Churchill, Not Quite

Churchill, Not Quite

Mini Teaser: With America facing grave threats, the Bush Administration has failed to demonstrate a willingness to establish a hierarchy of priorities.

by Author(s): Graham AllisonDimitri K. Simes

PRESIDENT BUSH has identified the nexus of terrorism and nuclear weapons as "the single largest threat to American national security." Indeed, he has said that the United States is currently engaged in World War III and put a bust of Winston Churchill in his office.

The question he should ask himself is: What would Churchill do facing a grave threat to his society and way of life? How closely do the president's actions mirror his model? An American Churchill confronting a threat of such monumental proportions would make defeating this challenge the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy.

Churchill was a life-long anti-communist, and had few illusions about the Stalin regime. To defeat Nazi Germany, however, Churchill was prepared to enter into an alliance with the Soviet Union and to accept that the USSR would incorporate some additional territories. In fact, Britain even declared war against democratic Finland because the country cooperated with Berlin, even though Finland entered the war against the Soviet Union only in an attempt to reclaim territory occupied by Moscow.

No Churchillian willingness to establish a hierarchy of priorities is evident in the Bush Administration's current foreign policy, particularly once democracy promotion officially replaced the fight against terror as the number one U.S. objective in the world.

From a realist perspective, the president deserves applause on two fronts for his recent performance at the recent St. Petersburg G-8 Summit, where both of us were present. First, he rejected the council of ideological instant-democratizers to boycott the St. Petersburg Summit, or seek to expel Russia from this club of advanced industrial democracies. It is noteworthy that advocates of such a misguided course were found not only in his administration but in equal, if not greater, numbers among his Democratic opponents. Moreover, he refrained from publicly hectoring or lecturing Vladimir Putin about Russia's unquestionable backsliding from democracy, reserving candid discussion of differences to private conversation that was, no doubt, more effective than the alternative.

Second, on an issue both presidents have identified as an overriding threat not only to their nations but globally, they announced three important steps forward: a new Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; a plan for multiple, multilateral guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel to states that forgo building their own enrichment plants; and a Civil Nuclear Agreement that will lift restrictions on cooperation between the two countries in developing peaceful nuclear power.

Each of these initiatives provides a framework for dozens of specific actions that can measurably reduce the risk of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon. Together they suggest that the Bush Administration is finally beginning to see this challenge whole and developing a comprehensive strategy for addressing it.

The significance of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism lies not only in its substance but in Russia's visible joint-ownership of the Initiative. At the press conference on Saturday, President Putin led with the Global Initiative and explained it with conviction. After years in which Americans lectured Russians about this threat, Putin's joint leadership in securing nuclear material worldwide should give added impetus to this undertaking inside Russia as well.

Globally, this initiative calls for work plans in five arenas: prevention, detection, disruption, mitigation of consequences after an attack, and strengthening domestic laws and export controls against future A. Q. Khans. This skeleton has all the required limbs. Everything will depend on how rapidly governments put meat on these bones. Fortunately, officials at the Departments of State and Energy have already been at work doing that. For example, they have scheduled for this fall the first-ever, joint-field exercise that will seek to find and capture hypothetical terrorists who have stolen nuclear material. This will involve Americans and Russians working together in Russia. The Initiative is open to other states prepared to undertake these commitments.

The guaranteed nuclear-fuel supply tightens the noose around Iran as it seeks to exploit a loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By guaranteeing states that six separate international suppliers will provide backup guarantees against interruption of supply for any reason other than breech of commitments under the NPT, this proposal eliminates Iran's excuse for Natanz--the enrichment plant it is rushing to finish today. This system for supply will be subject to the supervision by the IAEA, which will also have nuclear fuel reserves that allow it to be a supplier of last resort.

The Civil Nuclear Agreement will allow joint research on next-generation, proliferation-proof reactors, including technologies where Russian science is the best in the world. It will permit sale to Russia of U.S. technologies that can improve the safety and efficiency of Russian nuclear power plants. In time, it will allow Russia to import for safe storage U.S.-origin nuclear waste from power plants in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. While several obstacles must be overcome before Russia is open for business, this has the promise to become the largest source of income for Russia's nuclear industry. Requiring that 25 percent of the profit be spent on sustaining security for all nuclear material would be a classic example of a win-win scenario. It will also relieve nuclear-power-plant operators worldwide of spent fuel that has been accumulating on-site, thus depriving opponents of nuclear power of another one of their talking points.

In their Joint Statement, the two presidents "recognize the devastation that could befall our peoples and the world community if nuclear weapons or materials or other weapons of mass destruction were to fall into the hands of terrorists." If terrorists succeed in exploding a nuclear bomb in Washington or Moscow or Tel Aviv, the pictures of an expanding war in the Middle East that overshadowed press coverage of the two presidents' Nuclear Initiative will pale in comparison. Beneath these headlines, Russia and the United States made productive use of this summit as an action-forcing deadline to advance in the war against nuclear terrorism.

Commendable as these steps are, they represent largely a declaration of intent whose implementation will depend on cooperation between the two governments, including their security services. Taking into account that many sensitive matters are involved for both sides--particularly for Russia, which would need to open further its nuclear facilities--it is next to impossible to hermetically insulate cooperation on nuclear terrorism from trends in the overall U.S.-Russia relationship, and these trends lately have been far from encouraging. The administration claims that there is no contradiction between the need to cooperate on nuclear terrorism with Russia and aggressive attempts at democracy promotion in the former Soviet space and even in Russia itself. It is possible to argue that democracy promotion in cases like Belarus, which essentially amount to regime change, should be a paramount foreign policy objective. But it is hard to take seriously the argument that the United States can realistically expect to try to undermine Putin's role in Russia and Russia's influence on its periphery on the one hand and receive whole-hearted Russian cooperation on matters nuclear, such as putting pressure on Iran, on the other. Growing U.S. military assistance to Georgia is specifically mentioned in Moscow as a reason why Russia should be entitled to sell weapons to Venezuela. This could lead to a pattern of escalation and further bitter disputes between Washington and Moscow. Thus, America's ability to limit the risk of WMD attacks has been weakened by efforts to bring transformational change in the post-Soviet space, which the Russian government considers dangerous to its vital interests.

Problems with establishing a meaningful hierarchy of U.S. foreign policy objectives certainly did not start with the Bush Administration. Since the end of the Cold War, the American foreign policy establishment--both Republicans and Democrats--has become drunk with success. Suggestions that trying to do too much too fast could be dangerous were contemptuously rejected by the newly triumphant conventional wisdom as manifestations of cynical intent. Warnings were disregarded in favor of "moral imperatives" of the moment, with outcomes that were often morally questionable. There was a widespread failure to appreciate the limits to what the United States could accomplish--presumably on the cheap--as the only remaining superpower. "Realist" became a derogatory term in U.S. foreign policy debates, implying someone was amoral and out of touch at the same time.

The price of these "optional wars"--conducted by both Republican and Democratic administrations--is paid in the years of planning, resources and attention that were not spent to prepare for and deal with an increasingly evident terrorist threat to kill thousands, and even millions of Americans.

Some argue that even if the United States had been able to prioritize and to display more sensitivity to the interests of other major powers, it still would not have received much in return. Russia is frequently mentioned in this regard, and there is an element of truth in this argument. Clearly Moscow has been much less than a perfect partner for the United States, and in its current resurgent mood Russia would probably refuse to work in lock-step with American foreign policy no matter what. Then again, foreign policy is rarely about absolutes: There is a spectrum between total defiance and total submission, and moving Moscow along the spectrum can make quite a difference to the United States.

Essay Types: The Realist