When President Bush meets Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Rome this weekend, he will try to nudge Mr. Putin toward a new agreement between the two countries on missile defense.
But the Bush administration is indicating that any agreement will not take shape as a formal treaty - a position that breaks with past Republican presidents, who have relied on arms-control treaties as a way to build safety into the nuclear age.
Instead, "framework" and "agreement" are terms administration officials use to describe their aim, reflecting the Bush team's aversion to treaties in general and arms-control treaties, like the now-troublesome Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), in particular.
"I do think this is a philosophical shift with Bush Jr., in that it dovetails with his conservative principles," says Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who helped brief Mr. Bush before his first meeting with Mr. Putin last month. "They don't like to constrain the individual in domestic politics, and here they don't want to constrain the United States."
Examples of this no-constraints philosophy, say Mr. McFaul and others, are the Bush administration's rejections of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and a United Nations accord on the proliferation of small arms.
Wiggling out of treaties
But nowhere is it more evident than in the field of nuclear arms control. Specifically, the administration:
* Is going forward with plans to build a missile defense, which could violate the ABM Treaty as soon as February, according to the Defense Department. It hopes to reach a broad agreement with Moscow that reflects a post-Soviet era of friendship between the two countries.
"There's a good reason not to get into 15-year negotiations, which is what it has taken to create arms-control treaties," Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said last week. "You're talking about trying to dot every 'i' and cross every 't,' because there was no reason to have any trust in this relationship. It was implacably hostile, and it was abnormal from the point of view of the way international relations is normally done."
* Is on record against the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the GOP-controlled Senate refused in 1999 to ratify. The Bush administration has said it will voluntarily uphold a moratorium on nuclear testing, but it is also considering underground testing of a new class of smaller nuclear weapons that might be able to, say, blow up the underground bunker of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but spare civilians nearby.
* Is willing to reduce, unilaterally, its nuclear-weapons arsenal - a departure from START, the strategic arms reduction talks that involved the US and the former Soviet Union in negotiations for three decades. Ms. Rice, however, indicated that Bush could include reductions as part of an overall new agreement with Russia on missile defense.
Ironically, Bush's steps could lead to the undermining of a carefully constructed, 50-year-old arms-control foundation built largely by his Republican predecessors. On the other hand, some experts say, arms-control efforts of the past decade have not been successful, and perhaps it's time to try a new approach.
Time for a change?
It's no surprise the administration is breaking out of the arms-control paradigm, says Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information. For the past decade, it hasn't worked, he says. Administration officials, too, note that not a single nuclear warhead was eliminated under the Clinton administration.
The two greatest arms-control measures of the '90s were not codified in treaties, says Mr. Blair. One was the joint decision of George Bush Sr. and Mikhail Gorbachev to bring back home tens of thousands of short-range, tactical nuclear weapons scattered around the world. The other was a program worked out by two US senators and the Department of Energy to help Russia dismantle nuclear weapons, secure weapons-making material, and employ Russian nuclear scientists in peacetime jobs.
'Go for it' - with caveats
With the test-ban treaty blocked by the Senate and START II still not in effect, "it's worth trying to reach an executive agreement between the two sides that is less than a full-blown treaty," says Blair. "As long as it is mutally agreeable and has measures for transparency and some monitoring, I say, go for it."
Other experts, though, are concerned that monitoring and "transparency" will not be adequately covered in a general agreement. They also worry that moving away from treaties sends negative signals to other countries, which may themselves feel free to break out of agreements the United States cares about. Indeed, Russia is threatening to build a new generation of multiple-warhead nuclear missiles if the US pulls out of the ABM Treaty.
"When you're the world's superpower and you're not willing to give up some of your sovereignty, that creates a lot of ill will around the world," says McFaul.
Even Blair, who favors experimenting with nontreaty formats for arms control, sees problems with the Bush approach. "They seem ready to plow ahead, to bulldoze the Russians, and to drop treaties and act unilaterally in ways that are not in the interests of Russian security and that are not agreed to by the Russians," he says. "That's a path to a breakdown in our relations."
Eyes on the goal, please
Henry Sokolski, an arms-control expert in the first Bush administration, says that people dealing with the nuclear-weapons issue need to keep focused on the goals of arms control, not on the means of achieving them. The goals, he says, are avoiding major war, cutting the cost of maintaining forces in peacetime, and reducing the harm to innocent people if a major war breaks out.
"We worry about what the Europeans think. We worry about what the Russians think, but we don't worry enough about these criteria," he says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor