From the outset of his administration, President George W. Bush has used two principles to change dramatically the United States' conduct of its arms control policy: first, emphasize unilateral action, conducted-if possible, but not necessarily-in concert with former U.S. adversaries at the negotiating table; and second, be willing to discard arms control mechanisms that might be considered outdated or harmful to U.S. interests.

By the end of 2001, the administration had implemented both principles in U.S. policy. The president announced reductions in U.S. strategic offensive forces to a level of 1,700-2,200 deployed warheads. A short time later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would reduce its strategic offensive forces to 1,500-2,200 deployed warheads. Then, on December 13, 2001, Bush declared the U.S. intent to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty within six months, stressing that the treaty is a relic of the Cold War and hampers the ability of the United States to defend itself. These cataclysmic events took place in a policy arena that has remained fairly stable during the past 30 years.

“Arms control” throughout this period has usually meant carefully negotiated agreements, whether bilateral or multilateral, with legally binding measures to implement them. To discard that approach, and the treaties themselves, in favor of more informal, unilateral arms control measures gives rise to several questions. Will the change be good for the United States, and does it help the country achieve its strategic goals? Or will pitfalls and problems undo many of the advances that have been achieved in arms reduction and control? Will the policy shift prevent the emergence of a new and more positive relationship with Russia?

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