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The New Nuclear Thing

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
June 2000
Project Syndicate


WASHINGTON, D.C.: For half a century, nuclear war was avoided thanks to deterrence and the notion that striking first held little attraction because the other party could and would retaliate with devastating consequences. This concept was codified in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty, in which the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to keep to a minimum their capacity to shoot down the ballistic missiles of the other side. Subsequent arms-control agreements – the SALT and START pacts – were negotiated and implemented in this context. Levels and types of nuclear weapons were permitted and limited so as not to challenge the fundamental reality of mutual vulnerability.

The nuclear proposals and counter-proposals of the recent summit between President Clinton and President Putin may be among the last put forward under these Cold War concepts. For the question now is whether the time is ripe to make the transition to another strategic paradigm altogether, one in which the levels of offensive and defensive systems change in both absolute and relative terms. More specifically, the question is whether it makes sense to move to a world of less nuclear offense and more missile defense.

This question results from several changes. First is the end of the Cold War. It makes no sense (if it ever did) for the US and Russia to maintain massive nuclear arsenals capable of destroying one another many times over. The two countries may not be allies, but neither are they adversaries in a global struggle, bent on the other's destruction. Moreover, maintaining large inventories of missiles is dangerous – the chance of accidental or unauthorized launches can never be eliminated – and expensive.

Second, new threats are appearing; more may follow. A number of countries, including but not limited to North Korea, Iraq and Iran, are developing ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons to go with them. Depending on their range, these missiles could threaten US troops in critical regions, American allies or US territory. Leaders of these countries may not be deterred by the same logic that worked vis-ŕ-vis the Soviet Union.

The third development involves the emergence (and promise) of new technologies that make the prospect of intercepting ballistic missiles at one or another stage of their flight – hitting a bullet with a bullet – more real than ever before.

This logic appears to have persuaded the Republican Party's presidential nominee George W. Bush to support moving to a new strategic paradigm. Speaking in Washington on May 23, Bush committed himself to a nuclear weapons arsenal reduced to "the lowest possible number consistent with our national security." He advocated a defense designed "to protect all 50 states and our friends and allies and deployed forces overseas from missile attacks by rogue nations or accidental launches."

Such new thinking is not universal. Critics contend that a missile defense system will prompt Russia to refuse to reduce nuclear weapons and China to build more. Critics also claim that missile defense will not work against incoming warheads surrounded by decoys, that it will be terribly expensive and that rogue-state proliferation can be better addressed through prevention (using diplomacy and export controls) and deterrence.

The Clinton administration has sought to split the difference by advocating a policy of somewhat smaller arsenals coupled with somewhat more defense. It wants to persuade Russia to agree to amend the 1972 ABM Treaty to allow each side to build a limited national missile defense with 100 interceptor missiles located in Alaska and possibly 150 more at a second site.

This attempt to introduce modest changes within the existing strategic paradigm has won few converts. Clinton's brand of limited missile defense appears to be too much for the Russians, who fear it as the start of something bigger that threatens their strategic position. It is too little for American advocates of missile defense, who fear being locked into a framework that will be overly confining. It disconcerts many European leaders who appear to favor the strategic status quo to the alternatives.

Given these realities, President Clinton should defer taking any decision on missile defense in the final months of his presidency. Too little is known about various options to commit the US to one and reject others. Instead, the US should undertake three things: aggressive testing of various architectures for a missile defense system, including sea-based systems that could intercept missiles in the immediate post-launch, boost phase before warheads and decoys can be released; careful study of the consequences of moving to various mixes of offensive and defensive systems; and intense consultations with Russia, China and America's allies in Europe and Asia about how to maintain strategic stability in the post-Cold War era.

Paradigm shifts, particularly in diplomacy and security issues, are by definition major undertakings. Americans never would alter the way entitlement programs are funded or education administered without serious study and widespread debate. Maintaining stability in what remains a nuclear age warrants no less responsible an approach.

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