HKS Authors

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James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy


Five months in, it is still early to summarize the Bush Administration's approach to nonproliferation, for several reasons. First, many of the key people are not yet in place, due to the long US nomination and confirmation process. Second, every administration's approach evolves after it comes to office. From Russia to North Korea, the Bush team is already smoothing off the sharp edges of their early rhetoric, and putting more emphasis on engagement. Third, nonproliferation policy (as opposed to arms control policy) has not been a major focus of the Bush administration's first months in office. Though the Bush team now takes pains to say that missile defense is only one element in a comprehensive strategy to deal with the spread of weapons of mass destruction, its place at the top of the priority list is obvious. Fourth, proliferation issues inevitably compete with other foreign policy considerations, from promoting trade to building strategic relationships, in relations with other major powers, and their relative priority will change as those other issues change. Fifth, changes in nonproliferation approaches from one US administration to the next are inevitably more a matter of shifts in emphasis than of radical U-turns. Continuity is reinforced by the vast infrastructure of permanent civil servants responsible for carrying out much of the government's nonproliferation activities, all of whom remain in place, with their pre-existing policy preferences, even as the thin layer of political appointees at the top changes hands. Sixth, because the approach is still being shaped, it is potentially still subject to influence. Officials newly in office, with a "clean sheet of paper" to start from, tend to be far more willing to entertain new ideas and proposals that may come in from outside the government, from other governments, or from within the government bureaucracy. Nevertheless, it is very clear that the new administration of George W. Bush brings with it a new nonproliferation team with a new approach. The Republican Party has effectively two camps on foreign policy. The "engagement" advocates emphasize the importance of building strong alliances, working with potential adversaries to lessen threats and the risks of conflict, and even, for some purposes, relying on international institutions such as the United Nations. The "unilateralist" camp, by contrast, emphasizes the preeminent importance of American military strength, is deeply suspicious of attempts to engage and improve relations with likely adversaries, and is particularly suspicious of treaties or international institutions that might limit American strength or freedom of action. Of course, a wide range of positions exists between these two extremes (The term "unilateralist" has become a negative epithet, and one the Bush team is now quick to deny, so the remainder of this article will describe this latter camp as the "American preeminence" school of thinking).


Bunn, Matthew. "The Bush Administration and Nonproliferation: Skeptics at the Helm." PIR Center Arms Control Letters. July 2001.