Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Grand Folly of Missile Defense



July 2, 2001
President Bush's recent trip to Europe confirmed his intention to move forward with the deployment of a multi-layered national missile defense (NMD) system designed to protect the entire country (and perhaps other countries) against limited intercontinental ballistic missile attacks. A new strategic framework is needed in the post-Cold War era, Bush has argued, and this should include "defenses [which] can strengthen deterrence by reducing the incentive for proliferation [of nuclear weapons]" (New York Times, 5/7/01). More specifically, NMD is supposed to dampen the threats from irrational rogue states as well as protect against accidental or unauthorized launches from countries like Russia or China. With such laudable aims, what is there to oppose in NMD? Plenty.

The Bush administration has admitted that the system will not be 100 percent effective due to the technological hurdle of "discrimination," the ability to distinguish real warheads from decoys. Lucas Fischer, deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic affairs, has noted that even though the system would not be airtight, it would still complicate "a prospective opponent's calculation of success, adding to his uncertainty and weakening his confidence" (NYT, 4/29/01).

There is something odd about this logic however. As Thomas Friedman has pointed out, the Bush administration has tried to convince us that rogue states are so irrational that they would launch a missile at us, even though doing so would mean their certain annihilation. However, if we deploy an NMD that isn't 100 percent effective, these states are so rational they would hesitate to launch missiles because some of them may not penetrate the system (NYT, 5/15/01).

The difficulties do not end here. Russia and China both view NMD as a threat. Russia is concerned that NMD would strengthen US capabilities to launch a first strike. If the US deploys NMD unilaterally, Russia has threatened to upgrade its nuclear arsenal with multiple warheads, increasing the possibility of an accidental launch due to the deterioration of Russia's military. China contends that missile defense is really aimed at their country because it could destroy China's ability to deter a nuclear attack by neutralizing its relatively small force of nuclear missiles. NMD could thus stimulate an arms race in China that could lead to a chain reaction with countries such as India and Pakistan.

All in all, if NMD works, the U.S. will have created something approaching a limited nuclear sanctuary, but the achievement may carry with it the seeds of defeat by enhancing worldwide insecurity due mainly to weapons proliferation. The gamble isn't worth it.

This goes to the heart of international politics. Of course we should be concerned about unique security threats in the post-Cold War era, and this may demand a new strategic framework. However, until we are informed about the details of the new strategic framework, we must acknowledge that NMD, as presently conceived, has been perceived by many countries as a contradiction of deterrence because of its enhancement of America's first-strike capability, which would be a violation of principled strategic doctrine.

If not NMD, then what? The U.S. should adopt a more constructive approach to strengthening the nonproliferation regime by adopting a mix of strategies that both rolls back existing missile programs and prevents countries from acquiring missiles. The broad outlines of these strategies would include an enhanced commitment to arms control agreements (e.g. strengthening the Biological Weapons Treaty), preventative diplomacy (e.g. engaging North Korea on terminating its missile program), and export controls (e.g. on the manufacturing of fissile material). Until the U.S. seriously pursues these strategies, which will likely be more successful than the present course of action, our pursuit of missile defense as a means of enhancing the world's security cannot be taken seriously. To the contrary, such a pursuit could condemn all of us to failure.

—Tracy Kuperus, Assistant Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”