During his four-year tenure as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton prided himself on his frank manner, mistrust of legally binding international agreements, and zealous aversion to any constraints on U.S. freedom of action. But although Bolton can point to a few successes on his watch, his uncompromising mindset prevented some potential nonproliferation breakthroughs. His legacy as he seeks confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is largely one of jilted and discarded treaties, offended diplomatic counterparts, and lingering proliferation dangers that the Bush administration refused to confront directly.
After assuming his post in May 2001, Bolton wasted little time in stamping his imprint on the administration's arms-control approach. In July, the administration rejected an agreement (then six years in the making) to deter and detect cheating on a treaty banning biological weapons and opposed more stringent worldwide restrictions on small arms. Bolton argued that the measures would have infringed too much on the United States or done little to dissuade and catch cheaters. The administration would return to these arguments in July 2004 for objecting to formal verification provisions for a proposed treaty to ban production of two key ingredients for building nuclear weapons.
Bolton delivered the U.S. positions in his characteristically blunt and uncompromising fashion. He shocked U.S. allies with a vehement warning against resurrecting the biological-weapons treaty measures by reportedly pronouncing them as "dead, dead, dead."
In the course of spurning the anti–biological weapons proposal, Bolton unveiled what would become another hallmark of his approach: "naming names." Departing from past diplomatic practice, Bolton accused countries by name of pursuing biological weapons. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Sudan, and North Korea were the alleged guilty parties. In Iraq's case, Bolton asserted, "The existence of Iraq's program is beyond dispute."
U.S. arms inspectors scouring the country after the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, however, found no evidence that Iraq had actively pursued biological weapons in the past several years. Bolton's allegations about Libya also have gone unverified following Libya's December 2003 renunciation of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.
The scuttling of biological-weapons and small-arms measures, however, was only a prologue to Bolton's and the administration's top arms-control priority: freeing the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which barred nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missile attacks.
After Bolton spent several months unsuccessfully trying to convince Russia to mutually "move beyond" the treaty, President George W. Bush announced in December 2001 that the United States would withdraw from the treaty in order to pursue missile defenses. To be sure, the worst-case scenarios of a renewed arms race with Russia and China envisioned by opponents of treaty withdrawal have yet come to pass -- but neither has a working missile defense system, despite this administration's expenditure of approximately $35 billion on the effort.
Although Moscow criticized the withdrawal as a mistake, its reaction was more muted than predicted because of a U.S. concession to codify its planned nuclear force reductions in an agreement with Russia, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The Bush administration's preference had been for both sides to carry out reductions without a treaty. Bolton served as the chief U.S. negotiator for the accord, which amounts to little more than a gentlemen's agreement. Although SORT commits Washington and Moscow to reduce their operationally deployed strategic warheads by roughly two-thirds to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads apiece by the end of 2012, it doesn't require the destruction of a single warhead or delivery vehicle, lacks verification provisions, and contains no progress checkpoints before 2012.
Underlying both the ABM treaty withdrawal and the SORT negotiations was Bolton's and this administration's guiding precept of avoiding binding obligations on the United States, even at the cost of allowing threats to persist. Maintaining that flexibility also lies at the heart of the administration's fervent opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which outlaws nuclear testing, and strong support for the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to intercept WMD and related shipments at sea, on land, and in the air.