To the world's chagrin, Dick Cheney's crew is plowing ahead to make the construction and deployment of a National Missile Defense system a top priority of the current administration. Never mind global warming, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation or calming tensions with China, we need space weapons, brinkmanship and intricate guidance mechanisms.
Right now, only two things are clear about the proposed system.
One, it could send international order, such as it is, into a tailspin. The forging of new alliances, the possible deterioration of old ones, arms racing and the breakdown of the nonproliferation regime may well define the future world beyond a supposedly Astro-domed America. Russia and China have threatened to pull out of all arms control agreements if the US goes ahead, and there is little reason not to believe them. (Yes Russia is poor, but they can still put multiple warheads on their new missiles and leave old rusty ones lying around indefinitely.)
The second thing we know about the system is that it won't work.
Whatever the variant ultimately decided upon by the Pentagon, the American aerospace industry has yet to prove it can do much more than spend billions of public dollars creating very complicated computer systems that go bezerk under very controlled circumstances.
These two points about National Missile Defense--its severe consequences for the nuclear balance and the near certainty of its failure--make for a queer couple. Indeed, they would seem to cancel each other out. If the rocket science isn't there, then neither is the system, and thus neither is the rupture to the international order missile defense is supposed to cause.
But the missile defense debate has always been about psychology as much as technology. The threat it poses to the currently stable situation of Mutual Assured Destruction is not so much its actual ability to whack down missiles like flies, but the false confidence it would give to the possessor of the system. There is also the possibility that the proposed systém, although limited, could be quickly expanded into part of a first-strike posture.
Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld has said openly that it doesn't matter whether the thing works or not, but only whether it creates doubt in the minds of enemies that it might work. But as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, this makes the official logic behind missile defense patently absurd. We need the system because madman regimes are not rational enough to care about deterrence (i.e., getting nuked if they nuke us) but are somehow going to think twice about launching a missile if they think our doohickeys will finally work this time. So Don, are these madmen regimes rational or not? What good is the system if it almost surely will not work and these enemies are crazy enough to launch no matter what we have or what we do? Pick an argument and run with it you bedwetting freak of a man.
The most important thing to remember in the missile defense debate is that deterrence works very well when no one has a defensive system. Everyone is made cowardly by their own fear of sure retaliation. And in a nuclear world cowards are great international actors. They tend not to be too aggressive or revisionist toward other major powers. If the US were to build a missile defense system and believe in it, a vicious cycle might be brought to life by the subsequent thaw in our current system where deterrence is frozen deeply into the tundra of the global balance of power. It would make states nervous and unsure of their deterrent capability. States might start to wonder if their dicks were big enough. They might get irrational, start to act insecure, and build more nukes. This would be very, very bad for the morale of hippy peaceniks like me.
This vicious cycle starts when China or Russia buys into the credibility of the system, reinforcing America's faith in missile defense to actually defend anything but the profit margins of Pentagon contractors. This was the tragic tale of the mid-1980s: Reagan attached all arms control agreements with the Soviets to the freedom to pursue Star Wars, which the Soviets feared because of the wild-eyed science fiction tales of Reagan's advisors and totally false claims by the captains of the military/high-tech industrial complex. Only when Gorbachev untied talks from the missile defense question was the INF Treaty reached.
It was not that Gorbachev or the Russians had resigned themselves to the inevitability of Star Wars, but that a group of leading Soviet scientists, led by Andrei Sakarov, convinced him that the whole thing was completely unworkable; an excuse to derail arms control talks. In short, a sham.
Despite advances in the technology since the 1980s, a workable system remains as speculative today as it did then. Russia and China could save a lot of money, and keep the world a lot safer, by merely humoring America with its far-fetched Star Trek defense ambitions. As the Pentagon deforms the US economy with massive investments into this R&D black hole, they could respond like a father whose son claims to be playing chess with his imaginary friend. "Sure you are Billy," Putin could smile kindly. "Sure you are."
The Europeans could also help in making the US think it is making the world safe for itself. The Europeans could claim to be "very impressed" by the American models and test runs. Like the kindly old uncle that doesn't want to ruin the self-esteem of the overzealous young basketball player, Britain, Germany and France could tell the US that they are sure the system will work just swell and that no doubt he will one day be the starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers. "Why, you're built just like Wilt Chamberlain! Look at that move to the basket. We've got a little star on our hands!"
But whatever they do, America's friends and would-be enemies must not take the current freaks in power or their crackpot ideas too seriously. It only encourages them.