Magazine Article - PIR Center Arms Control Letters

The Bush Administration and Nonproliferation: Skeptics at the Helm


by Matthew Bunn

Five months in, it is still early to summarize the Bush Administration's approach to nonproliferation, for several reasons.

First, many of the key people are not yet in place, due to the long US nomination and confirmation process.

Second, every administration's approach evolves after it comes to office. From Russia to North Korea, the Bush team is already smoothing off the sharp edges of their early rhetoric, and putting more emphasis on engagement.

Third, nonproliferation policy (as opposed to arms control policy) has not been a major focus of the Bush administration's first months in office. Though the Bush team now takes pains to say that missile defense is only one element in a comprehensive strategy to deal with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, its place at the top of the priority list is obvious.

Fourth, proliferation issues inevitably compete with other foreign policy considerations, from promoting trade to building strategic relationships, in relations with other major powers, and their relative priority will change as those other issues change.

Fifth, changes in nonproliferation approaches from one US administration to the next are inevitably more a matter of shifts in emphasis than of radical U-turns. Continuity is reinforced by the vast infrastructure of permanent civil servants responsible for carrying out much of the government's nonproliferation activities, all of whom remain in place, with their pre-existing policy preferences, even as the thin layer of political appointees at the top changes hands.

Sixth, because the approach is still being shaped, it is potentially still subject to influence. Officials newly in office, with a "clean sheet of paper" to start from, tend to be far more willing to entertain new ideas and proposals that may come in from outside the government, from other governments, or from within the government bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, it is very clear that the new administration of George W. Bush brings with it a new nonproliferation team with a new approach. The Republican Party has effectively two camps on foreign policy. The "engagement" advocates emphasize the importance of building strong alliances, working with potential adversaries to lessen threats and the risks of conflict, and even, for some purposes, relying on international institutions such as the United Nations. The "unilateralist" camp, by contrast, emphasizes the preeminent importance of American military strength, is deeply suspicious of attempts to engage and improve relations with likely adversaries, and is particularly suspicious of treaties or international institutions that might limit American strength or freedom of action. Of course, a wide range of positions exists between these two extremes (The term "unilateralist" has become a negative epithet, and one the Bush team is now quick to deny, so the remainder of this article will describe this latter camp as the "American preeminence" school of thinking).

So far, while the engagement camp clearly has the upper hand on some issues in the new Administration, such as trade, there is a continuing tug-of-war between the American preeminence school and the engagement advocates on nonproliferation policy. A clear majority of the key nonproliferation appointees named so far are committed members of the American preeminence school.

As evidenced by their congressional testimony and other public statements before coming to office, key nonproliferation officials of the new team bring to their new posts a belief that proliferation is inevitable, and can only be managed and defended against; a deep skepticism over the value of negotiated agreements representing compromises with states such as North Korea; and an even deeper skepticism about the ability of global regimes and norms to contain the most dangerous proliferation threats. Believing that widespread demand for weapons of mass destruction is an unchangeable fact of international life, their policy prescriptions focus almost entirely on the "supply side," cutting off sources of sensitive technologies and demanding rigorous inspections. Key members of the Bush team believe strongly that no further steps by the United States to accept additional constraints on its own forces and freedom of action are necessary to meet U.S. Article VI obligations under the Nonproliferation Treaty or otherwise strengthen the nonproliferation regime. These officials agree that it is important to try to stop proliferation where that is possible, but their deep pessimism over the prospects for doing so inevitably leads them to a shift in relative emphasis from preventing proliferation to greater focus on responding to it and managing its consequences.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the balance between proliferation and other economic and strategic interests with a particular country, it is typically the engagement camp that nonproliferation advocates find themselves arguing against; the American preeminence advocates typically argue for taking a tough line against any proliferation activity, even if it means interfering with trade or other interests. What all this will mean for the various aspects of nonproliferation cooperation with Russia in particular is still being decided, but after the Bush-Putin summit in Slovenia, the signs offer significantly more reason for hope than they did even a few weeks before.

Proliferation Pessimism: The New Team's Proliferation Beliefs and Prescriptions

Since President Bush's May 1 speech on missile defense, there has been a marked shift toward a more nuanced tone on missile defense, emphasizing that missile defense is only one element of a comprehensive strategy to respond to the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which must also include a strong nonproliferation policy. The relative emphasis on the
pieces of the individual elements of such a comprehensive strategy, however, remain clear: in Bush's May 1 speech itself, there is a total of one sentence on nonproliferation, surrounded by pages of material on missile defense.

But it is not at all obvious that the nonproliferation presumptions and prescriptions shared by some members of the new team are correct. The evidence of the last five decades of nonproliferation efforts suggests that their overwhelming proliferation pessimism is misplaced. Over the last 15 years, the number of states with nuclear weapons has either remained constant or decreased by one (depending on what one believes about whether North Korea succeeded in acquiring nuclear weapons before freezing its program), and with hard work and some luck, there is still hope that it will be possible to say the same 15 years from now. In short, there is no uncontrollable tide of nuclear proliferation.

Nor is there any compelling reason to believe that "the threat of retaliation" will not be effective in deterring regional actors from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its forces and allies. While the leaders of some states may not be "rational" in US eyes, it is difficult to imagine a leader sane enough to be able to seize and maintain power in a major state who would not be deterred by the prospect of having himself, his regime, and all of his regime's sources of power destroyed, the certain result of an attack on the United States with a missile armed with weapons of mass destruction.

With respect to norms, few analysts ever argued that Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il would be deterred from attempting to acquire nuclear weapons by the existence of a global norm. Rather, such norms help reinforce the restraint of the vast majority of states. Just as crucially, they make it possible to build coalitions to oppose the efforts of states such as Iraq and North Korea that attempt to violate generally agreed norms. Keeping such states out of the regimes -- as some key Bush administration officials have recommended -- would mean that they were violating no commitments in pursuing their weapons programs, which would probably make it impossible to build an effective international coalition to oppose those programs.

A final point is on what the United States needs to do to maintain and strengthen these norms. The nonproliferation regime is fundamentally based on the consent of the governed: to strengthen safeguards, improve export controls, or confront a violator requires the support of a large fraction of the parties to the regime (most of whom are non-nuclear-weapon states), and that support will only be forthcoming if they see there is something in it for them. In particular, if the United States is unwilling to accept any constraints on its own power and freedom of action, it is hard to see how other parties can be convinced to accept more stringent constraints on their own.

A New Nonproliferation Approach Unfolds

Actions, as the saying goes, speak louder than words. The key policy nonproliferation-related policy issues the Bush administration has acted on so far have included arms control and nonproliferation agreements, export control legislation, particular regional proliferators, the nuclear fuel cycle and its contribution to proliferation, and cooperation with other major nuclear weapon states, such as Russia and China.

Arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Arms control and nonproliferation are inextricably linked through Article VI of the NPT, which makes progress toward arms reductions and nuclear disarmament a nonproliferation obligation of the nuclear-weapon states. There is no need to repeat the basic outlines of the Bush team's approach to US-Russian arms control - missile defenses going far beyond the ABM Treaty (with Russian agreement if possible, and without Russian agreement if necessary), and further reductions in nuclear forces through unilateral and reciprocal steps more than through negotiated and verified treaties. This approach was clearly stated even before the Bush team took office ? though it is notable that Bush's May 1 speech on missile defense included far more emphasis on consultation with Russia and US allies than had been present before. The emphasis on conciliation, the large-scale set of consultations that followed immediately thereafter, the reference to the ABM Treaty as something that continued to exist (contrary to the views of senior Defense Department nominees), and the rejection, so far, of internal arguments that the administration should abrogate the ABM Treaty immediately, all represented at least limited victories for the engagement camp in the administration. The shift in control of the Senate to the Democrats, and the almost universally negative reaction around the world to the consultations following Bush's May 1 speech, will make unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty more politically difficult. And there are some within the administration who are quietly suggesting that the current emphasis on unilateral steps on nuclear forces might be "supplemented" in the future with a return to negotiated and verified agreements to confirm some of those unilateral steps.

Nonetheless, the Bush team believes the United States should adopt whatever nuclear posture best serves its security, without reference to Article VI obligations, as the United States, in their view, has already fully met its Article VI commitments. Certainly there appears to be little chance the United States will ratify the CTBT during this Presidency, whatever the pressure may be from other participants in the nonproliferation regime. Even more certainly, the statement of all 5 nuclear-weapon-states at the last NPT review conference, which expressed their "unequivocal commitment" to achieving complete nuclear disarmament, and their support for the CTBT, the ABM Treaty, and START III, among other items, no longer reflects the policy of the US government.

Similarly, in the area of biological weapons, the Bush administration has undertaken a prolonged review of policy toward the proposed compliance protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention, and has reportedly concluded that the United States cannot support the current protocol. The reported results of the review seem to lean in the direction of simply walking away from the effort to create verification mechanisms for the BWC, but such a step would come at a considerable political cost, among US allies in Europe and elsewhere.

Export control legislation. The key export control issue the Administration has faced so far is the new post-Cold War version of the Export Administration Act, now being debated in Congress. The Bush administration had to scramble to come up with a position on the legislation before its key export control appointees were all in place. Ultimately, the Administration insisted on three key changes: (1) giving the Defense Department a greater role in export control decision-making (including a requirement that the Secretary of Commerce refer all license applications to the Secretaries of Defense and State, and that the Department of Defense be notified of any proposed changes in the classification of controlled commodities); (2) the creation of a process allowing any department that opposes an export to escalate the issue to an interagency panel and ultimately to the President; and (3) giving the President authority to continue controls over key items whose export would undermine US national security, even if these would otherwise be subject to the law's requirement that any technology that a sensitive country could easily buy from other sources, or is available on the mass market in the United States, be decontrolled. With these amendments, President Bush called the legislation "a good bill" and urged that it be passed and sent to him for signature. This episode suggests that on export controls, while the pro-business, pro-export forces within the administration are quite strong, the advocates of stringent controls over key technologies related to WMD can win some important battles.

North Korea. Engagement with North Korea is one policy arena where Secretary of State Colin Powell and the advocates of engagement, after initially appearing defeated, appear to have won at least a limited victory, but how much substance there is to that victory remains to be seen.

As South Korean President Kim Dae Jung arrived in Washington in March, Powell announced that the Bush administration planned to "pick up where President and his administration left off" in talks on the North Korean nuclear and missile programs, only to have President Bush declare the next day that he was skeptical of any agreement with the North and no talks would resume for now. But after a quiet period of internal policy review and behind-the-scenes infighting, it was announced that talks would indeed resume.

While President Bush's June 6 statement did call for renewed talks with North Korea, it was heavily influenced by the American preeminence advocates, who had fiercely opposed the Clinton administration's approach of using positive financial incentives to "buy out" the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. The statement listed a series of US demands:

• "improved implementation" of the 1994 Agreed Framework (which       administration officials explained referred in part to convincing North Korea to open its facilities to full IAEA inspections sooner rather than later);

• "verifiable constraints on North Korea's missile programs and a ban on its missile exports" and

• "a less threatening conventional military posture."

But the statement offered little in the way of specific incentives for North Korea to agree. No specific mention was made of compensating North Korea for the lost revenue from halting its missile exports, or of launching its civilian satellites in return for a halt to its indigenous missile program, as had been discussed in the Clinton administration, or of diplomatic recognition, another key item on the North Korean agenda.

Ultimately, restarting the nuclear and missile talks was not a very difficult choice. Three tougher calls await the Bush team down the road: how much to offer the North Koreans in return for a verified end to their missile program and exports; whether to agree to step-by-step accords on specific issues given the North Korean rejection of their proposed comprehensive approach including conventional forces; and what to do when, as seems nearly inevitable, the Agreed Framework runs into trouble. If the approach to the talks continues to be focused mainly on sticks and not carrots, the engagement advocates' victory in restarting discussions may come to naught.

Iraq. Iraq is another case where a nonproliferation approach first launched by Powell came under sharp criticism from more hawkish factions in the administration and Congress, but then, after a period of quiet, re-emerged as the official policy. It appears that Powell's initiative may be enough to save what had been a collapsing sanctions regime, and may help plug what had become a gaping oil-smuggling loophole providing huge unmonitored revenues to the Iraqi regime, but whether any of this will result in the return of UN weapons inspectors in the foreseeable future remains very much in doubt.

Iran. With Iran, even more than with Iraq and North Korea, US policy is focused on much more than just weapons of mass destruction issues from oil to terrorism to the Middle East peace process are also prominent on the agenda. While the Iranian presidential campaign was underway, the Bush administration largely took a "wait and see" approach. The big debate in the United States (and within the Bush administration) has been over whether to drop the unilateral sanctions against Iran and Libya imposed in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which expires in August. Congressional Republicans are sponsoring a five-year renewal of the sanctions, but the major oil companies have been lobbying furiously to oppose the renewal under the banner of an organization called "USA Engage". Many of the senior officials of the Bush administration have close ties to these companies. Nevertheless, with Iran topping the State Department's most recent list of state sponsors of terrorism, Bush has said he has no plans to lift sanctions anytime soon, and while the Bush administration has taken no formal position on the sanctions act, Powell has predicted that Congress will indeed extend it. The Bush administration appears to be just as concerned as the Clinton administration over Russian entities' nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran, a topic Bush raised in his summit with President Putin.

South Asia. On South Asia, the advocates of engagement, especially with India, are in the driver's seat within the Bush administration. The US tilt toward India, already manifest in the Clinton administration, has become even more palpable. For an administration that prides itself on being balance-of-power realists, the choice between a country of over a billion people with a thriving economy and a huge military machine, or a tiny country with a collapsing economy and a modest military force, is effectively no choice at all. Pakistan's status as a military dictatorship, its support for Afghanistan's Taliban, and its role as a breeding ground for jihadist terrorism offer additional rationales for the pro-India tilt, though the United States had little trouble supporting Pakistani dictatorships when it served US interests to do so.

There has been a debate between the State Department's nonproliferation bureau and the rest of the department over lifting post-test sanctions on India, but it is clear that the nonproliferation bureau has lost, and that these sanctions will be lifted soon. Indeed, administration officials are actively discussing whether to drop even some of the pre-test restraints on cooperation with India in matters such as nuclear safety and civilian space programs. What this will mean about US outrage over the Russian nuclear transactions with India that violate Russia's 1992 Nuclear Suppliers Group commitment to full-scope safeguards as a condition of export remains to be seen.

Nuclear energy and the nuclear fuel cycle. The Bush team brings a much more enthusiastic attitude toward the future of nuclear energy, and the Bush Administration's energy policy statement, released in mid-May, includes a recommendation that "the United States should reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment of fuel conditioning methods (such as pyroprocessing) that reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance," and should collaborate with countries that have "highly developed fuel cycles and a record of close cooperation" to "develop reprocessing and fuel treatment technologies that are cleaner, more efficient, less waste-intensive, and more proliferation-resistant," while continuing to "discourage the accumulation of separated plutonium, worldwide." While this language is more positive toward reprocessing than the Clinton Administration's take on the subject, it appears to maintain a requirement that only those reprocessing approaches that might be more proliferation-resistant than the traditional PUREX technology, and would not lead to additional accumulation of separated plutonium, would be pursued. A wide range of issues about what this new approach will mean in practice remain to be decided among them, whether Russia counts among the countries with "a record of close cooperation" with whom joint R&D should be pursued, and whether the opposition to accumulation of separated plutonium will include a continued effort to get Russian agreement to a reprocessing moratorium.

Nonproliferation cooperation with China. During its eight years in office, the Clinton team succeeded in extracting from China a wide range of new nonproliferation commitments. Unfortunately, the poor state of US-Chinese relations since the Bush team came to office, with the spy-plane incident, fierce disagreements over missile defenses, and arms to Taiwan, combined with the relatively low priority the Bush administration has assigned to the detailed work of nonproliferation regime-building, has resulted in a substantial gap in the discussions, raising new questions over whether China will continue to implement its commitments. It is not clear, in particular, whether the Bush team has fully considered the implications for Chinese supplies to Pakistan of a situation in which both the United States and Russia are palpably leaning toward India, with Russia supplying a wide range of military and nuclear technologies. Some Chinese officials are asking why, if the United States feels free to go back on commitments it finds inconvenient (such as the ABM Treaty), China should not do the same. Nevertheless, ultimately both China and the United States see a substantial interest in improving relations, and it appears likely that down the road, renewed cooperation on nonproliferation will be one part of that agenda.

Nonproliferation cooperation with Russia. It is fair to say that US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation under the Bush administration did not get off to an auspicious start. During the campaign, Bush had emphasized the importance of the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programs, and pledged that "I'll ask the Congress to increase substantially our assistance." This campaign promise was immediately broken, however, when Bush proposed a budget for fiscal year 2002 that cut funding for the most urgent programs to ensure that potential bomb material was secure and accounted for.

Worse, top administration officials immediately began to attack Russia's nonproliferation record. These statements came despite Russia having given the new administration a substantial nonproliferation gift just as the Bush team came to office, the decision to suspend the deal to send isotope-separation lasers to Iran. Later, President Putin's decision to fire Minister of Atomic Energy Evgeniy Adamov, who had come to be seen as public enemy number one by many US nonproliferation officials, and to replace him with Alexander Rumyantsev could also be read as a substantial step toward addressing US concerns. Contrary to the advice of some engagement advocates within the administration, however, the Bush administration failed to seize that opportunity to engage with Rumyantsev on a renewed agenda of nuclear security cooperation.

But after this rocky start, matters have improved substantially in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Bush-Putin summit. The Bush team has clearly judged that with the Senate now in Democratic hands and the Europeans skeptical, the road to their objective of missile defense lies through agreement and cooperation with Moscow. The summit built a renewed spirit of cooperation that appeared to exceed either side's expectations, and laid a positive foundation for moving forward with a nonproliferation cooperation agenda. The attitude of some Bush administration officials, in effect, is: if Russia and the Europeans are so concerned about a US missile defense, they had better offer more help in forestalling the threats such a defense would be needed to address. Putin's suggestion that the two sides' security services should work together to interdict illicit shipments of missile technology, to take just one example, is potentially a positive idea that could be further developed.

Moreover, contrary to initial expectations, the review of threat reduction programs, while not yet complete as of mid-June, appears to be endorsing most of them to continue largely as before, and even considering some new initiatives. Administration officials have indicated privately, for example, that a new initiative on joint research and development of proliferation-resistant nuclear energy systems, much along the lines President Putin suggested in his millennium summit speech, will be among the new initiatives proposed. At the same time, Congress appears to be on a path toward correcting many of the worst mistakes made in the Bush administration's initial budget proposal: the House Appropriations Committee, for example, has voted to increase funding for both the material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) program and the Nuclear Cities Initiative compared to the Bush administration's request.

A number of key nonproliferation issues of special interest to Russia remain to be decided. Now that the Duma has approved the law on import of spent nuclear fuel, the only thing standing between Minatom and billions of dollars of revenue is the US government, because nearly all the fuel that countries might be interested in shipping to Russia has US obligations attached to it, meaning it cannot be shipped to Russia without US approval and a US-Russian agreement for nuclear cooperation. Such an agreement will certainly require a deal of some kind on Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran, but the Bush administration has only begun to consider what specific deal it will want, and what else it might demand in these negotiations. The Bush administration has officially stated that it will oppose any reprocessing of US-obligated fuel imported into Russia. Similarly, the Bush administration is still considering whether to approve the new contract approach for the HEU purchase agreement the US Enrichment Corporation has proposed, or some other concept for stabilizing that crucial agreement. What approach the Bush team will take to working with Russia to retool the closed nuclear cities is still being hotly debated; the existing Nuclear Cities Initiative has made only modest progress to date, and in its current form seems to have little political support in either Washington or Moscow. And no one has yet figured out what to do about the failure of the G-8 to come up with sufficient funding to implement the recent agreement on disposition of excess plutonium.

If both sides move forward with nonproliferation cooperation in the aftermath of the Bush-Putin summit, there is much to be done. The several US-Russian groups that had been discussing steps to strengthen export controls have not met since the Clinton administration. The two sides need detailed discussions to come to a better common understanding of where the most serious proliferation threats lie and what can be done to address them. More could be done to accelerate efforts to secure and account for nuclear materials; to dismantle excess nuclear weapons; to stabilize, accelerate, and expand the HEU purchase agreement; to build a better joint approach to downsizing the nuclear weapons complexes and providing alternative employment for nuclear weapon workers who are no longer needed; to put the agreement on reducing excess plutonium stockpiles on a firm financial and technical footing; to reduce chemical weapons stockpiles and convert chemical and biological infrastructure; and more. With compromises on both sides, it might be possible to rebuild the extensive nonproliferation partnership the United States and the Soviet Union had at the height of the Cold War.

Looking Toward the Future

What we have in the Bush administration's nonproliferation team is not a case of the fox guarding the chicken coop, it is more a case of a chicken-coop guard who doubts whether chicken coops really have much value, and expects the chickens will ultimately get eaten by foxes in any case. The new team, still being assembled, brings a new approach to the nonproliferation problem, and a new skepticism regarding what can be done to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It is an approach based more on technology denial, and on preparing US military forces to respond to proliferation after it occurs, than on regime-building and negotiation toward common security. It is one piece of a foreign policy approach based on balance-of-power realism, not on liberal institutionalism. But it is also an approach that is still evolving, and will continue to do so for some time to come. There remains a substantial chance to build a serious US-Russian nonproliferation partnership, working to address both sides' security interest in preventing proliferation.


For more information on this publication: Please contact Science, Technology, and Public Policy
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew. “The Bush Administration and Nonproliferation: Skeptics at the Helm.” PIR Center Arms Control Letters, June 30, 2001.

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