It's unlikely many Americans will base their votes this November on whether a political candidate supports a limited antimissile defense system. That question is just too complex, contentious, and off the charts for most people.
And yet the issue is being thrust into public debate as if the barbarians were at the gates and, by golly, we better wheel out the catapults and buttress our fortress right now.
Recent events, if not exaggerated fears, might seem to dictate that a decision is needed soon to deploy such a shield against the potential missiles of, say, North Korea or Iran. The Pentagon is making steady progress on the technology, the presidential candidates are staking out "tough" stands on the matter, and this past weekend President Clinton tried to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to support the idea.
Yet plenty of uncertainty still remains about the actual threat, the effectiveness of the technology, and most of all, the ability of Americans to achieve a bipartisan consensus on a security strategy that may last decades, if not centuries.
Then there's the $60 billion-plus cost.
Couldn't that money be better spent on diplomacy, aid, and other nonaggressive means to win over "rogue" states that might, stupidly, threaten the US with an increasingly out-of-date delivery system (ballistic missiles) when today's nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons can fit into an oversized suitcase?
What matters now in designing a wholly new security concept is how the US debates this issue - and when.
Using scare tactics to win converts or trying to score points during a campaign are poor tools for consensus-making. North Korea is not likely to commit a nuclear Pearl Harbor soon, despite CIA estimates. And if it were to contemplate such a move, a simple preemptive airstrike would do wonders to prevent a missile launch.
Ramming this missile defense into reality over the objections of many leaders inside and outside of Washington is hardly a sound basis for long-range national defense. A bipartisan consensus was needed for the cold war, and it's needed now, despite a style of governance in Washington that has become superpartisan.
Remember all the talk just after the end of the cold war about a "new world order"? This is it. The US is still trying to create a new order a decade after the former order - a stand-off of two superpowers who purposely left themselves vulnerable to destruction by the other - has gone the way of the Soviet Union.
With the old policy of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) no longer the sole and sane option, it's tempting for the US to pull itself into an antimissile cocoon. (See story on page one.)
Alas, if only it were so easy in a globalized world.
A missile shield, even one limited to 100 interceptors in Alaska, might actually make the world more dangerous. US allies, who have counted on the US nuclear shield, would feel they need to fend for themselves. And China and Russia, believing their weapons couldn't be used as a threat, might rush to devise new threats.
Meanwhile, a US suggestion to share the shield with "civilized" nations seems premature, since the US itself has yet to embrace such a system. President Putin has made a counteroffer of a joint but very limited defense focused on detecting and destroying rogue missiles soon after launch - rather than attacking them as they hurtle through space.
But that idea falls far short of the current US proposal.
Putin and Clinton, though deadlocked on missile defenses, shook hands on an agreement to destroy 34 tons, each, of weapons-grade plutonium - the raw material for nuclear warheads.
They also agreed to cooperate on improving early-warning technology to detect missile launches. These steps, though small and symbolic, preserve a crucial semblance of teamwork between the two countries that control the overwhelming bulk of nuclear firepower.
The stakes are too large to allow this matter to degenerate into a political football. US leaders should conclude, as quickly as possible, that this debate over a missile defense must be handled with patience, listening, and caution, and not with a sense of competition, especially during a presidential electoral campaign.
Anything less could undermine the world's current sense of security, which rests largely on the faith that a wise, strong, and benign America is at the helm.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society