“It will take all of us working together – government officials, and diplomats, academic experts, and scientists, activists, and organizers – to come up with new and innovative approaches to strengthen transparency and predictability, reduce risk, and forge the next generation of arms control agreements.”
– Wendy Sherman
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
June 2, 2022
The Right Thing to Do
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

President Bill Clinton's decision to "just say no" to the deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) is probably his most important security decision. To avoid any misunderstanding, he also wisely refused to authorize contracts for preliminary construction work on the system that would have been seen as signaling a commitment to deployment. Although the NMD decision has simply been kicked down the road, Clinton's action has bought time and forced the next president to review the facts before making this fateful decision.

While Clinton's decision surprised those who view all actions as election-year politics, it was the only logical outcome of Clinton's position from the beginning. After he signed internally contradictory legislation making it U.S. policy both to deploy an "effective" NMD as soon as technologically possible and to negotiate nuclear weapons reductions with Russia, Clinton formally stated that his decision would depend on four criteria: status of the technological readiness, the threat, cost, and the impact on U.S. national security, including arms control. He also made it clear that this should be done by negotiating any necessary amendments to the ABM Treaty, which he has considered fundamental to strategic stability.

None of Clinton's criteria support a deployment decision at this time. The technology is not sufficiently advanced to permit a responsible deployment decision and there are also serious questions as to whether the proposed system can effectively defend against even a very limited threat because of its inherent inability to handle even simple penetration aids. The threat itself is questionable since North Korea, the country on which the system is focused, shows diminished interest in pursuing an ICBM capability and appears willing to abandon its missile program if the price is right. Moreover, weapons of mass destruction can be delivered much more easily by other means, such as aircraft and ships, against which NMD provides no protection.

If the need were real, the United States could afford the estimated $60 billion price tag, but it is not clear what the eventual price tag will really be, and presidential candidate George W. Bush's vision for the program would certainly cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But the real costs of the system—as Clinton clearly recognized—are the negative impacts of a deployment decision on U.S. arms control objectives and our relations with the rest of the world.

Russia has adamantly opposed deployment and refused on principle to consider ABM Treaty amendments, which it sees as a slippery slope leading to systems that could endanger its deterrent and undercut past as well as future arms control agreements. China considers the system a threat to its minimal deterrent. Our NATO allies are seriously concerned about the deployment for reasons ranging from the negative impact on relations with Russia to perceptions of U.S. unilateralism. In fact, it is difficult to identify any country that supports U.S. NMD deployment. Clearly, this is a high cost to pay for a system that probably would not work against a threat that is very unlikely to materialize.

Clinton's action has built some much-needed time into the NMD decision process for his successor. Candidate Al Gore has associated himself with Clinton's criteria, and the technical problems with the present system will not soon be resolved, while the perceived threat itself may well recede. There is also no indication that Russia will agree to amend the ABM Treaty or that China will be persuaded that the proposed NMD system is not a threat to its deterrent. While candidate Bush has called for a much more robust "global" defense, he has not revealed how this would be accomplished. He will find the system he envisages is much more complex, technically demanding and expensive than he imagines and that a responsible deployment decision is years off. As president, he would probably also discover that the international consequences of repudiation of the ABM Treaty are too high a price to pay for an undefined and probably nonachievable NMD system. One recalls Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968 for military superiority and as president after a year of intensive study proceeding to negotiate the ABM Treaty and SALT I.

The time that has been bought will also allow pursuit of diplomatic activities that could well reduce the perceived need for an NMD. These include: giving diplomacy a chance to work out the North Korean problem, building an international consensus to constrain Iraq, developing better relations with a changing Iran, and developing an improved cooperation program with Russia and China to counter missile proliferation.

In passing responsibility for an NMD deployment decision on to his successor, President Clinton indeed did the right thing. Freed from the pressures of election-year politics, the next president will have ample time to contemplate the implications of succumbing to the siren song of NMD.