The second meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin at last week’s G-8 summit in Genoa was more notable for the hyperbole of the newspaper headlines it generated than the substance of its achievements.
After all of President Bush’s “soul-searching” with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June in Slovenia, commentators and analysts in the United States and Russia were looking for something more than atmospherics from this encounter and they thought they had got it. “Putin Agrees to Scuttle ABM Treaty” and “Mr. Bush’s Triumph in Genoa” crowed the Washington Times. “Russia Surrendered” Kommersant Daily declared in Moscow.
From the headlines, it seemed that the Bush administration had just secured its most important foreign and defense policy priority: Moscow’s acquiescence in the United States withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which will allow Washington to press ahead with the tests necessary to eventually construct a defense shield against missiles from rogue states or accidental launches.
But beyond the headlines, there were official notes of caution and statements at odds with the exclamatory rhetoric.
As she set off to Moscow for follow-up meetings with Russian counterparts, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice underscored that the United States was just at the beginning of a process of consultations. In Moscow, President Putin and government colleagues pointed out that there had been no scuttling and no surrender. He and Bush had simply agreed to tie two issues together for the future: missile defense and ABM, and ongoing discussions about reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The Bush-Putin meeting was nothing more than a set piece in a larger scenario that has been unfolding in Washington and European capitals since January. If there was a breakthrough, it was in the form of a realization—on the part of Putin and all the other G-8 leaders—that the United States will press ahead with missile defense and will pull out of the ABM Treaty. The question is no longer if, or even when, but simply how—in agreement with concerned states, or unilaterally if no agreement can be reached. This fact was underscored by the seemingly successful test of a missile interceptor over the Pacific Ocean, and was made unequivocally clear during congressional testimony by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, all just days before the Genoa meeting.
While prior to July 2001 other states had hoped they could delay or even halt the U.S. missile defense train from leaving the station, it is now evident that—as several senior officials in the Bush administration have stressed—the train already has left. The issue now is how other states can manage and adapt to this situation.
As the Genoa meeting illustrated, Russia and the United States’ European allies have managed to change the Bush administration’s initial calculus. On first taking office, administration officials indicated that they were willing to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM Treaty and even perhaps to violate it. These statements alarmed U.S. partners, foes, and the domestic opposition. Objections at home and abroad suggested that U.S. security could be undermined, not enhanced, if unilateral withdrawal and missile tests led to a rift
with European allies, the formation of a hostile coalition of states, or a new arms race if Russia and China beefed up their missile systems to counteract the shield. The administration has now ruled out violating the Treaty and put consultation and cooperation with Russia and other states ahead of a unilateral withdrawal.
Fortunately for the Bush administration, neither Russia, nor Europe, nor China for that matter, want a confrontation with the United States. Although they would have preferred to maintain the last remnants of the Cold War security architecture, Russia and other states have their own trains in motion that would be derailed by a collision with the United States over missile defense.
Leave of Absence
President Putin’s priorities are focused on Russia’s internal economic reform and on forging close political, economic and security relations with the countries immediately around its borders. To move ahead with reform, Putin needs consistency in relations with the United States and an acknowledgement of Russia’s position as a player on the international stage. The Bush administration’s commitment to a dialogue with Russia acknowledges this position and holds out the possibility of a new stable framework for relations.
In looking ahead, the U.S.-Russian dialogue on missile defense and arms reductions also will be a test case for United States intentions and conduct in foreign affairs under the Bush administration. The United States already has declined participation in a series of international treaties covering issues such as climate change, biological weapons and small arms that are priorities for other states, and the Bush administration has made it clear that it now views the G-8 and other international forums as informal mechanisms for consultative purposes, not as formal institutions.
After a decade of increasingly acrimonious relations between the United States and the United Nations as well as unilateral military actions abroad and the U.S.-led NATO intervention in the Balkans, unilateralism seems to be the watchword in American foreign policy. This puts the United States at odds with its principal partners in the Western Hemisphere and Europe who see multilateral arrangements as the best way to regulate and manage international affairs.
America’s allies have a major stake in seeing the United States reach an understanding with Russia on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that would indicate U.S. willingness for consultation and agreement on other fronts. But in many respects, the dialogue with Russia and the debate over missile defense is unique. With the appropriate technology and financing, the United States could proceed irrespective of other states’ positions.
There are other potential threats to U.S. security and prosperity where America cannot go it alone. The United States cannot build a shield against infectious disease or economic contagion. As one Bush official recently put it, the Bush administration will have to resort to “a la carte multilateralism” rather than unilateralism in dealing with global issues. The challenge for U.S. allies is to put other items on the menu.
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Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.