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August 27, 2018
Mission Impossible
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Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

President George W. Bush’s abbreviated “grand tour” of Europe predictably failed to gain new support for U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to facilitate deployment of a national missile defense (NMD). Given the abject failure of Bush’s senior aides’ earlier frantic efforts to obtain blank-check endorsements in all major capitals for the U.S. NMD initiative, one wonders whether his advisers had become so imbued with the righteousness of their cause that they really believed the president could succeed in this mission impossible. His hosts certainly did not learn anything new about the substance of the U.S. position. Bush, however, must have learned something about the nature and intensity of foreign concerns over his administration’s plans in this area.

In a transparent effort to minimize negative reactions to the NMD issue, the trip conspicuously avoided Britain, France, and Germany in favor of Spain, Sweden, and Poland, and a visit to NATO headquarters in Belgium where NATO heads-of-state could be expected to be more constrained in any criticism than on their home turf. In the end, however, NATO did not give formal support for the U.S. NMD proposal.

Bush’s informal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was certainly the high point of the trip. Billed as simply a “getting to know you” social event without an agenda, the meeting proved surprisingly substantive and appeared to produce an unexpected degree of respect and cordiality between the two leaders despite major differences on a range of issues. In fact, Bush’s assessment of Putin—“I looked the man in the eye [and] I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”—was so effusive that conservative commentators and Republican senators cringed in disbelief. Putin, while somewhat more reserved, spoke approvingly of Bush and the constructive nature of their exchange. Whether spontaneous or carefully planned, these reactions gave a very positive spin to two hours of frank discussion of their differing views on a wide-range of current policy issues, which Putin described in some detail to a selected group of U.S. journalists two days later in Moscow.

On the central issue of the ABM Treaty and NMD, Putin challenged the basic rationale of the U.S. position that North Korea and Iran pose a direct threat to U.S. security. He presented in some detail his conviction about the relatively primitive state of the two countries’ technology and proposed a U.S.-Russian cooperative effort to insure that rogue states would not become threats in the future. He pressed unsuccessfully for details on the planned U.S. NMD deployment and the aspects of the ABM Treaty that inhibited U.S. research and development, clearly suggesting the possibility of minor amendments.

Putin acknowledged that the United States has the right to withdraw from the treaty if it wishes to have complete independence of action. He warned, however, that this would give Russia the right to withdraw from START I and II so that it could also be independent of treaty constraints, allowing it to maintain its deterrent more economically. He emphasized that withdrawal would end mutual verification of future arms reductions and would increase the potential for rapid rearmament in the future. He stated that the collapse of the U.S.-Russian arms control relationship would adversely impact the nuclear non-proliferation regime by making it much easier for threshold states to claim nuclear status—a development contrary to the security interests of both the United States and Russia.

If Bush was listening—and Putin gave him credit for being a very careful listener—the trip will indeed prove to have been of extraordinary importance. Bush may now better understand why the rest of the world is deeply concerned about U.S. NMD plans.

Before allowing his administration to be further burdened with trying to persuade the world to accept a treaty-busting NMD, Bush should first revisit the value of such a system compared with its real costs to U.S. security. Can one really justify withdrawing from the ABM Treaty on the grounds that it might facilitate development and testing of undefined systems against uncertain future North Korean and Iranian threats at a probable cost of losing the START accords? Since START I and II substantially reduce and stabilize Russian strategic forces, which are the only threat that could destroy the United States, Bush should instead take his new friend up on the offer of a joint cooperative effort to eliminate incipient threats before they emerge.
This policy reorientation, which would receive almost unanimous international acclaim, would be far more likely to succeed than the achievement of a highly effective NMD and would do so at a fraction of the cost. And it would free the Bush administration of the increasing burden of a mission impossible of gaining international acceptance of U.S. pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of national missile defense.