Bush Announces U.S. Intent to Withdraw From ABM Treaty

Wade Boese

Claiming that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty prevents the United States from protecting itself against terrorist and rogue-state missile attacks, President George W. Bush announced December 13 that the United States would withdraw from the treaty in six months. Russian President Vladimir Putin, the leader of the only other state-party to the treaty, seemed resigned to the action, calling it “mistaken” but also declaring it did not threaten Russia or imperil future U.S.-Russian relations.

Flanked by his top security advisers at the White House Rose Garden, Bush repeated his administration’s nearly year-long contention that the ABM Treaty, which prohibits Washington and Moscow from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles, is outdated because today’s threats differ drastically from when the two superpowers signed the accord in 1972. At that time, the United States and the Soviet Union posed the greatest threat to each other‘s security, but Bush argued that is no longer the case, saying terrorism and rogue states now pose the most danger.

Although agreeing in 1972 that the ABM Treaty should be of “unlimited duration,” Moscow and Washington included a provision for either party to withdraw if “extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” In such a case, the treaty requires six months’ notice of that state-party’s intention to withdraw, including a statement of the “extraordinary events.”

The United States sent the required note to Russia, as well as to Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, the day of Bush’s announcement. The note declared that some countries and nonstate entities “are actively seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction” and long-range ballistic missiles and that “it is clear, and has recently been demonstrated, that some of these entities are prepared to employ these weapons against the United States.” (See full text of the note.)

To protect against an attack “without warning,” Bush declared in his statement that the United States needed the “freedom and flexibility” to build missile defenses. “I cannot and will not allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses,” the president said. Unless Bush reverses his decision, the treaty will no longer be binding on the United States on June 13.

Bush, who reportedly called Putin on December 7 to inform him of an imminent withdrawal announcement, asserted that the U.S. decision to pull out of the treaty should not impair forging closer ties with Russia. In addition to citing continuing cooperation in the war on terrorism and a November 13 U.S. pledge to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear stockpile to no more than 2,200 warheads, Bush said that he and Putin agreed U.S. withdrawal would not “in any way undermine our new relationship or Russian security.”

Speaking the day of the announcement, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested that, with the treaty essentially out of the way, development of a new U.S.-Russian relationship is more likely because the announcement removed “a sticking point that’s just been sitting there for this period of time.” Rumsfeld has been the administration’s most outspoken opponent of the treaty.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is thought to have been the least supportive among top Bush officials of a unilateral U.S. treaty withdrawal, dismissed fears of possible arms races with either Russia or China. On December 13, he explained that U.S. defenses are not directed at Moscow or Beijing but at “irresponsible” rogue states. He also said that the United States and Russia would hold negotiations to put the new strategic framework, including the proposed strategic reductions, into “some legal form.”

Reactions From Abroad and Home

Putin assured the Russian public in a national television address the day of Bush’s announcement that the U.S. withdrawal would not threaten Russia because it has “long possessed an effective system to overcome anti-missile defense[s].” The Russian president, who also questioned in a Financial Times interview the same day whether it is even possible for the United States to deploy a system successfully, said he disagreed with the U.S. action and had rebuffed “insistent [U.S.] proposals” for the two countries to withdraw from the treaty jointly.

In the interview, Putin said Russia had been ready to modify the treaty but that the United States limited discussions to ways “to jointly leave this treaty.” Although Rumsfeld said that the United States made a “number of proposals,” he admitted December 13 that “the better part of the year” had been spent trying to find a “mutual basis on which we could withdraw together.”

Earlier in 2001, Putin and other top Russian officials warned that a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty could lead to the demise of more than 30 other security and disarmament agreements, but Russia has not yet made withdrawal announcements from any other treaties.

Putin, however, implied in his Financial Times interview that Russia would consider START II, which has not yet entered into force and calls for a ban on land-based missiles with multiple warheads, as effectively dead when the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is completed. He also said Russia “will acquire [the] right” to “multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles” when the ABM Treaty and “all the associated restrictions have been abolished.” But Putin said that Russia might not take advantage of that right.

Putin further described the U.S. rationale for withdrawing from the treaty as “unconvincing.” Neither terrorists nor rogue states “have or are likely to ever have” strategic ballistic missiles, Putin told The Financial Times.

The Russian president also said the U.S. move would not by itself torpedo Russian relations with the United States or the West in general, highlighting the importance of building a better NATO-Russian relationship. Less than a week before, on December 7, the 19-member alliance and Russia committed themselves to create a new council at NATO that would permit the two sides to “identify and pursue opportunities for joint action at 20.” Negotiations on setting up the new council will take place over the coming months.

Kremlin officials said they are concerned that the U.S. treaty withdrawal will set a precedent for other countries. Appearing with Rumsfeld in Brussels on December 17, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov questioned whether other countries would abide by any international agreement, “thinking, logically, that if one country does not abide, why should we?”

Second only to Russia in publicly voicing objections to U.S. missile defenses over the past years, China said little after the Bush announcement. Powell spoke with the Chinese ambassador to the United States the day before Bush’s announcement to explain the president’s action, and Washington has been giving Chinese officials in Beijing briefings about U.S. missile defense plans to calm their concerns that the defense is directed against China.

In response to the withdrawal, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson merely commented that China’s position on missile defenses “has always been consistent and clear” and that Beijing hopes Washington “will seriously consider the opinions of the majority of nations on the ABM Treaty.” The Chinese spokesperson appeared to be making reference to a resolution supporting preservation of the ABM Treaty, which the UN General Assembly passed November 29 by a vote of 82 to 5 with 62 abstentions.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed “regret” about the U.S. decision, worrying it could provoke an arms race and undercut other arms control efforts. He called upon all countries to explore “binding and irreversible initiatives” to forestall the possibility of new arms races.

Like Annan, France counseled for “binding international rules and instruments” to help guarantee strategic stability, but did not condemn the U.S. act. Other U.S. allies also said almost nothing critical publicly.

Briefing reporters December 18 after a meeting of NATO’s 19 defense ministers, a senior Pentagon official said no concern or opposition was voiced about the announced U.S. withdrawal. But one European diplomatic source in Washington said the low-key allied reaction reflected “resignation in the face of facts created by the [United States] rather than support on substance.”

Some of the strongest criticism of Bush’s announcement came from two senior Senate Democrats, who argued that the treaty did not constrain any necessary missile defense testing at this time and that pressing ahead with missile defense plans could spur future arms races, particularly in Asia. Both Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) argued in December 13 statements that pursuing missile defenses could come at the expense of addressing more likely threats and pointed out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe a long-range missile attack against the United States is the “least likely” threat to U.S. security.

A day before, when certainty existed that the president was going to make his announcement shortly, Biden told reporters he did not feel that the threats the Bush administration often cited met the criterion, outlined in the treaty, that a state-party’s supreme interests must be jeopardized to justify a withdrawal. Biden admitted that it would be a “nice legal argument” to debate but said that he was not sure it would have “any practical political consequence of being able to stop the president.”