"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
NMD Double-Talk

May 2000

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

The Clinton administration's hypocritical and dangerous approach to national missile defense (NMD) has been starkly exposed in recently released documents that detail its proposed changes to the ABM Treaty. (See document.) Earlier this year, the United States gave Russia a draft protocol to the existing ABM Treaty that would legalize precisely what the treaty was designed to prohibit. The talking points used in presenting the protocol also make clear that the administration is prepared to sacrifice progress on strategic reductions beyond START III to the dubious cause of an NMD system. These documents stand in gross contradiction to a May 1 statement by the five nuclear-weapon states, including the United States, at the NPT review conference calling for "preserving and strengthening the ABM Treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions of strategic offensive weapons."

The U.S. protocol to the ABM Treaty would explicitly permit the first phase of the proposed U.S. NMD system as an exception to the treaty's overarching prohibition of a defense of either country's territory or the base for such a defense. Not satisfied with legalizing the first phase of the proposed U.S. NMD system, at the request of either party, the protocol would require after March 1, 2001, "good faith" negotiations on more effective national missile defenses-meaning, of course, subsequent phases of the proposed U.S. NMD system. Lest there be any misunderstanding as to its intentions, the United States included a unilateral statement that it would exercise this right "if the threat will grow as we expect it will." The protocol would therefore institutionalize a slippery slope to dismantle the ABM Treaty-a most unusual way to strengthen the "cornerstone of strategic stability."

To reassure the Russians of the protocol's benign nature, the accompanying talking points address a number of military situations, including a surprise U.S. disarming strike against Russia. Even in this extreme case, Russia was assured that its force of 1,500 to 2,000 nuclear weapons on alert would be able to overwhelm even the full U.S. NMD. Because the complete system would not be operational before 2010, this remarkable diplomatic monologue signaled that the United States does not expect to go below the 1,500-2,000 level of deployed strategic warheads for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it also appeared to signal that the United States does not intend to move in the direction of de-alerting strategic forces. Unintentionally, the U.S. negotiators made the strongest possible argument why the proposed NMD system would preclude future progress in reducing strategic nuclear arsenals and therefore why the ABM Treaty was crafted the way it was in the first place.

The talking points actually start with the blunt statement that "President Clinton is counting on making the decision to deploy the national missile defense system no earlier than mid-2000." This must come as something of a surprise to Clinton, who has repeatedly emphasized that no decision on NMD deployment has been made. But to Russia it must come as a U.S. threat to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM Treaty if Russia does not agree to share responsibility for making it impotent and obsolete.

When Clinton signed the legislation making it U.S. policy to deploy an "effective" NMD as soon as technologically possible, he emphasized that his decision on deployment in mid-2000 would depend on technical progress, evaluation of the threat, the financial cost, and the impact on U.S. arms control objectives-including necessary changes to the ABM Treaty. So far, none of these four criteria comes close to justifying a decision to deploy. Technically, the system is years away from a responsible deployment decision; the so-called rogue state threat remains an unlikely hypothetical possibility; the cost is several times original estimates and rising; and the negative impact on further nuclear arms reductions and U.S. leadership in nuclear non-proliferation is becoming increasingly apparent.

Russians at every level from President Vladimir Putin on down have rejected modifying the ABM Treaty, and the United States has won no support for its cause from other states. Friends attribute U.S. interest in NMD deployment to domestic politics; potential adversaries see it as part of a sinister U.S. plot for world hegemony. The world at large looks on in amazement as the one remaining superpower and the leading advocate of arms control appears prepared to sacrifice several decades of arms control progress out of fear of a poverty-stricken North Korea with whom accommodation finally seems possible.

The tactics of persuading a reluctant Russia to accept a flawed position have overpowered the strategic objectives of U.S. self-interest. The president must recapture control of the process from his over-eager lieutenants so that he can retain the option to make a reasoned deployment decision on the basis of the four wise principles he originally set forth.