at preventing and containing such proliferation.

The existing international non-proliferation regime, hitherto recognized as the major obstacle to weapons proliferation, may unravel. A key element of that regime, especially with regard to missiles and nuclear weapons, was the ABM Treaty. Whatever its limitations, like all treaties it was framed upon an extremely strong idea: in this case, limiting missile defence in order to prevent strategic instability. Although the bipolar world structure has evaporated, there remain strong regional powers with nuclear weapons in an ‘anarchic’ world in which tensions and conflicts are unavoidable. The basic logic behind the ABM Treaty is therefore still valid, whatever its opponents may claim. The unilateral withdrawal may lead to actions by Russia, China and other states that in the end may result in increased proliferation, exactly the opposite of what the USA wants.

China has always criticized NMD since its deployment would easily neutralize China’s small intercontinental-range nuclear arsenal, which consists nowadays of only 30 warheads. NMD degrades China’s deterrent to a paper tiger. It is hard to believe that the Chinese will respond with no more than a smile. After the bombardment of the Chinese embassy and the row over the captured US spy-plane, this might be the last straw for the Chinese. Their reaction, despite WTO membership, may not remain muted.

According to a US intelligence estimate of January 2002, China will quadruple its ICBMs aimed at the USA by 2015.1 The Bush administration has stated that it is not troubled by this. The question, however, is whether the 180 non-nuclear-weapon states that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) share this view. A buildup of the Chinese arsenal might trigger a nuclear arms race in Asia, with India, Pakistan and possibly Iran and Israel as falling dominoes. In the worst-case scenario, China may export offensive and defensive technology to countries like Iraq and North Korea. Bush’s decision may then have been counter­productive. China may even shoot down satellites circling above its territory, as some Chinese strategists have recommended. At the very least, China will continue to block UN negotiations in Geneva about halting the production of nuclear fissile material, although such an agreement is a litmus test for the non-nuclear-weapon states in the framework of the next NPT Review Conference in 2005. (Or is the NPT, which is four years older than the ABM Treaty, also outdated?) On top of this, China will also be able to resume nuclear testing, which it can now easily justify. But the Bush administration, which explicitly rejects the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, does not worry much about this either, as it may also provide the USA with an opportunity to start testing. The Nuclear Posture Review, a declassified version of which was released in January 2002, did not rule out testing in the future and recommended shortening the time needed in order to be able to start testing again.

The reaction of Russia is more difficult to predict. Russian President Vladimir Putin is intelligent enough to see the whole picture and not to worry too much about NMD. But what about the Russian military and intelligence community? For many Russians who lived through the Cold War, the ABM Treaty is a sacred cow. Whether Putin will be able to withstand the internal pressure is hard to foresee. A worst-case scenario is not difficult to imagine.

While it is true that this analysis may prove too pessimistic, Bush is taking a big gamble. If relations among the larger powers sour in the future – an eventuality which cannot be dismissed as unrealistic – the international community will vainly look for arms control treaties to function as a last resort in dark times.

This brings us to the underlying logic that may help explain the US decision. The abolition of the ABM Treaty is symptomatic of the Bush administration’s visceral antipathy towards arms control treaties as a whole. In a last-minute move, a week before its decision on the ABM Treaty, the USA also knocked down the protocol that would have been added to the Biological Weapons Treaty. The fruit of seven years of negotiations, that protocol would have complemented the treaty with verification mechanisms. Even the European Union was critical of the US actions. Do other states first have to follow the US example by withdrawing from arms control treaties before the US political leadership understands the potential consequences of its unilateralist policy?

The Bush administration considers international treaties as such more as obstacles than as useful policy instruments. The best-known example of this, of course, is the Kyoto Protocol, which tries to deal with global warming in a coordinated and global way. A similar case is the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Those who believed that 11 September might have ended US unilateralism are being proven wrong.

Dr Tom Sauer

Department of Politics

Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium


1 Walter Pincus, ‘US Alters Estimate of Threats’, Washington Post, 11 January 2002, p. A01.

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