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The Folly of National Missile Defense

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
01.21.2001 | POLITICS

In international relations, ruptures to the status quo have consequences, the size of which usually moves in proportion to the rupture itself. Sometimes these consequences can be foreseen, and sometimes they can't. Statesmen can only guess the likely effects of a decision and weigh probable merits against possible risks.

That said, rarely are the consequences of an action as clear and widely agreed upon as in the case of US proposals to deploy a National Missile Defense system (NMD). And rarely do the risks so greatly outsize the merits.

Critics of George W. Bush's plans to speed ahead on NMD come in different shades, from Tory MP's who politely urge caution to Russian generals who darkly warn of World War III. But despite the range of oppositional tones, there exists a rough consensus on what the world will look like should the US turn its back on three decades of arms control and begin construction of a missile shield.

First, Russia and China would form a balancing alliance, beef up their nuclear arsenals and put them on hair-trigger alert. Increased Russian and Chinese assistance to nuclear aspirants such as Iran and North Korea could follow as well. The outlines of this are already visible.

In response to the Chinese build-up, India would likely try to field an intermediate and long-range missile capability. This would force Pakistan to do the same.

Since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is dependant upon an ongoing process of disarmament between the nuclear powers, the voiding of US-Russian arms control agreements would mean the likely renewal of nuclear programs around the world.

NATO allies see US plans as representing a "fortress" mentality, and fear that NMD would undermine America's longstanding commitment to Europe's defense. A worst case scenario would witness the EU accelerate its security independence from Washington, thus weakening the defense ties forged by NATO. This especially worries new NATO members on the alliance's eastern border, as a US withdrawal from Europe would occur within the context of extreme international destabilization.

This is the Bush-Cheney recipe for making the US "more secure."

To better understand the dangers posed by NMD, it is helpful to review the basics of deterrence theory, and more specifically the 1972 ABM Treaty between the US and the USSR, the document upon which the arms control efforts of six US Presidents currently rests.

Despite Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's recent assertion that the ABM Treaty is "ancient history", the logic it enshrines remains fundamental to the nuclear balance, and will continue to be relevant as long as there are nuclear weapons. In essence, the ABM Treaty ensures that the major nuclear powers are equally vulnerable to a second-strike attack, thus eliminating any temptation to launch first in a crisis. Even if one side takes out the bulk of the enemy's warheads in a blitz, his opponent's limited number of surviving missiles would constitute a devastating response. This is the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, otherwise known as the balance of terror. It isn't pretty or moral, but it works.

If, however, a state has what it believes to be an effective defense against a handful of missiles, it might be more prone to launch a pre-emptive attack. A National Missile Defense system is thus a comparative advantage that no state wants to look at from the receiving end. While the idea of the US launching a pre-emptive nuclear war may seem absurd, it is a truism of international politics that intentions don't matter -- power and capabilities do.

Given the limits imposed on states by the reality of our nuclear world, it is hubris for the US to act as if its perceived security needs exist in a vacuum. Any rational attempt to deal with the missile threats of the future must take into account the interdependent nature of global security. Alternate missile-defense proposals such as the "boost-phase" model -- which intercepts missiles during take-off and requires the active involvement of other states -- is one example of a more responsible approach to emerging threats.

Such co-operative efforts acknowledge the security needs of others as well as the importance of strengthening the non-proliferation regime and the arms control process on which it depends. The court of world opinion has examined the evidence and sided heavily against the US pursuing a policy of unilateralism and provocation. So too have a solid majority of the American people, most of whom support arms control. Indeed, it is difficult to find any supporters for a headlong rush into the construction of NMD outside of the Republican Party establishment and a few large arms contractors. 

Despite a well-reasoned and increasingly loud chorus of opposition, the current administration in Washington seems to have made ignoring all concerns a point of principle. Listening to their official statements one is visited by the unhappy realization that these men and women simply do not understand the world in which they live.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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