The End of Unilateralism? Arms Control After September 11

October 2001

By Lawrence J. Korb and Alex Tiersky

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, superpower 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 single-minded 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. The administration has also decided not to fund on-site inspections by the organization responsible for implementing the treaty.
  • The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC): The 1972 convention was dealt a serious blow in late July when its enforcement protocol—and any efforts to negotiate it—was rejected by the United States, primarily out of concerns for domestic commercial interests.
  • Cooperative threat reduction initiatives: These programs, fashioned to help deal with the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials and expertise from the former Soviet Union’s decaying defense industry, have been slated for cuts in the Bush administration’s proposed budgets; this in spite of the fact that Bush had pledged during the campaign to “ask the Congress to increase substantially our assistance to dismantle as many of Russia’s weapons as possible, as quickly as possible.”2
  • North Korea: The Bush administration’s early policy toward Pyongyang abruptly turned from the Clinton administration’s endorsement of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North. Bush placed missile negotiations with North Korea on hold, pending the outcome of a policy review, and said he was “skeptical” of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, declaring him an unfit negotiating partner. The president also questioned whether Pyongyang was abiding by all of its international agreements. The administration has since backtracked, seeking to return to a policy of engagement, but as Morton Abramowitz has noted, “It remains unclear what we are prepared to discuss and what deals if any we want to do.”3

Because of our immense economic and military power, these steps, indicators of a distrust of multilateral cooperation and treaty obligations, had no immediate impact on U.S. security. But the long-term consequences could be severe, particularly since the administration has not yet proposed any meaningful alternatives to the agreements they rejected. Though it has talked about a new strategic framework encompassing a reduction in strategic offensive weapons in addition to missile defenses, the Bush administration has not yet put forward any details.

In the long run, Bush’s undermining of the arms control regime is a sure-fire recipe for a world in which weapons of mass destruction will spread to more countries and more non-state actors, such as al Qaeda and others. It will also result in other countries being less willing to cooperate with the United States to implement solutions to other international crises.

Out of the Ashes?

It is too early to judge for certain what effects the terrorist attacks will have on Bush’s foreign policy, but in the immediate aftermath, signs from the Bush administration indicate efforts to build a broad coalition to respond. The administration’s sudden, urgent need of allies to participate or at least acquiesce to a retaliatory strike and provide intelligence sent a crystal-clear message about the dangers of unilateralism in its dealings with friends and foes alike, as some potential members of the coalition pressed the United States for concessions for participating. China, for example, implied that criticism of its own “separatist” problem might diminish, while Russia gained leverage for its policy in Chechnya.

The anti-terror coalition being assembled by the administration is a perfect opportunity to regain the trust of those who feared American disengagement from the world. Bush should take this occasion to lead our allies and others into deeper and more consistent cooperation on security issues, thus providing for a safer world and a more secure homeland. It is also vital that the United States use this opportunity to consult as broadly as possible and not be perceived as “going it alone.”

Beyond general cooperation on security issues, it is critical that the Bush administration take the lead in using all tools at its disposal to make sure that biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorist networks or states that would supply such terrorist groups with them. The most powerful of these tools available to Bush, should he choose to use them, are treaties such as the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If it is really serious about winning this new kind of war and diminishing the potential for mass casualties on U.S. soil, the Bush administration should take the following steps:

Re-Evaluate Missile Defense and the Weaponization of Space: Despite claims by missile-defense enthusiasts that the September 11 attacks prove that there is a threat to the U.S. homeland and that deterrence doesn’t work against terror groups, the “low-tech” nature of the attacks has severely undermined Bush’s argument that ballistic missile defense should be the single most important priority for U.S. homeland defense. Even if the missile defense system worked perfectly, it would have been useless against the attacks America suffered on September 11. It has become absolutely clear that those who wish to inflict destruction and death on the United States can do so without the use of expensive ballistic missiles.

Keeping his missile defense program in research and development (as opposed to deployment) and reaffirming the importance of the ABM Treaty would be a important first step in recommitting to arms control and could lead to a more cooperative stance by Russia and China on a variety of foreign policy issues. Support for the ABM Treaty would certainly generate goodwill in Moscow and Beijing, whose assistance and cooperation is vital to Bush’s plans to fight an international “war on terror.”

Bush should take some of the billions of dollars budgeted for accelerating the missile defense program and instead invest it in more common-sense measures that would do a great deal to upgrade our homeland defense. As Stephen Flynn of the Coast Guard has argued, our primary line of defense has always been the front-line inspectors and agents working for the Federal Aviation Administration, Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Agriculture, and Coast Guard.

The inspectors and officers of these agencies were unable to protect us from the attacks of September 11, but the blame for this lies in no small part with our elected representatives in Washington who have starved them of resources to man their posts, communicate effectively with one another, and collect and share information. Although the work of these people is not as sexy as missile defense efforts, it is now abundantly clear that it would be prudent to invest in it.4 This strategy will help to hold down the size of the emergency spending package needed to deal with the current tragedy.

Reaffirm the Importance of the NPT: The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of nuclear disarmament. The NPT is the only binding commitment to full disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states, the United States included.

The norms of the NPT should be promoted—no new states should be allowed to “go nuclear,” and the nuclear powers should reduce the number of offensive weapons in their arsenals. These efforts would not only be more likely to secure nuclear materials and prevent their proliferation to non-state groups such as Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda but they would also prevent other states from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

The NPT has always been the best means for preventing states from joining the “nuclear club,” and the nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to disarmament is an essential component of persuading other states from developing nuclear weapons. Had major nuclear-weapon states such as the United States adhered to the spirit of the NPT by reducing their nuclear arsenals significantly over the last decade, it would have enhanced its moral standing to put pressure on India and Pakistan, and the current situation might be different.

One of the most frightening prospects the United States must face as it considers its strategy of retaliation for the terrorist attacks is its potential effect on Pakistan. Analysts fear that U.S. actions in the region in the coming months could lead to an uprising in Pakistan, potentially leading to the exit of Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf in favor of a more pro-bin Laden government. What then of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons? It is such worst-case scenarios that most clearly indicate the need to prevent more states from acquiring nuclear weapons and that demonstrate that Washington’s interests are best served by adhering to and investing in the norms and commitments of the NPT Treaty.

One step the Bush administration can take immediately to address its NPT commitments is to speed up the Pentagon’s review of how much we can reduce our strategic offensive arsenal. A significant reduction in these weapons would show we mean to keep our part of the NPT bargain. Equally important, a dramatic reduction in our nuclear arsenal could lead to substantial savings on the billions of dollars spent maintaining these weapons. These savings could go directly to funding other steps necessary to dealing with the terrorist threat.

Re-Evaluate CTBT Policy: The United States should be leading the way toward a world where the danger that a nuclear weapon falls into the wrong hands is dramatically reduced. Instead, Washington has been signaling to other states that it reserves the right to continue to test new nuclear weapons designs, and it has had high-ranking officials publicly imply that it would not oppose a resumption of nuclear testing by China if Beijing drops its objections to missile defense. As an important step toward reinforcing the NPT and demonstrating its commitment to arms control, the Bush administration should back away from such policies. It should reconsider its position on the CTBT and push for Senate approval with the safeguards suggested by General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his January 2001 report to the president.

A global halt to nuclear weapons test explosions will help to limit the number of states that could acquire nuclear weapons and therefore limit the potential sources of proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-state or terrorist groups. It would also prevent states such as India, Pakistan, and China from improving their rudimentary nuclear capabilities. U.S. ratification of the CTBT is also an important step in upholding what analysts Daryl Kimball and Rebecca Johnson have called “a vital part of a network of treaties, agreements and norms that underpin international efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and codify bilateral and multilateral arms control and disarmament.”5

The conference on facilitating the entry into force of the CTBT (originally scheduled for September 25-27 and to be rescheduled for a later date) will be a first opportunity to see whether the Bush administration is ready to re-engage in this critical non-proliferation effort. The administration should send high-level representation to the conference, fully fund the CTBT Organization Preparatory Commission and the treaty’s international monitoring system, signal its intention to pursue ratification, and continue its adherence to the de facto global test moratorium.

Expand Threat Reduction Programs and Emphasize Biological Weapons: The single most likely source of potential proliferation of WMD materials and expertise is the massive decaying arsenal of the former Soviet Union, including more than 22,000 nuclear weapons, 1,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, and 150 metric tons of plutonium, as well as 40,000 metric tons of chemical weapons agent. The materials are stored in low-security facilities and are susceptible to theft or diversion. Thousands of experts and specialists, no longer gainfully employed, are in dire economic hardship, and analysts warn that they may well sell their expertise to the highest bidder.

The cooperative threat reduction programs, originally launched in 1991 by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, have had considerable success in securing, reducing, and eliminating weapons materials that could proliferate and eventually threaten the United States. However, despite campaign promises by Bush to ask Congress to “increase substantially” U.S. assistance for these programs, the administration’s 2002 budget request cut $100 million from the Department of Energy’s non-proliferation programs and $40 million from the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program. The administration may also indefinitely delay a plan to dispose of 100 metric tons of U.S. and Russian plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Fully funding these programs could not be more important to U.S. security. They are the best option the United States has for dealing with stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union. Equally important is that cooperative threat reduction activities be re-emphasized to deal appropriately with the biological weapons legacy of the Soviet Union: funding for these programs was increased in the administration’s fiscal year 2002 budget and should be further boosted. This program continues to help plug the leak of biological warfare knowledge and technology to objectionable parties and thus would be a major contribution to Bush’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Reinstitute Weapons Inspections in Iraq: Since the December 1998 expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors from Iraq, analysts have been concerned that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has reconstituted his country’s capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological weapons. The UN Security Council has not since been able to unite to impose inspections under UN auspices, and a U.S. effort to refocus the sanctions regime earlier this year failed.

Now is the time for the United States to lead once again: Bush should take the opportunity afforded by Russian and Chinese readiness to cooperate on terrorism to lead a diplomatic effort at the UN to reinstate inspections in return for revamping the sanctions regime. This is particularly important to anti-terrorism efforts, as Iraq is known to be a supporter of international terrorism; the potential for the sharing of its WMD capabilities with terrorist clients exists.6 China and Russia have typically been obstacles to action against Iraq, but the current situation might prompt them to subordinate their specific interests in Iraq to demonstrate their commitment to the larger effort against terrorism.

Bolster the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention: Nuclear weapons have threatened the United States for the last 50 years, but biological weapons, which are far more easily and cheaply produced, may well have supplanted the nuclear danger as the most menacing to the American population in the new century. The fact that a manual on the operation of crop-dusting equipment was found by U.S. law enforcement officials while searching suspected terrorist hideouts was only one indication of how close a biological terrorist attack may be.

The BWC bans the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of biological weapons by all signatories and requires the destruction of all biological weapons and biological weapons production facilities. However, the BWC has no formal verification regime to monitor compliance. When a verification protocol was drafted after six years of work in 2001, the Bush administration rejected it, arguing that it “will not enhance our confidence in compliance and will do little to deter those countries seeking to develop biological weapons.” Moreover, the administration argued the protocol would put U.S. national security and confidential business information at risk. If the administration really feels these arguments have validity, they should develop alternative approaches to inspections that would be useful without undermining American business interests.

The Chemical Weapons Convention has been successful in many respects. Hundreds of inspections have been conducted by the accord’s implementing agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. However, the treaty faces important challenges, including budgetary shortfalls for implementation; Russia’s difficulty in destroying its chemical weapons stockpile because of a severe lack of funds; and the refusal of several known and suspected chemical proliferators to join the treaty, including North Korea, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Syria.7 The Bush administration should make sure this critical initiative is appropriately supported, both politically and financially.


The non-proliferation measures described above are necessary components of Bush’s war on terrorism. Perhaps September 11 will have started a reversal of the current administration’s track record on “going it alone” instead of working through established and effective multilateral agreements. Depriving other states of weapons of mass destruction through potentially verifiable agreements such as the CTBT, the BWC, and the CWC may well be our best hope to prevent those weapons from being transferred to transnational groups such as al Qaeda and other trans-national terrorist organizations. If the Bush administration does not do its part to bolster international non-proliferation norms and regimes, which have had a significant impact in shaping the behavior of potential proliferant states, an international trade in WMD materials may very well result, with potentially disastrous consequences for the United States and its allies.

There is no question that the tragedy of September 11 will shape U.S. security policy for years to come. The question is whether the United States will seize the opportunity, now that almost the entire world has rallied to its cause, to lead a reinvigoration of cooperative security arrangements that could lead to a safer world for all. Or will Washington fall back on what Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department, has called “à la carte multilateralism”?

Two days after the attacks, the elder George Bush said, “Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call to duty and defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so too should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter.” Statements of support from virtually every country in the world have shown that the rest of the world is ready to stand with the United States. This Bush administration must now demonstrate that it is ready to stand with the world, even if it means accepting some limited constraints on America’s freedom to do as it pleases.

1. For more on the weaponization of space, see Rebecca Johnson, “Multilateral Approaches to Preventing the Weaponisation of Space,” Disarmament Diplomacy, April 2001.
2. “Presidential Election Forum: The Candidates on Arms Control,” Arms Control Today, September 2000, p. 6.
3. Morton Abramowitz, “So Quiet at the Top,” The Washington Post, September 11, 2001, p. A37.
4. Stephen E. Flynn, The Morning After the Millennium’s Pearl Harbor, Council on Foreign Relations, September 13, 2001.
5. Rebecca Johnson and Daryl Kimball, “Who Needs the Nuclear Test Ban?” Disarmament Diplomacy, July-August 2001.
6. Leonard S. Spector and Jonathan B. Tucker, “Reinstitute Iraq Weapons Inspections,” The Boston Globe, September 21, 2001.
7. Jonathan B. Tucker, ed., The Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation Challenges and Solutions, Monterey Institute of International Studies’ Center for Nonproliferation Studies, April 2001.

Lawrence J. Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, is vice president, Maurice R. Greenberg chair, and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Alex Tiersky is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations