The US desire to push forward with a national missile-defense system in the coming years is having a ripple effect across the globe, drawing criticism from allies and adversaries and threatening to spawn a new arms race.
The dispute has heated up this month as American and Russian officials exchange jabs over the US initiative, which is likely to permanently alter the landscape of international security strategy.
Designed to protect the entire country by shooting down incoming missiles, the defense system would give the US such a huge security advantage that other world powers would be forced to reexamine their most basic defense strategies.
Perhaps most significantly affected would be China, a country considering an overhaul of its defense doctrine ranging from deterrence to air power to nuclear arms. "A missile-defense system comes at a very crucial time, and there certainly will be a relation between what we do and what decisions the Chinese make," says Ronald Montaperto, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington.
Russia is also in strong opposition, as are NATO allies Germany and Britain, who are nervous about falling into an unprotected category while their most powerful ally is safe.
At the very least, these countries will have to consider similar systems or find a new way to remain secure in a vastly different environment. "The proliferation of long-range missiles - which could be equipped with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads - is as much of a threat for Europe as it is for North America," Alexander Vershbow, the US permanent representative to NATO, said this week.
The concept of a national missile-defense system is supported by most US leaders and military experts. With long-range missile technology becoming more accessible, building a shield is considered the only way to counter rogue states, some of whom may soon be able to wipe out a major US city at a moment's notice.
"With the ballistic-missile genie now out of the bottle, the US has to think very thoroughly about protecting its homeland," says Ariel Cohen, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation here. "It's no longer competing with [relatively] stable countries like the [former] USSR or even China, but it's competing with Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea."
What US politicians disagree on, however, is how fast and how extensively the Pentagon should move forward in deploying a system, a debate spurred by international resistance. President Clinton says he will decide as soon as next summer, although some analysts question whether he has enough time left in his term to tackle such a divisive issue.
Republicans generally support deployment as fast as possible, while Democrats favor a slower pace. A major sticking point is the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty signed in 1972 with the Soviet Union. It was written precisely to prevent a national missile defense, at a time when the risk of retaliation was a standard deterrent.
The Clinton administration has been trying to negotiate with the Russians to revise the treaty, but Moscow has refused to budge. Rather, the Russians tested an antiballistic missile last week and have repeatedly threatened to increase production and deployment of offensive missiles, should they ever need to overwhelm a US defense shield.
For the moment, the US is paring down the missile-defense plan to make it more compliant with the ABM Treaty - but critics warn of weakening the system to the point where it no longer justifies a cost of $128 billion over 30 years.
"We've already compromised the system so much that it's not effective," says Dan Goure, who heads a missile-defense project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Mr. Goure argues that a proper system cannot be built even loosely within the confines of the ABM Treaty and that if the treaty were scrapped, it would take 10 to 12 years to redesign a more thorough system.
The Russians oppose the US plan because it would change the scope of national security and put emphasis on costly systems that Moscow cannot afford.
The US has tried to reassure the Russians that the missile-defense system is designed for rogue states - who may only be able to fire a limited number of missiles at one time - and that it could not possible stop their sizable arsenal. "The missile system we are planning is not designed to defend against Russia and could not do so," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a speech Wednesday.
Still, some US officials vow that the United States will go ahead with an antimissile defense even it it means withdrawing from the treaty. As Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe put it last week: "We will not permit any other country to have a veto on actions that may be needed for the defense of our country."
While much of the Clinton administration's effort has focused on winning Russian support, China may loom as a greater danger. At the moment Beijing relies on a "minimal deterrent," in which they keep a small number of well-protected, advanced missiles in case they have to respond to an attack.
With a national defense system, China's ability to threaten the US would be limited - and it would need to develop new weapons.
China is also concerned about theater defenses the US is developing and deploying. The smaller-scale systems, such as the Patriot missiles, could be used to protect traditional Chinese rivals Taiwan and Japan.
"China is an even bigger problem than Russia," says Mr. Montaperto. "In the long run, they are more difficult and complex."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society