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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
Campaign Promises vs. Real World Responsibilities
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

President-elect George W. Bush's public record indicates arms control is in for a very rough time during his tenure. He has stated that he will withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty unless Russia agrees to amend it to accommodate his vision of a robust national missile defense with international capabilities and that he opposes ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). He has even questioned the value of negotiated treaties to reduce the world's nuclear arsenals. He and his advisers, however, will soon discover that, while espousal of a world unfettered by arms control in the heat of an election campaign was easy, implementation of this vision in the cold dawn of responsibility for overall U.S. security will prove exceedingly difficult.

Bush's ambitious, if inchoate, vision of a robust layered national missile defense (NMD) is a clear and present danger to the arms control regime developed on a bipartisan basis over the past four decades. His proposal to defend effectively not only the 50 states but also U.S. friends and allies against accidental Russian launches as well as attacks by "rogue states" is diametrically opposed to President Nixon's ABM Treaty, which is still generally regarded as the "foundation of strategic stability." Russia firmly rejected previous U.S. proposals to amend the ABM Treaty to accommodate the Clinton administration's much more limited NMD deployment because it was seen as a slippery slope to the type of system Bush envisages. Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would cause Russia to withdraw from START II and reconsider its commitments to START III and possibly START I and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as well.

The Bush team appears even to welcome a collapse of the existing treaty regime which would remove all constraints on U.S. actions. Rather than promoting promised unilateral reductions, this would probably result in U.S. strategic planning based on worst-case estimates of future Russian capabilities as opposed to agreed verifiable future levels. U.S. fears would certainly be stimulated by the likely Russian deployment of MIRVed warheads on its new generation of mobile ICBMs and the extension of the service life of the powerful SS-18 10-warhead missiles—actions banned by START II. More generally, the confrontational termination of the existing agreements on strategic deployments would have a profound negative impact on U.S.-Russian relations.

Bush's NMD vision would have an equally adverse impact on U.S.-Chinese relations. China, which believes Clinton's limited NMD was really directed at its minimum deterrent, will conclude that Bush's more robust plan confirms its worst fears and will move to increase its strategic capabilities and strengthen its ties with Russia.

Bush's security team will soon discover the intensity of NATO's concern about NMD deployment. Some fear a rebirth of U.S. isolationism; others fear perceived U.S. hegemonic ambitions stimulated by a protective shield; all share a common concern about the consequences of a deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations. A U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, coupled with Bush's rejection of the CTBT—two treaties widely seen as the litmus test of the seriousness of U.S. intentions to honor its commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—would seriously undercut U.S. leadership in efforts to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, a long-standing bipartisan objective.

When Bush's national security team tries to translate its NMD vision into reality, it will find that there is nothing to deploy. The Clinton system, which the Bush team correctly faults as inherently flawed, is still at least two years from a responsible deployment decision. It will take at least a year for Bush to define the architecture of the more robust system he envisages. As considerable development and testing would be required, a responsible deployment decision could not be made for several years, with an initial operating capability at least a decade in the future.

Bush's team will also find that the system it envisages will cost a few hundred billion dollars and will, even in theory, provide no protection against the more likely mode of attack by a rogue state—aircraft, cruise missiles, ships, or all manner of conveyances across unprotected U.S. borders. One would hope Bush's advisers, with their much-touted business acumen, will carefully re-examine the likelihood of an ICBM attack, given the existence of overwhelming U.S. deterrent forces. They should consider whether diplomatic efforts, which would probably cost less than 1 percent of the prospective NMD system, to eliminate specific threats, such as North Korea, would not be a far better way to go.

If Bush insists on a hard-headed reality check of his NMD proposal, he will find that the solution to the proliferation threat will not come from pursuit of will-o'-the-wisps of technological fixes of missile defenses or nuclear testing. He could demonstrate true leadership by calling for focused diplomatic efforts against specific threats and for Senate approval of the CTBT while quietly returning NMD to long-term research and development status.