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A Deal on the ABM Treaty

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Ivo H. Daalder, and James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University
April 27, 2000
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Vladimir Putin's election as president opens the door to a deal with the Clinton administration on national missile defense. He must move decisively to take advantage of this opportunity. It would be a huge mistake to wait until after the next U.S. president is inaugurated.

The benefits to Russia of reaching an agreement with the United States on missile defense are substantial. Success will put U.S.-Russian nuclear relations on a more stable footing. Failure will strain relations and increase the chances of a missile defense deployment that makes both countries less secure. Much is at stake, with little time left.

First questions first. Why should Russia agree to modify the ABM Treaty? The reason is simple. If Moscow refuses, the United States could well invoke its legal right to abrogate the treaty. It will then be free to build missile defenses without limit. In the meantime, Russia will have lost its main bargaining chip for negotiating deep cuts in American offensive nuclear forces. That means that sometime in the future the United States might possess, whether intentionally or not, a theoretical capability to render the Russian nuclear deterrent obsolete.

But shouldn't Putin wait to negotiate with the next U.S. president? No. The American desire to build a missile defense will not go away. A broad consensus has developed in Washington that the United States needs to defend itself against the emerging missile threats from North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. The only question is how robust that defense must be. As a result, Democratic candidate Al Gore is unlikely to offer Moscow a better deal than Clinton, and Republican candidate George W. Bush will certainly offer a worse one. Bush has already said he will proceed with deployment come what may, and his chief foreign-policy advisor has dismissed the ABM treaty as a "relic" of the Cold War.

Nor does American political practice prevent Bill Clinton from concluding a major arms control agreement in the final months of his presidency. True, some Republicans insist that Clinton should leave negotiations to the next administration. But there is ample precedent for presidents concluding major international agreements in the waning months of their terms. President George Bush signed both START II and the Chemical Weapons Convention after he lost reelection.

What might a deal on the ABM treaty look like? To give Washington what it wants, only small changes in the ABM treaty are needed. The anti-missile system the Clinton administration is proposing to build is consistent with the original intent, if not all the details, of the ABM treaty, which sought to ban only strategically significant defenses and allowed Russia to deploy the ABM system that currently protects Moscow.

To give Moscow the reassurance it needs, the Clinton administration should offer deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces. Specifically, Washington should propose negotiating a START III agreement limiting each country to 1,000-1,500 warheads.

A deal along these lines— perhaps sweetened with other cooperative gestures, like assisting Russia in rebuilding its early-warning radar and satellite network and providing Moscow with access to U.S. surveillance data— should be negotiable by the fall.

Can Putin have any confidence that a deal struck with the Clinton administration will be worth the paper it is written on? One problem is the U.S. Senate. Its rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last fall makes it clear that treaty approval is not automatic in the United States. Indeed, the hard-liners who championed the test ban defeat believe that blocking a deal on modifications will void the ABM treaty.

But it is important not to exaggerate Senate opposition. The test-ban defeat had far more to do with the White House's cavalier treatment of the issue than with resurgent isolationism on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the potential for Senate opposition will not end with Bill Clinton's departure from office.

Any deal Putin strikes with the Clinton administration might also unravel should George Bush becomes president. Under U.S. law, Bush would be under no formal obligation to accept the deal. But the political and diplomatic consequences of walking away from a solemn presidential commitment would be substantial. Even if he could not accept the exact terms of the deal, Bush would feel greater pressure than he would otherwise to reach an accommodation with Russia.

The task for Putin, then, is to negotiate seriously with Bill Clinton. Otherwise, Russia may find that the U.S. political landscape has shifted seriously against it, leaving America uninterested in trying to take account of Moscow's concerns. If America proceeds without paying attention to Russia's concerns the 21st century will open with everyone understanding that even on nuclear matters, Russia is no longer a major player. A deal is within reach. Russia should grab it.

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