Unilateralism can be a force for peace and stability: it can blaze a path through thickets of problems that are too dense for any large group of states to navigate together, but whose path can be illuminated by only one nation acting courageously and for the benefit of the community. The uses of space and the reduction of nuclear weapons are two critical and related areas where American unilateralism can solve problems that gaggles of lawyers, bureaucrats, and diplomats cannot.
Ever since World War I, the international community has sought to replace unilateralism with law-based institutions, and many nations remain enamored of those institutions and indeed, of all things multilateral. Unfortunately, these institutions from the United Nations on down, have turned into talking shops, where process is valued far more than substance. Rather than dynamic governing bodies solving problems of life and death, they are far more like the stuffy Harvard classroom of The Paper Chase‘s fictional Professor Kingsfield, as lawyers and technical experts trade incomprehensible arguments over the minutiae of documents that policymakers and leaders will never read.
These are groups who are paid to talk, think, and deliberate, not to act. They revel in discourse peppered with citations to section this and subparagraph that of long-forgotten treaties and charters, often bemoaning the lack of precedent for the real problems of the 21st century.
What does all this have to do with space and nuclear weapons? These are two areas where in the name of avoiding “unilateralism” in favor of the holy grail of “multilateralism,” progress has been stymied by stupefying amounts of technical detail and eye-watering legalisms. This bureaucratic fog has completely smothered any common sense and undermined the ability of the United States to take actions that would benefit both American security and international stability.
We propose, then, a new American foreign policy doctrine: “The Nike Doctrine,” based on the manufacturer’s famous slogan: “Just do it.” Take unilateral actions that will slice through the smog of good intentions, jargon, and paperwork, and just do it.
Regarding space, for example, bureaucratic politics and legal wrangling in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD), which deals with space weapons, has resulted in a virtual “dialogue of the deaf.” (The UNCD is such a mess that multilateralist Canada decided to boycott it when North Korea was slated to chair it.) The engineering details are complicated, but the question is simple: What measures should be taken to stop high-altitude anti-satellite (ASAT) testing? The sustainability of the space environment has become increasingly threatened by space debris, including debris created by such deliberate acts as a 2007 Chinese (ASAT) test that did little else but prove that China is now the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to possess ASAT technology.
A year later, in “Operation Burnt Frost,” the United States flexed its own ASAT muscles by destroying an ailing spy satellite. This time, the space junk burned up in the atmosphere — two cheers for us for deciding against a high-altitude interception — but the meaning was clear: the U.S. and China can both fight in, and pollute, the heavens. These kinds of showy ASAT demonstrations accomplish nothing except to produce endless conferences on why no one should engage in them, which we already knew.
The United States can cut through the legal and technical morass at the UNCD and simply declare it will not deliberately create high altitude space debris — a de facto statement of a moratorium against high altitude ASAT tests. The 2007 Chinese ASAT vividly demonstrated both the inability of any country to “control” space with technology and the highly dangerous consequences for all space-faring nations of high-altitude space debris. Instead of endlessly wrangling with the Chinese (and later, possibly, the Russians and the Indians and anyone else) over just when and how such tests might take place, why not simply stop testing?
This is not a radical idea: none of the major nuclear powers have tested a nuclear weapon since the 1990s, even though the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (an issue dear to arms controllers, but few others) has never been ratified.
In other words: Just do it.
Speaking of nuclear weapons, it is hard to imagine any issue where something more dangerous is argued about to such little effect. With each reduction of the huge superpower nuclear stockpile, Cassandras in both Russia and America warn that the floor has been reached and further compromises will endanger the nuclear peace. They said this when the United States had 20,000 weapons, again when the U.S. and USSR agreed to drop to 6,000, once more when they agreed to drop to 2,200, and now, in the “New START” Treaty, once more as Moscow and Washington pledge to hit a new low of 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons. In the U.S., the political wrangle over New START was embarrassing; opponents of reductions are still mesmerized by Cold War nuclear planning that made little sense at the time and no sense now.
They dug in their heels on technical issues that were meant to imply that the United States, if shorn of the ability to instantly incinerate the entire Northern Hemisphere with impunity, would consequently be attacked like a weakened gazelle surrounded by stalking jackals. The Russians were little better, with their nuclear-heavy military-industrial complex growling that the Americans and NATO had better pony up a dear price for Russia’s willingness to reduce its dangerously large and aging nuclear inventory.
The effort to reach global “zero” championed by President Obama has since stalled out. And while “zero” was probably not a realistic idea, the idea of “global low” seems to have gone with it. The Big Five — the U.S., Russia, France, China and the UK — still command enough nuclear firepower to blow the planet to smithereens. The United States can go lower than its current inventory (one estimate by scholars at the U.S. Air War College suggests numbers as low as 300 strategic weapons), but between the interminable discussions with the Russians and the endless dithering of the U.S. arms control community, it is not likely to happen in our lifetime. (At least not if everyone is going to read all the reports it would take.)
Why not? And why wait for the Russians? Just do it, and dare the Russians to do likewise (while warning the Iranians and North Koreas that “just do it” means “and don’t dare do it” when it comes to proliferation.)
In both of these cases, the Obama administration (like most American administrations that are heavy with lawyers and narrowly-trained experts) has tried to find compromise based in rules and wrangling, thus missing opportunities to take actions that no one would object to but its own political opponents.
This sort of unilateralism can work: we know this because America has done it before. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush de-nuclearized America’s surface navy, and retired many other nuclear systems, with the stroke of a pen in response to the impending collapse of the USSR. He did not wait to negotiate a better deal with the fading Soviet regime; he just did it. Likewise, the United States stopped high altitude testing after the electromagnetic pulse and radiation created by “Starfish Prime,” a 1962 nuclear test at 250 miles above Johnston Island in the Pacific, created unexpected and undesirable effects ranging from electrical and phone service interruptions on the Hawaiian Islands, to U.S. satellites being damaged.
The important advantage of unilateral declarations is that they do not seek to control the actions of other countries. Instead, they are meant to show America’s willingness to take responsibility for its own actions, and to encourage others to do the same — or even shame them into it. The United States can alleviate security dilemmas in the space and nuclear arenas that have lingered long past the ending of the Cold War by demonstrating leadership. The rest of the world worries about the same problems, of course, but does little beyond wringing its collective hands, debating and issuing increasingly weighty but irrelevant reports. To wait for international organizations to take even the most basic actions toward a world more secure from space and nuclear weapons will mean a very long wait.
Sometimes, the best path to peace and security is the straightest line. Don’t wait for the lawyers who say they need more time at more conferences to see if other lawyers agree with them: just do it.
Ignore the Cold Warriors who want to lay out inch-thick briefing books on the technical tick-tock of the first 30 minutes of the nuclear war that will be launched by Russia or China if they think they’re ahead of us by a hundred missiles: just do it. Forget the hieroglyphics of the engineers who want to bicker over the last milligram of defining this or that system at the edge of space.
Just do it.
Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a professor at the Naval War College, lecturer at Harvard and an expert on U.S. military space, Chinese space and the PLA. Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. He advised the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania on defense and national security matters. He blogs at The War Room. The opinions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employers.