Mission Unilateralism

Mission Unilateralism

The Bush administration's abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a win for Rumsfeld's Defense Department—but it could be an obstacle for the State Department.



George W. Bush's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on December 13 was a reckless act taken without regard for the consequences–it has dealt a severe blow to the idea of a world order grounded in collective security. Bush justified this act of hubristic contempt for the rest of the world as a measure to protect the American "homeland," but it actually will increase the danger of nuclear war and place this country at greater risk.

The abandonment of the ABM treaty represents a victory for Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department over Colin Powell's State Department. It's significant that the point man in the ABM negotiations was John Bolton, under secretary for arms control and international security, a Rumsfeld loyalist planted in the State Department over Powell's objections. At Bolton's confirmation hearing, Jesse Helms told him, "John, I want you to take that ABM treaty and dump it in the same place we dumped our ABM treaty co-signer, the Soviet Union, and that is to say, on the ash heap of history." Mission accomplished. Bolton divides US policy-makers into two opposing camps: the "Americanists" and the "globalists," the latter of which would entangle us in treaties. With the ABM pullout, the Bolton-engineered refusal to sign the biological warfare treaty, the opposition to the International Criminal Court and US subordination of multilateral relief and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan to pursuit of the war, the "Americanists" are now in the saddle–and with them the Rumsfeld/Paul Wolfowitz doctrine of a wider war on terrorism, which could embroil the United States in a cycle of bloody overseas interventions. Rumsfeld told NATO it should "prepare now for the next war."

Reacting to Bush's withdrawal, Vladimir Putin called it a "mistake" but indicated that the US-Russian relationship was strong enough to survive this setback. Yet Putin is surrounded by political elites who are deeply distrustful of Washington. They are already reminding Putin of the despised "Gorbachev-Yeltsin syndrome"–a pattern of far-reaching Russian concessions in the 1980s and 1990s that were met by broken Western promises. As Aleksei Arbatov, deputy chair of Parliament's defense committee and a leading pro-Western politician, put it, "After the tragedy of September 11, Russia extended its hand full length to meet the US in the spirit of cooperation and even mutual alliance…. Today, the US has spat into that extended hand."

Bush's cavalier dumping of the treaty may make it impossible to engage Russia, China, India and Pakistan in a sustained diplomatic effort to outlaw nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Now China may decide to upgrade and expand its nuclear force. This prospect seems not to have troubled the Bush team; nor was there any apparent concern about the impact of a Chinese buildup on India's and Pakistan's ominous nuclear calculations, especially with tensions between India and Pakistan at a rolling boil because of the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament.

The Administration may be right in saying that the ABM treaty is something of an anachronism, a product of an outmoded bipolar cold war system of nuclear deterrence. But the treaty symbolized US willingness to be bound by international agreements aimed at closing off one of the sources of a nuclear arms race. It represented an understanding that America's security comes only from common security. Now Bush has jettisoned it without anything to replace it. For the hugely expensive, highly uncertain antimissile system the Administration hopes to build does not deal with two primary nuclear perils haunting the world. One is the degraded state of Russia's nuclear weapons system, its platoons of unpaid nuclear scientists, its poorly guarded uranium stockpiles and the growing possibility of an accidental launch. The other danger comes not from "rogue nations" but from freelance terrorist groups like Al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, which they could deliver in small planes, ships or suitcases.

Unilateralism abroad mirrors a new burst of unilateralism at home, exemplified by Bush's gathering to himself the powers of an imperial presidency, for example his presidential order setting up military courts to try terrorists. The ABM pullout was another expression of this aggrandizement. Constitutional scholars like Bruce Ackerman of Yale Law School question whether a President has the right to cancel a treaty without Congressional approval–after all, he needs two-thirds of the Senate to approve one. Throughout US history two Presidents sought Congressional advice and consent before reneging on a treaty, and a third, Jimmy Carter, unilaterally withdrew from one, but his action triggered a constitutional challenge by conservative senators. The Supreme Court refused to hear that case, ruling that it was a political question. That leaves it to Congress to stop future withdrawals. What if a President decided to resign from the United Nations? Congressional Democrats ought to be raising hell about Bush's constitutional bypass. It's six months before the withdrawal takes effect: Raise hell with your Congressperson.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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