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The Folly of Leaving the ABM Treaty, 20 Years Later
Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty was an early Bush blunder, but it is one whose costs we continue to pay even now.
James Acton marks the anniversary of U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and he comments on what a horrible mistake Bush made when he decided to withdraw:
It’s clear now that withdrawing was an epic mistake. The United States’ homeland missile defenses are porous; why else would Washington worry that North Korea is deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)? Yet those defenses have succeeded in fueling arms races with Russia, whose hostility toward the United States is alive and well, and now with China too. This experience should prompt Washington to try to negotiate new limits on missile defenses, and it provides a cautionary tale about the very real costs of withdrawing from international agreements.
Withdrawing from the ABM Treaty was an early Bush blunder, but it is one whose costs we continue to pay even now. Perhaps because Bush made so many other epic mistakes in foreign policy, the folly of withdrawal from the treaty tends to be overlooked, but it was arguably one of the first major mistakes that helped to set U.S.-Russian relations on their downward trajectory. The hawkish commitment to missile defense has always been misguided because the technology is so unreliable and its effects were bound to be destabilizing whether it worked or not. It manages to alarm other governments into building more weapons without even temporarily providing the security that its advocates promise.
It was predictable that other nuclear-armed states would respond to U.S. missile defense deployments by building up their own arsenals more. One of the original reasons for negotiating the ABM Treaty was to reduce the incentives for arms racing. Scrapping the treaty and building up missile defenses have created new incentives to do just that. If there is no replacement for New START in a few years’ time, we will discover just how dangerous and ruinously expensive the new arms race can be.
Bush’s withdrawal from the treaty is also an important reminder that no agreement is safe from a president determined to abrogate it. The ABM Treaty was ratified by a vote of 88-2, but that overwhelming bipartisan consensus did not protect it decades later when Bush decided to toss it aside. There is nothing magical about submitting nonproliferation and arms control agreements as treaties. If one of the major parties in the U.S. despises all arms control agreements, it doesn’t matter what is in the agreements or if they are ratified.
The ABM Treaty withdrawal was the first time in this century when a Republican administration killed a successful agreement for bad reasons, but unfortunately it wasn’t the last. The U.S. under Bush and Trump blew up the Agreed Framework, the JCPOA, the INF Treaty, and Open Skies in the twenty years that followed Bush’s decision, and New START only survived because Trump lost re-election. Pulling out of the ABM Treaty was the first in this series of dimwitted unilateral moves that have undermined the causes of arms control and nonproliferation and exposed the U.S. and our allies to greater dangers than before. It should be considered a cautionary tale of what not to do, but unfortunately for Bush’s party it became the model to emulate.
To make matters worse, withdrawing from the treaty was done to expand the development of a technology that is one of the biggest boondoggles in recent history. Missile defense doesn’t work very well, but other governments fear that it might one day be effective and therefore they try to find ways to overwhelm or get around it. China’s recent surge in silo-building and their experiments with new weapons systems can be traced back to this. Other nuclear weapons states understandably fear that missile defenses might succeed in destroying some or most of their missiles, and that would make them more vulnerable to a U.S. attack. That is why they feel pressure to expand their arsenals and find new ways to evade the missile defenses that don’t actually work. It doesn’t help that the U.S. pointedly refuses to rule out using nuclear weapons in a first strike.
No international agreement is perfect, but before withdrawing, the United States needs to do more than simply assess the benefits of leaving. It also needs to take a long, hard, and unsentimental look at the costs.
After twenty years of shredded agreements and abandoned treaties, we can safely say that the U.S. and its allies are less secure than they were in 2001. This has happened because hawks got their way and threw out agreements that were working fairly well, and then the hawks demagogued the new threats that their blunders helped make possible. If the U.S. is going to pursue arms control seriously in the future, missile defense will have to be on the table and the U.S. should be prepared to make substantial concessions on this issue. The alternative is to keep fueling arms races at enormous expense and to court the increasing danger of nuclear exchange that comes with them.