It is possible that President Bush will reconsider his decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty during the six-month withdrawal period. North Korea did so after announcing withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994. President Bush might do the same if international reaction is as harsh as expected, but he seems intent on tearing down the international security regime his Republican predecessors labored to construct.
President Nixon signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, the ABM Treaty and the first SALT agreement. President Reagan negotiated the START and INF treaties, the first true reductions in nuclear arms. President Bush negotiated the START II treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. This president has assembled a national security staff that disdains these accords and envisions a world where international security is guaranteed through force of arms, not negotiations. Earlier this month, Undersecretary of State John Bolton torpedoed crucial talks aimed at strengthening restraint against biological weapons. It was not just the U.S. position that infuriated America’s closest allies, but the way Bolton did it—without consultation, without notice and at the last minute. It revealed contempt for the process and for the opinions of allies.
Allied reaction to the U.S. abrogation will range from disappointment to disbelief. Few see either the threat or the technology that the President imagines. Most rely heavily on the international framework of treaties and agreements that has effectively kept the peace for the past 56 years. In Russia, the U.S. decision, though signaled for months, will undermine President Putin. He has little to show for his pro-Western policy tilt and already faces criticism from his defense and security establishment for being soft on the Americans. In China, this will revive fears that the U.S., flush with military victory in Central Asia, is more intent than ever on global hegemony.
At home, the president needlessly fractures his bipartisan support. Democratic leaders in the Senate had shelved their budgetary and policy difference over national missile defense in the spirit of national unity after September 11. He now rebuffs that good will gesture and ignites debate anew. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden calls the abrogation, "a serious mistake." He says, "The administration has not offered any convincing rationale for why any missile defense test it may need to conduct would require walking away from a treaty…" He is right. The tests are still rudimentary. They could increase in realism over the next four years with few, if any, changes in the treaty. Construction of a new test site in Alaska could proceed easily with Russian agreement. But it does not appear that the administration wants agreement; they want out of this and other treaties they view as constraints on U.S. freedom of action.
Across the board, the abrogation is likely to chill movement towards closer cooperation with the United States, as allies and friends have renewed doubts about the U.S. security vision. The mulitlateralist impulse after September 11 will now appear to be a unilateral mulitilateralism, that is, international cooperation, but only on U.S. terms. Militarily, little will change in the short term. But over the next few decades, if relations with key nations turn sour, the president will have undermined treaties and agreements designed to keep America safe, not in good times, but in bad. As economies in rival states grow, so may their arsenals. It is not just about missiles. If the U.S. can withdraw from treaties, why cannot Iran, or Iraq, or any nation that decides it needs new weapons, not treaties, for its security? The president is embarking on a very risky course. He should reconsider before it is too late.