The WMD the world forgot

The Bush administration has applied a double standard to nuclear nonproliferation.

Strobe Talbott ’68, president of the Brookings Institution, was deputy secretary of state under Clinton and founding director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. This essay was adapted from his new book, The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation.

Michael Kirkham

Michael Kirkham

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Compromise, or at least a willingness to consider it, is at the heart of diplomacy. It is also at the heart of global governance, international law, and the workings of NATO and the United Nations. That is part of the reason why George W. Bush and the more influential members of his administration came into the office suspicious of all those enterprises. They were, quite simply, not in a compromising mood in their attitude toward those whom they regarded as flaccid allies, to say nothing of enemies.

Charles Krauthammer saw this trait in the president and his team early on, in an essay he wrote for Time at the end of February 2001, and he hailed it as just the sort of mettle that the country needed in order to take full advantage of the unipolar moment that Krauthammer had proclaimed a decade earlier: "America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities. How? Through unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will." The headline on Krauthammer's piece gave this view of America's role and responsibility in the world a name: "The Bush Doctrine."

The Bush doctrine came into its own when the American homeland itself was attacked. The national trauma of 9/11 was, by all accounts, including Bush's, a "defining moment," which transformed him and his presidency. It simultaneously reinforced his concept of what it meant to be a "conviction politician" and the American people's willingness to go along, for a while at least, with his assertions that invading Iraq was the natural and necessary sequel to invading Afghanistan, and that the struggle against the insurgents in Iraq was "the central front in our war against terror."

By extension to the international system more generally, Bush's Manichaean tendency meant that the United States could grant certifiably good countries leniency under international agreements, while bad ones could expect special stringency, including in the realm of arms control.

Previous administrations relied on treaties with the force of law. For Bush, the problem with law is that it is supposed to apply equally to everyone. Bush wanted more flexibility, especially for the United States but also for its friends.

At the outset of his administration, the president spiked efforts to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, watered down the Strategic Arms Reduction process, and backed away from numerous other agreements. As for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- or NPT, the international treaty that sets restrictions on the spread of nuclear arms and requires the existing nuclear weapons states to work toward disarmament -- he did not attack or repudiate it frontally, but he did little to improve its effectiveness and took a number of actions that harmed it.

After 9/11, the Bush administration established the "Proliferation Security Initiative" (PSI), which exhorted other countries to join the United States in ad hoc arrangements aimed at interdicting ships and taking other measures to bust networks that traffic in WMD-related materials. Any administration would have been smart to augment the NPT with something like the PSI, but this particular initiative has to be seen in the context of the Bush administration's skepticism toward treaties. Official spokesmen took pains to point out that the PSI was an "activity, not an organization." It had no headquarters, no international secretariat, no formal rules of procedure, not even a budget. It was intended by its principal advocates more as a replacement for the NPT than as a reinforcement of it. PSI was to the nonproliferation effort what "coalitions of the willing" were to treaty-based alliances like NATO -- another example of the Bush administration's preference for multilateralism a la carte.

The administration did more severe damage to the NPT with its policy toward India. As the world's largest democracy, a "strategic partner" of the United States, and an ally in the war on terror, India -- in marked contrast to two other countries with nuclear ambitions, Iran and North Korea (the surviving members of the Axis of Evil) -- earned treatment by the Bush administration as a certifiably good country. In 2006, Bush granted India what amounted to an exemption from the NPT: he pushed through Congress a law giving India virtually all the rights and privileges of membership in the nuclear-weapons-state club even though it did not qualify under the terms of the NPT and had tested a nuclear weapon. Iran, meanwhile, even though it was a signatory of the NPT and had not tested a nuclear weapon, was supposed to renounce its right -- granted under the treaty -- to become a producer of nuclear fuel.

The NPT is intended to be part of the bedrock of international security. As such, it can be effective only if it is applied universally. Its provisions cannot be bent in favor of countries that the United States judges to be virtuous and responsible and against those it considers evil and reckless. Yet that was exactly what Bush did: he made policy -- and, as he saw it, a virtue -- out of adopting and applying a double standard.

As a result of the Bush administration's virtual shutdown of American diplomacy early in its first term, Washington had already missed an opportunity in 2001 and 2002 to engage Pyongyang and Tehran in negotiations that might have kept Iran compliant with the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapons state and that might also have kept North Korea within the treaty. (The Iranians made overtures to the administration in 2003, suggesting negotiations. They were motivated, apparently, by the ease and speed with which the United States had toppled the Iraqi regime, and they took seriously none-too-veiled hints out of Washington that they were next on the hit list. The administration blew the Iranians off.)

Seeing India get a break for being "good," those countries that knew they were considered evil were all the more likely to do what North Korea did in 2006: its regime set off a nuclear weapon of its own, largely to prove that it was not going to accept Washington's judgment of its virtue and abide by discriminatory rules. The North Koreans had an incentive to ensure their survival by going all out to acquire nuclear weapons before they were subject to American preemption. That was surely among the lessons the leaders in Tehran and Pyongyang drew from the way Bush chose to deal with Iraq as opposed to India: even though India was not a signatory to the NPT and had developed weapons of mass destruction, the United States was allowing -- indeed, helping -- it to produce nuclear fuel. The result was a major setback for an already endangered global nonproliferation regime and for global governance more generally.

The new wave of nuclear weapons proliferation is a mega-threat that can be held at bay in the crucial years immediately ahead only through multilateralism on a scale far beyond anything the world has achieved to date. That challenge puts a unique onus on the United States as the most heavily armed nuclear weapons state. To make up for lost time in stanching proliferation, the administration inaugurated on January 20, 2009, should immediately undertake a series of initiatives, starting with one directed to Moscow. Russia's nuclear weapons stockpile is second only to America's. Drastic reduction is important in its own right, as an example to other countries. It is also an obligation under international and U.S. law: the goal of eventually abolishing nuclear arsenals is written into the NPT, and the Senate ratified it nearly 40 years ago.

Until now, real disarmament has been treated as an object of lip service. That is beginning to change. Some prominent "realists" -- including the most prominent of them all, Henry Kissinger -- have publicly espoused the view that realism itself militates in favor of total, universal disarmament as a serious, though long-term, objective. The next U.S. administration may find that it has more political running room than its predecessors to negotiate with Moscow on significantly lower levels of offensive nuclear weapons -- and the closer to zero the better.  

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