Missile Defense, Arms Control, and Deterrence: A New Strategic Framework
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Missile Defense, Arms Control, and
Deterrence: A New Strategic Framework
Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The Bush Administration has argued that a “new strategic framework” should shape
the U.S. relationship with Russia. The Administration states that the United States no
longer faces the threat of global nuclear war, and must instead respond to emerging
threats. In this environment, it argues, the United States must rely on both offensive and
defensive weapons to deter and repel attacks. The Administration maintains that Russia
is no longer an enemy, so the United States and Russia need not rely on formal arms
control agreements to manage the nuclear balance. Each can reduce its forces unilaterally
and alter its forces according to its own needs. Most critics doubt that the United States
and Russia can manage their relationship without formal arms control. They also argue
that the Administration’s plans for missile defense could undermine the U.S. relationship
with Russia and upset international stability.
During the Cold War, the United States pursued national security and defense policies
to address the global threat posed by the Soviet Union. Deterrence of Soviet threats and
attack against the United States and its allies rested, ultimately, on U.S. nuclear forces.
Both nations maintained large arsenals of nuclear weapons. Therefore, in theory, neither
would have an incentive to initiate a conflict that could escalate to nuclear war because
each could inflict wide-scale destruction on the other in retaliation.
Although the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear stockpiles and
introduced some modifications to their national security strategies during the 1990s, this
“Cold War” strategic framework remained largely unchanged through the Clinton
Administration.1 The Bush Administration has argued that this framework does not reflect
the realities of the current international security environment because it presumes an
adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia and ignores other challenges
1 The Clinton Administration conducted a Nuclear Posture Review in 1993-1994, and issued new
guidance on nuclear weapons in 1997. These called for reductions in U.S. nuclear forces, which
were blocked by Congress pending ratification of the START II Treaty, but they left largely
unchanged the U.S. nuclear strategy for deterrence with Russia.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
to U.S. national security. In particular, the arms control framework that has helped shape
the strategic balance between the United States and Russia precludes the deployment of
robust missile defenses, which, according to the Bush Administration, the United States
needs to address emerging ballistic missile threats from other nations.
President Bush and officials in his Administration have frequently argued that the
United States can deploy missile defenses without upsetting its relationship with Russia
because a “new strategic framework” can now shape that relationship and determine U.S.
national security and defense policies. The Administration has not offered a
comprehensive description of this new framework, but it may do so when it completes its
ongoing nuclear posture review in late 2001. Key elements of the framework are evident
in the Administration’s statements about deterrence, arms control, and missile defense.
This report seeks to blend these statements into an integrated description of the new
framework. It begins with a brief review of the relationship between the framework and
the broader world view held by the President and his key advisors. It then outlines how
the new strategic framework would identify the challenges to U.S. national security, define
deterrence, and describe the role of arms control in U.S. security. Finally, it summarizes
some criticisms and concerns that analysts and officials in other countries have raised
about the Bush Administration’s description of this new framework.
The Strategic Framework within the Broader View
During the campaign and early months of the Bush Administration, the President and
his advisors were critical of the foreign policy of the Clinton Administration. Although a
full review of this critique is not appropriate here, a few examples can help clarify the
views that shape the Bush Administration’s concept of a new strategic framework.
In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in January 2000, Condoleeza Rice, the
President’s National Security Advisor, criticized the Clinton Administration for its
“reflexive appeal to notions of international law and norms,” to the extent that
“humanitarian interests” and the interests of the “international community” replaced the
“national interest” in the rationale for the use of U.S. power. She went on to state that
the Clinton Administration was “so anxious to find multilateral solutions to problems that
it has signed agreements that are not in America’s interests.” Furthermore, in Ms. Rice’s
view, the “United States has a special role in the world and should not adhere to every
international convention and agreement that someone thinks to propose.2 Other officials
have indicated that the Administration will pursue a foreign policy that puts “U.S. national
interest ahead of global compromise” and seeks to preserve the nation’s “superpower
status.” Administration officials have referred to this as “exceptionalism,” which means
that the United States, with its special role in the world, should not always be bound by
“the same rules as everybody else.”3 Although all members of the President’s
Administration may not ascribe to these views on the relative priority of power politics
over international norms in U.S. foreign policy, most do seem to support specific policies
on deterrence and arms control that are consistent with these views.
2 Rice, Condoleeza. Promoting the National Interest. Foreign Affairs. January/February 2000.
v. 79. pp. 47-48.
3 Diamond, John. Bush Putting U.S. Above Global Cooperation. Exceptionalism Bumps
Isolationism. Chicago Tribune. July 20, 2001.
Threats and Challenges to U.S. Security
The Bush Administration argues that the challenges facing the United States have
changed from the threat of a global war with the Soviet Union to the threat posed by
emerging adversaries in regions around the world. These adversaries include non-state
actors and terrorists, as well as “rogue” nations. Administration officials further emphasize
that “Russia is not our enemy.” Hence, the two nations no longer have to focus on the
balance of nuclear weapons and should no longer base their relationship on a framework
characterized by “Cold War antagonism and mutual assured destruction.” Instead, the
United States should “deal with Russia as we deal with other countries.”4
Furthermore, instead of trying to prevent “one hostile power from using an arsenal
of weapons against us...” the challenge is to “deter multiple potential adversaries not only
from using existing weapons but also to dissuade them from developing new capabilities56
in the first place.” These potential adversaries include nations such as China and a
number of other states, such as North Korea and Iran, “for whom terror and blackmail are
a way of life.”7 These adversaries might threaten U.S. allies and interests, U.S. forces
advancing U.S. interests, and U.S. territory in an effort to blackmail the United States to
retreat from its interests around the world.
The Clinton Administration (and the first Bush Administration before it) also
recognized that the international security environment had changed after the demise of the
Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, but officials in the current Administration and
some analysts outside government have argued that the Clinton Administration did not
alter U.S. national security objectives or its military posture in ways that respond to this
changing environment. The current Administration, in contrast, has indicated that these
changing threats and challenges provide both the opportunity and the necessity for the
United States to alter its approaches to deterrence and arms control. In this view, the
attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001 served to
indicate just how vulnerable the United States can be to a determined adversary.
President Bush has stated that “we need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both
offensive and defensive forces. Deterrence can no longer be based solely on the threat of
nuclear retaliation. Defenses can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for
proliferation.”8 Offensive nuclear weapons would continue to play a role in deterrence.
According to Secretary of State Powell, “you keep enough weapons so that you will
always be able to deter anyone else who is planning to strike you.”9 However, because
4 Rumsfeld, Donald H. Toward 21st Century Deterrence. Wall Street Journal. June 27, 2001.
6 Rice, Promoting the National Interest. p. 56.
7 President George W. Bush. Remarks at the National Defense University. May 1, 2001.
9 Wright, Jonathan. Powell Says MAD is Indispensable. Washington Times, June 21,2001. p. 11.
Russia is no longer an enemy to be deterred by the threat of nuclear destruction, the
United States can “change the size, composition, and character of our nuclear forces.”10
This concept of deterrence envisions two roles for missile defense. First, defenses
might discourage nations from acquiring ballistic missiles that can threaten the United
States, its forces, or its allies. According to this view, some nations have made ballistic
missiles their “weapons of choice” because they know the United States has no defense
against them and they expect that, if they can threaten the United States with even a
limited attack on U.S. cities, the United States would withdraw its forces or support from
their region. Missile defenses, would, however, undermine this calculus by removing the
“free ride” for ballistic missiles. Second, even if these nations still chose to acquire ballistic
missiles, U.S. defenses could deter their use, or threat of use, in a crisis. Theoretically, a
nation’s leaders would decide whether to threaten or attack the United States by balancing
the costs and benefits of such an action. With only offensive weapons (conventional and
nuclear) in its deterrent strategy, the United States would seek to raise the costs of such
an action by threatening to inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary if it attacked the
United States with its missiles or weapons of mass destruction.11 But, with missile
defenses in the mixture, the United States could also reduce the potential benefits of such
an action by intercepting attacking missiles. Furthermore, according to this theory, the
missile defense system need not be perfect. Even an imperfect defense could raise enough
doubts in an adversary’s mind to discourage an attack.
During the Cold War, arms control negotiations and agreements often played a key
role in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Although most of the treaties and agreements may
have done little to reduce weapons, many analysts believe that they helped shape the arms
race, added predictability to force postures and the strategic environment, and provided
a measure of openness and transparency between the two sides. Multilateral
nonproliferation agreements also played a role in establishing international norms of12
behavior, with little effect on U.S. forces or national security strategy.
Some Members of Congress, the Executive Branch, and analysts outside government
have long questioned the value of arms control agreements in limiting threats to the United
States. However, since the mid-1980s, many have accepted the role that these agreements
can play, with their detailed definitions and comprehensive verification measures, in
10 Bush. Remarks at National Defense University.
11 The United States, in its declaratory policy, neither specifically threatens or rules out nuclear
retaliation. Some have questioned the credibility of nuclear threats, particularly in retaliation for
non-nuclear attacks. If an adversary doubted that the United States would cross the “nuclear
threshold,” threats of retaliation might not deter aggression. On the other hand, some have argued
that an adversary could not be certain that the United States would not use nuclear weapons and
would, therefore, be less likely to use weapons of mass destruction.
12 Although the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty contains a long-term goal of nuclear
disarmament, the United States and other nuclear powers view this as an admonition to reduce, not
eliminate nuclear arms. The United States agreed to ban chemical weapons in the Chemical
Weapons Convention, but Congress had already legislated the elimination of U.S. chemical
ensuring predictability and transparency in the U.S. nuclear relationship with Russia.
However, many of these same officials and analysts are again questioning the value of
formal, negotiated arms control agreements. They argue that the agreements can take too
long to negotiate and go too far in constraining U.S. military forces and activities.
Furthermore, they argue that rogue nations who threaten the United States are unlikely to
abide by the norms established by the agreements, so they will do little to improve U.S.
security. Consequently, instead of spending the time negotiating agreements, the United
States should size its forces according to its own needs. In a benign environment, this
could lead to reductions in forces, but the United States should also have the flexibility to
restore forces if the environment were to change.13
Some have also argued that the U.S.-Soviet model of strategic nuclear arms control
is not consistent with the new U.S. relationship with Russia. If Russia is not our enemy,
the two nations should not engage in lengthy, detailed negotiations in an adversarial
environment. Instead, they could each size their forces according to their own needs, and
meet occasionally to inform the other of their plans. This would allow for predictability
and transparency in a more cooperative environment. The President has stated that he
intends to pursue this type of arms control approach. He has indicated that he will reduce
U.S. nuclear forces unilaterally, while holding consultations with Russia to discuss plans
for offensive nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defenses.
The Administration has also stated that it will use its discussions and consultations
with Russia to convince that nation to understand and accept the U.S. view of the threats
and challenges in the new strategic environment, the U.S. view of the value of and need
for ballistic missile defenses in the deterrence framework, and the absence of a need for
formal, lengthy arms control negotiations in the relationship between the United States and
Russia. According to the President, these two nations should develop a “new cooperative14
relationship” that “looks to the future, not to the past.” Specifically, the Administration
wants to convince Russia to agree to move beyond the 1972 ABM Treaty in cooperation
with the United States. But the President and his advisors have been clear in their recent
statements; if Russia does not accept the U.S. approach, the United States will exercise
its right to withdraw from the Treaty unilaterally.
Contrasting Views and Criticisms
Officials in other nations and analysts outside government have raised several
questions and concerns about the assumptions and policies in the new strategic framework.
For example, although the Administration has declared that Russia is no longer an enemy,
the relationship between the two nations remains complicated. The recent attacks on the
World Trade Center and Pentagon have opened unexpected channels for cooperation, but
both nations continue to maintain nuclear forces to deter an attack by the other. This is
unlikely to change even if both sides reduce their forces to 1,500-2,000 warheads.
Therefore, nuclear deterrence will likely remain relevant, and could continue to play a role
in an environment where political relationships might change rapidly. According to one
Russian analyst, “the two powers may no longer consider each other enemies and may not
13 See, for example, Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control.
Executive Summary. National Institute for Public Policy, January 2001. pp 15-16.
14 Bush. National Defense University. May 1, 2001.
be preparing in earnest for war, but relations of latent mutual deterrence remain between
them since they are still a long way from being allies.”15
Furthermore, in spite of years of cooperation in weapons reductions, many doubt that
the two sides would be confident in their assessments of the other without the transparency
and predictability offered by the detailed provisions in arms control agreements. Russian
officials do not agree with the Administration’s claims that arms control negotiations are
a relic of the Cold War relationship between the two sides and that Russia should be
treated like any other nation. They believe that, as a nuclear superpower, Russia deserves
a greater degree of respect and consideration and that the arms control relationship with
the United States shows that measure of respect.
Some have also questioned the Administration’s assertion that missile defenses
“threaten no one, except those who would threaten the United States.” They note that
nations would not be likely to threaten the United States with missile attacks unless they
were already involved in a conflict with the United States. And such a conflict, most
suggest, would occur if the United States were interfering in areas where other nations
sought to defend their interests. Therefore, for many analysts in other nations, U.S. missile
defenses are not a reaction to emerging threats to U.S. security, but a means to preempt
challenges that other nations might impose to U.S. hegemony around the world. If the
United States would stay away from other nations’ conflicts, it would have nothing to fear.
Furthermore, analysts in Russia and China have both noted that the United States has
never intervened in the internal affairs of nuclear armed nations. This could change, and
these two nations in particular fear they could be at risk, if the United States could protect
itself from retaliatory attacks.
Many analysts also disagree with the view that the United States has little to gain
from arms control and international norms. They argue that all nations in the international
community benefit from the transparency and predictability offered by arms control. And
all benefit from the norms established by multilateral agreements. Even if U.S. security is
not enhanced by the specific provisions and prohibitions of individual agreements, U.S.
security would benefit if the international community were more secure and stable. The
absence of conflict and arms races around the world benefit all nations, even those that
could expect to prevail if a conflict or arms race occurred.
Finally, in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, some
analysts have questioned whether the United States should commit so much of the
Pentagon’s resources to missile defense. They note that the terrorists who attacked the
United States did so with conventional airliners; they did not devote time or resources to
the development of ballistic missiles. So, even if the emerging threats in the post-Cold
War era argue for a new strategic framework, the appropriate response may not be one
that places a high priority on missile defenses and excludes future negotiated arms control
agreements with Russia.
15 Arbatov, Aleksei. Once More on Missile Defense; Is Stability Formula Attainable?" Moscow,
Nezavisimaya Gazeta. July 4, 2001. Translated in FBIS Document CEP20010704000171.