George W. Bush, the son of Clinton's predecessor, entered the White House in January 2001 as a strange amalgam of neoisolationist and latter-day cold warrior. Lacking his father's lifetime of exposure to world affairs or to politics beyond Texas, Bush had very rarely traveled overseas. From the first days of his administration he showed an alarming tendency to discount the stabilizing results of a half century's patient negotiation, especially the thirty-year-old ABM Treaty. His most senior advisers were men and women with broad foreign policy expertise and extensive experience in managing the national security apparatus. Richard Cheney, the vice president, had been secretary of defense at the time of the Gulf War; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had held the same office under President Reagan; General Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was a former national security adviser who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was a newcomer to high office but she brought to the Oval Office an intimate academic familiarity with the military and foreign policy of Soviet Russia. On balance, these counselors were aggressive and combative veterans of the Cold War; they were not inclined to dissuade the president from attacking the ABM Treaty as obsolete in a world of nuclear-armed rogue states, or from pushing the eastward expansion of NATO regardless of the objections of Russia.
Bush immediately made it clear that creation of a missile defense system would command his highest priority. At the same time, he began distancing himself from the traditionally close strategic and arms control relationship the United States had maintained with Russia since Nixon's presidency. In the earliest days of his administration Bush warned that if Russia refused to negotiate changes to the ABM Treaty the United States might abrogate the pact. He further suggested that the United States would make future changes to its strategic arsenal on a unilateral basis. This autarchy would free the United States from the need to negotiate missile defenses in tandem with arms reductions, thereby decoupling Russian and American strategic interests for the first time in more than fifty years.
Early in 2001 the éminence grise of the Republican foreign policy establishment, Henry Kissinger, weighed in on the side of the opponents of the ABM Treaty, which had been negotiated when he was President Nixon's national security adviser. In a book entitled Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Kissinger quite remarkably traced the treaty's origins to congressional and bureaucratic opposition to an ABM defense system that, he claimed, was what President Nixon had preferred. Kissinger said the opponents of Nixon's antiballistic missile program used the same arguments as were being used in 2001 to discredit President Bush's national and theater missile defense proposals. In Kissinger's version, the Cassandras incoherently predicted that a ballistic missile defense program "would not work; that it would work so well as to be destabilizing; that it would weaken the Atlantic Alliance by decoupling the defense of the United States from that of Europe; that it would drive the Soviet Union into intransigence and an arms race."
Kissinger and others who would scrap the ABM Treaty in order to construct antiballistic missile systems postulated that regardless of any treaty, the United States and Russia would not attack one another because each side had far more than enough nuclear weapons to obliterate its rival. On the other side of the debate was Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign correspondent of the New York Times. A strategic thinker who believed that "the information revolution and [economic] globalization" were radically transforming international relations, Friedman vigorously denounced Kissinger and "the Bush team's latest version of a high-tech missile defense shield." It was "an idea that, so far, doesn't work, [and] shows every possibility of unraveling the complex web of arms control and diplomatic initiatives that have kept the peace for 50 years."
President Bush met Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, for the first time in Slovenia in June 2001. Bush said he looked his counterpart in the eye, liked what he saw, and invited him to his ranch in Texas. Some naive columnists were quick to herald a breakthrough and a revitalization of Russian-American relations. But prudent skeptics wondered whether real Russian-American harmony could be established or persist given the substantive differences dividing the two countries. Asked about the U.S.–Russian relationship in May 2000, the deputy chairman of the defense committee of the Russian Duma, Alexei Arbatov, replied without hesitation, "There are a lot of very bad feelings, bad expectations, suspicions and mistrust. A lot of those are not justified, some are, unfortunately, justified. Russia sees itself as now being an opponent of the United States.… Russia is willing to compete… in important areas such as the post-Soviet states, the Balkans, the issue of ballistic missile defenses and strategic offenses [sic]."
Another pertinent question to consider when assessing Russian-American relations in the first decade of the twenty-first century was whether the relationship between the two should really remain the central thread of American nuclear strategy and diplomacy. The United States might bill itself as the "one remaining superpower" in 2001, but the People's Republic of China was a nascent great power with potentially unlimited geopolitical ambitions and energy. Vociferous in denouncing the Bush administration's plans to build missile defenses as destabilizing, China shrugged off American accusations that it was benefiting from the ABM Treaty while the United States lay exposed to missile attacks by powers other than Russia. Beijing continued to vilify the United States as a "rogue hegemon" whose self-aggrandizement threatened the security of the rest of the world. At the same time, China modernized its own nuclear and conventional forces and opened mutual defense discussions with Russia. President Putin of Russia, seeking a counterweight to U.S. power, turned eagerly to China, where he found enthusiasm for cooperation in arms and technology transfers. A Sino-Russian voting alliance in the UN Security Council became less and less far-fetched, but this was not the most ominous development. Alexei Arbatov warned, "Russia certainly views China as its present partner.… [F]or the nearest and medium-term future, China is perceived as much closer to Russia on international security issues than the United States and the West in general."
In mid-2001 it was hard to see how the emergence of a Sino-Russian bloc could do other than increase the Bush administration's resolve to abandon the ABM Treaty and go it alone with nuclear missile defenses. In July of that year a missile-borne "kill vehicle" dramatically intercepted a Minuteman II warhead 144 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The highly orchestrated test convinced credulous proponents of Star Wars "that we can hit a bullet with a bullet." Less than a week later, at a summit in the Kremlin, the presidents of Russia and China jointly condemned George W. Bush's national missile defense and his intended abrogation of the ABM Treaty as threats to the security of their countries. For the first time in fifty years, Beijing and Moscow concluded a treaty of friendship and mutual cooperation. This rapprochement between America's two former major antagonists was a far cry from the benign "new world order" that the first President Bush had proclaimed at the end of the Cold War.