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Counterproliferation at Core of New Security Strategy
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October 2002

By Christine Kucia

A new Bush administration report released September 20 placed counterproliferation and pre-emptive action at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, drawing criticism from some members of Congress and allies.

Reflecting the strong influence of the September 11 attacks on Bush administration policy, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS)—a congressionally mandated report that examines a wide variety of political, economic, and military issues—calls for integrating counterproliferation into military doctrine so the United States and its allies can defeat enemies that could be armed with biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. “We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed,” the report states.

The policy assumes that states and possibly substate actors hostile to the United States have already obtained weapons of mass destruction with intent to use them, therefore creating an “imminent threat.” Noting that “traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and targeting of innocents,” the document declares that “we must adapt the concept of imminent threat” in judging adversaries and deciding on action.

The January 2002 U.S. nuclear posture review, portions of which leaked to the press in March, mentioned potential counterproliferation measures, including a robust missile defense system, new nuclear weapons to defeat hardened and deeply buried targets, and new, lower-yield nuclear warheads to “deter enemy use of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or limit collateral damage.” The review, however, did not explicitly mention pre-emptive action.

The NSS cites the option of using unilateral, pre-emptive strikes as a key tool in the fight against imminent threats. “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively,” the Bush document declares. The United States “will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy—whether a state or non-state actor—to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or our friends.”

The administration’s focus on counter-proliferation and pre-emption have raised concern among Congress and allies. According to a September 26 Roll Call article, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) noted that although the United States “always has the right to defend itself in the face of imminent threat,” asserting that right could spill over into other conflicts because, “if it applies for us, it applies for other nations too.”

Yet according to a senior administration official briefing reporters September 20, “pre-emption is not a new concept. Anticipatory self-defense is not a new concept.” When asked whether the NSS section on using pre-emptive force would apply to the situation in Iraq, the official replied, “[The president] has made clear that he will not stand by and let that danger gather if we can’t get action in the UN.”

In addition, the official refuted allegations of U.S. unilateralism at the briefing, noting, “This is not a statement that the United States wants to alone be militarily superior to everyone…. The concerns about unilateralism I just think are unwarranted.” The official also stressed that the NSS does not propose new policies but instead assembles “common themes from what [the president] has been doing over the last 18 months together in one coherent document.”

The document significantly downplays traditional nonproliferation measures in favor of counterproliferation. Whereas the 1999 National Security Strategy issued by President Bill Clinton detailed action on initiatives such as the Biological Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the START agreements, the Bush document outlined nonproliferation activities in one paragraph that only mentioned a recent Group of Eight agreement to assist with weapons disposal in Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2002.)

In contrast, the document stressed greater cooperative action with NATO to help guarantee U.S. security in the coming years. The NSS calls for the alliance to “build a capability to field, at short notice, highly mobile, specially trained forces whenever they are needed to respond to a threat against any member of the alliance.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld elaborated on this concept at the September 24-25 defense ministers informal meeting in Brussels, floating the idea of a NATO strike force. “The response to our proposal with respect to a NATO response force has been broadly positive,” Rumsfeld said in a September 25 briefing.

According to a senior Defense Department official speaking to Armed Forces Press Service on September 24, one option under consideration is “a NATO rapid reaction force that could be deployed outside of the alliance’s traditional European area of operations.” The force would consist of up to 21,000 troops that are able to deploy in days instead of months.

NATO allies, however, have expressed concern regarding the NSS proposal for NATO forces. “For the first time we have Bush saying NATO should operate anytime and anywhere ‘outside area,’” broadening the alliance’s current mandate, one diplomat said, according to a September 21 Financial Times report. Another ambassador told The Financial Times that if the pre-emptive strike policy is subsumed into NATO policy, it would put an end to the alliance’s collective defense doctrine, adding that the debate “would destroy us because it would divide us beyond repair.”

The NSS also drew greater attention to India’s role in regional and global security. Noting that past concerns focused on India’s missile and nuclear development, the document emphasized that a “transformation” in its relationship with India is at hand. “While in the past these concerns may have dominated our thinking about India, today we start with a view of India as a growing world power with which we have common strategic interests,” the report says. India is named along with Russia and China as “potential great powers.” Notably absent in the reference to a new relationship with India is any mention of its longtime rival, Pakistan.