Arguably the most important issue regarding US foreign policy is the decision to deploy a National Missile Defense system (NMD). There is a general bipartisan agreement to engage a system of some kind, although when and to what extent (meaning size and complexity), are issues of continuing debate.
Depending on the Bush administration’s decision, the consequences could be dire, ranging from a mere increase in anti-American sentiment to a full-blown arms race like that of the Cold War years. Thus, the most critical factor to be considered is the extent to which this decision will affect US international relations. In particular, the US has come a long way in improving relations with Russia. To upset this progress would jeopardize years of diplomatic efforts. Additionally, China and France have voiced strong opposition to NMD deployment.
The current administration has proposed a massive NMD with land, sea, and space-based components. The possibility of an internationally accepted US defense system of this type is unfortunately very unlikely. Furthermore, as a world superpower, the United States also has a responsibility to lead by example. But the willingness of the present administration to advocate deployment of a NMD and thereby risk violation of international obligations sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.
Continued U.S. commitments to arms reduction is of critical importance to maintaining positive international relations. The deployment of a NMD system could significantly affect the status of two of the most important treaties signed by both the United States and Russia ? the USSR at the time the treaties were signed ? in the history of nuclear disarmament: the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The disregard for these treaties is inconsistent with our responsibilities, and will not allow us to legitimately hold other countries to their obligations.
The sole purpose of the ABM Treaty is to limit missile defense deployment. Some argue that provisions of the 29-year-old document are outdated and, as Henry A. Kissinger claims, do not address the “new national security environment, one that was not even considered, let alone anticipated when the ABM treaty was signed.” By that same logic, one could dispute the validity of the 225-year-old United States Constitution, a concept unthinkable to those who ironically share Kissinger’s view.
While the ABM Treaty would be altogether disregarded in the case of a comprehensive missile defense, the Non-Proliferation Treaty would be undermined by a failure of the U.S. to consider the potential results of NMD deployment. The focus of this treaty is on the reduction of nuclear weapons, but a large-scale defense system would result in other nuclear powers feeling threatened in their capabilities of deterrence, thus triggering further weapons proliferation.
Unfortunately, adherence to the commitments outlined in the ABM and NPT treaties is apparently not of utmost concern to US policy makers. Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen has gone so far as to suggest complete withdrawal from the ABM Treaty if agreements between the US and Russia on its modification cannot be attained. This kid of attitude is not only reckless, it does not contribute to improving post-Cold War relations with our former adversaries.
While some Third World countries have access to nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them, the threat of attack is not significant enough to risk the deterioration of our relations with the rest of the world. In addition, diplomacy has been shown to have desirable outcomes when applied to arms reduction. The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program between the US and Russia has helped Russia disable more than 4,900 nuclear warheads at cost of $3.2 billion to the US from 1992 to 2000.
Without a doubt, the most serious current threat is that of individual rather than state-sponsored terrorist attacks. No missile defense system of any kind could protect American citizens from terrorists using delivery systems other than ballistic missiles. The recent attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and closer to home, the World Trade Center bombing are grim reminders of that possibility.
On the international level, a policy of non-deployment of a NMD could help preserve years of improving relations with Russia achieved since the end of the Cold War. Regression to previous tensions and animosities could create much more of a threat than that which currently exists.
Russia warned that during the Reagan years it had developed “programs to counteract asymmetrically” US missile defense systems, and should we continue to insist on deployment, Russia could “take them up again.” China has threatened to increase its arsenal at any cost to counter our defenses and urges the US to cease NMD plans. Otherwise, Chinese officials warn, “we’ll be ready.”
By discontinuing NMD testing and development, we will avoid anti-American sentiment that could potentially spark future conflicts posing a much greater threat to US security than that which is currently perceived.
As much as we have a responsibility to defend our nation, we also have a responsibility to stand by the promises we made under international treaties. In this age of globalization, we cannot afford the isolationist attitude that would be the result of ignoring international obligations and the concerns of those in the global community.
In conclusion, the Bush administration should consider the impacts of the proposed National Missile Defense system and question whether it is worth the risk of jeopardizing US foreign relations and possibly the future security of our nation.
*John Ginder is a senior at UCSB majoring in global studies with an emphasis in socioeconomics and politics. This piece appeared in the Voices section of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Sunday, April 29, 2001.