A space cowboy goes it alone

May 25, 2001

Seeking total security, President Bush wants the US to build a national missile shield dubbed Son of Star Wars. The result, says Christoph Bluth, will be more insecurity for all.

For the past four months, the new United States administration has been conducting a fundamental review of US defence policy. The review will be published some time in June, but President George W. Bush will give an outline of some of its conclusions in a speech to graduates at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis today.

What is known is that the administration wants to move security policy away from more traditional emphases on Europe and Russia and focus instead on what it views as the new security challenges facing the United States. These are in Asia, notably China and North Korea, and so-called rogue states in the third world (Iran, Iraq, Libya).

The most controversial feature of this approach is the commitment to national missile defence. Responding to the future possibility that hostile states will develop long-range missiles capable of striking the continental US, this system is supposed to provide the means to intercept warheads before they can reach their target.

It is controversial because it requires the abandonment of the arms control regime that underpins international security. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed in 1972 between the United States and the Soviet Union. It allowed each side to deploy at most 200 launchers as part of a ballistic missile defence system to defend either the national capital or a missile launch site. The ABM treaty, which was part of the Strategic Arms Limitation process, was predicated on the assumption that defences against missiles were unreliable and would destabilise the strategic balance. Mutual vulnerability was recognised as the key to stable deterrence and war prevention.

However, many in the US were never satisfied with the notion that the country should remain vulnerable to attack and have to rely on nuclear deterrence and arms control for its security. This found renewed expression in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defence Initiative (dubbed "Star Wars"). Although huge sums were spent, SDI eventually fizzled out as technical obstacles proved insurmountable and the international climate changed dramatically. The focus shifted to providing defences against shorter-range missile systems. But the dream of invulnerability never disappeared.

After the Soviet Union broke up, the US - and the rest of the world - sought to adapt to a new political reality requiring a different approach to strategic nuclear policy. Ironically, it was under George Bush senior and Dick Cheney, then secretary of defence, that the framework for the Start 2 treaty aimed at strategic arms reduction was set up. During the Clinton administration, US-Russian strategic relations were at the centre of foreign policy. The US aimed to develop a strategic partnership through political and economic cooperation. Strategic arms reductions were designed to stabilise the relationship at less tense levels. The process of cooperative threat reduction was an unprecedented scheme designed to provide for the security of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. It resulted in the denuclearisation of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazak-hstan and is gradually providing safe storage facilities for nuclear materials. Russia and the US became partners in global nuclear non-proliferation.

A national missile defence system puts all these achievements at risk. Although it is ostensibly not directed against them, Russia fears that missile defences will eventually degrade declining Russian strategic capabilities. It is in the process of scrapping most of its powerful force of multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles to replace them with a smaller number of single-warhead missiles. Given that Russia's ratification of the Start 2 treaty has been made dependent on US adherence to the ABM treaty, a US missile defence system may result in the complete unravelling of US-Russian strategic arms control. The Bush administration has already hinted that it may no longer be interested in strategic arms control. This is also going to affect the cooperative threat reduction programme. Indeed, the entire regime of cooperation in strategic nuclear forces that has been built in the Clinton-Yeltsin period may collapse.

The Bush administration has expressed the view that Russia is no longer an enemy and therefore no longer a focus of concern in international security policy. This cavalier attitude is problematic to say the least. Russia still plays a role in global security as one of two powers with a major strategic arsenal, and it inevitably has a key role in European security. The idea that Russia's concerns can be neglected is fundamentally flawed.

Moreover, the US and Russia had become the leaders in extending the nuclear non-proliferation regime. A network of agreements - including the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Materials Production Ban - Jwas constructed to take nuclear weapons, to all intents and purposes, out of international politics. This process, already endangered by the US failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, may now stop.

China is even more directly affected by national missile defence than Russia. From the start, the Bush administration has pursued a fairly aggressive policy towards China, in effect declaring it to be an adversary rather than a potential partner. Relations were exacerbated by the tense stand-off this year over the US spy plane that was forced to land on Chinese territory, but the major point of confrontation between China and the US is the future of Taiwan. China believes that its small nuclear arsenal has an inhibiting effect on US policies towards Taiwan. China has at most 25 ICBMs capable of striking the continental US. A defensive system that could cope with small arsenals (consisting of five to ten long-range missiles) including countermeasures (decoys) would be robust enough to intercept most, if not all, of China's ICBMs. This implies that missile defences effective against rogue states will also degrade China's arsenal.

China sees US efforts to develop and deploy missile defences as a dangerous step towards achieving strategic invulnerability, which may result in a real military confrontation in the future.

What about Europe? European allies of the US generally reject the thinking behind missile defence. They remain committed to existing arms control regimes and fear a deterioration in relations with Russia and China. They also believe that US policies towards rogue states are misguided. US missile defence may therefore result in significant tensions in the Atlantic alliance. One compromise that has been mooted is that, in return for European acceptance of a US national missile defence system, the US would accept the European army. Despite efforts to smooth over the disagreements, national missile defence will prove very divisive in Nato.

The Bush administration has rejected the approach to international security of the previous administration, which was based on a commitment to collective security, strategic partnerships and international treaty regimes. Instead, it favours unilateral solutions to security based on US national interests and confrontation with potential adversaries. A national missile defence system is the ultimate expression of the quest for unilateral security. But there are great dangers.

First, no one can be confident that a missile defence system can be deployed that achieves even its most rudimentary requirements. The missile shield may prove illusory. On the other hand, the confrontational approach dominated by the concept of containment may generate self-fulfilling prophecies. States will adopt a more hostile stance, refuse to negotiate compromises and put increased efforts into military capabilities.

North Korea is a good example: the Clinton administration had almost concluded an agreement whereby Pyongyang would agree to stop developing and making long-range missiles. Such a deal would completely remove its threat to the US. The Bush administration has refused to support this agreement and has so far declined even to talk to North Korea. The quest for total security may result in greater insecurity for all.

Christoph Bluth is professor of international studies at the University of Leeds.

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