CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — Why do so many Americans view our country's place in the world through a lens of fearfulness and threat, rather than by counting our blessings and seeing the new opportunities we have to build a better world? Both major presidential candidates are competing to prove how tough they will be in meeting the "threats" that, they claim, the nation faces. And President Clinton has already promised to start constructing an ultra-expensive new national missile-defense (NMD) system - a move that will shred a key international agreement that has served Americans well since 1972.
Did I miss something? I thought we won the cold war. I thought the US was now uniquely safe, secure, and prosperous. It has good relations with everyone else in our hemisphere, except Castro's Cuba (and nobody claims we face any significant military threat from there). Further afield, the states that the Clinton administration has labeled "rogue states" are distant, mostly poor, and possess military technologies many decades less advanced than ours. What is all this fuss about "missile threats" and "rogue states" really about?
I suspect President Dwight Eisenhower could have answered that. Mr. Eisenhower, who cut the nation's military budget quite significantly, openly warned Americans that the "military-industrial complex" would always lobby hard to keep defense spending as high as possible. He countered that Americans could not build their whole future on a basis of fear. He succeeded in cutting defense spending - a process that slowed only after setbacks in Korea and Berlin raised global tensions again.
Eisenhower understood facts about civilian-military relations in a democracy that today's political leaders seem not to grasp. It is, he knew, precisely the task of the military to err on the side of caution when they are assessing possible threats. This tendency is further promoted by the close links built up between military planners and the defense contractors with whom they work. Having himself worked in the top ranks of the military, he understood such matters well. But he also knew that, in a democracy, the elected leader needs to balance out all the different assessments of his country's position that come his way - not only those coming from the military-industrial complex.
Today's political leaders, and the American public, should heed that advice. On the planned NMD program, they should listen to the careful analysts from the scientific and intelligence communities who voice warnings at two crucial levels:
*First, proceeding with NMD can confidently be expected to fuel global insecurities and the global arms race. Leaders in Russia and China give little credence to Clinton's protestations that NMD is not aimed against them. Washington's European allies warn forcefully of the global instability that will follow the start of NMD construction. And if, as Clinton claims, some states like North Korea really are determined to develop a capability to deliver nonconventional weapons against the US, then NMD will not stop them. They can deliver bombs in suitcases or shipping containers, and if they have long-distance missiles they can easily build in countermeasures that can foil the NMD system.
*Second, even within the very limited specifications that the administration established for the NMD system, no one has any confidence that it can perform as required. The Pentagon has conducted scores of NMD-related tests over the years. Many have failed miserably. Others were claimed as successes - but it later emerged that some of them were rigged.
So there it is: a defensive shield that cannot provide the promised protections, that will itself fuel global instability, and that consumes billions of dollars that could be better used.
At a broader level, the current rush toward NMD shows the sad absence of any leading politician who - like Ike - is smart and self-confident enough to reframe the country's national-security debate into one dominated by new opportunities, rather than fear. In addition to NMD, this broader debate also affects our whole posture of hanging on to nuclear weapons - despite solemn promises, made in 1968, that we would seek a way to lay them down - and our level of defense spending.
Is the security of Americans best assured by continuing to rely on the expensive and damaging myth of an impregnable Fortress America? Or would it be better served by stepping down our defense spending and our nuclear arsenal, and redirecting resources to building stronger ties of friendship with people in other countries? I know which I prefer. I wish more political candidates were self-confident enough to say the same.
*Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs. Her newest book is 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace: Nobel Laureates Discuss our Global Future' (University Press of Virginia).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society