Bush-Putin meeting takes one step forward, two steps back
November 19, 2001
President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to take a major step forward for arms control last week.
They promised to cut their nations' nuclear arsenals by two-thirds over a 10-year period. If implemented, this would make up for the lack of progress in the post-Cold War '90s when U.S. and Russian strategic forces were stuck at unnecessarily high levels.
But Bush and Putin also took a step back.
Despite the warm banter and dance lessons that Bush and Putin shared in Crawford, Texas, they were unable to resolve the thorny issue of how the United States could continue to pursue national missile defense without violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty signed in 1972.
Even as these talks were taking place, the Pentagon was moving forward with plans to conduct missile-tracking tests and build a communications system in Alaska by the spring or summer of 2002. These activities could be interpreted as violations of the ABM treaty. When asked if preparations were continuing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld replied, "You bet."
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated that the ABM treaty issue would be resolved soon, even if it meant breaking the treaty. "The president has made clear that one way or another the U.S. will have to get out of the constraints of the missile-defense treaty," she said. "The timeline has not really changed."
So much for progress.
The United States has spent more than $70 billion since 1983 when President Reagan pushed for a missile shield, and it continues to spend $4 billion each year. But the missile-defense shield has yet to produce a single workable model. The interceptor and component tests have been plagued with cost overruns, technical glitches and test rigging. And many experts agree that the tightly scripted experiments are not representative of real-world threats where countermeasures and decoys would accompany attacks by a rogue state.
Bush and Putin also differ sharply on how their proposed nuclear-weapons cuts should be implemented. Bush, ever fearful of treaty agreements, has suggested moving to a "new strategic framework" based on trust. Putin, on the other hand, has argued in favor of codifying the commitment to reductions in treaty language, complete with verification procedures.
Bush's aversion to formal arms control is dangerously shortsighted. The proposed reductions in U.S. and Russian forces are intended to occur over a 10-year period. That's a long time to rely on trust, longer than Bush will be in office, even if he wins re-election in 2004.
Without a formal agreement, it could be far easier for one side to bail out as soon as the going gets tough.
A formal U.S.-Russian agreement to implement deep nuclear reductions would provide far more leverage in persuading other nuclear powers to reduce or eliminate their own arsenals. It would also make it easier for Washington to step up its support for the destruction of excess nuclear warheads and bomb-grade materials in Russia, which have been widely cited as posing a significant risk of diversion to terrorist networks. Russia currently has more than 3,000 active nuclear warheads.
The fewer nuclear weapons there are, the harder it will be for a terror network to get its hands on nuclear materials and components.
Real progress requires that the nuclear-weapons reductions agreed to by Bush and Putin be codified in a treaty. Real progress also requires a genuine resolution of the missile-defense shield and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.
Frida Berrigan is a research associate at the Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute (www.worldpolicy.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.