In a debate that could affect the future of global security, a movement is growing to rethink some of the most basic principles guiding US arms control.
For nearly half a century, nonproliferation efforts have focused on bilateral arms reductions and the principle of "mutually assured destruction" - that in the event of a final atomic confrontation, each side would be destroyed.
Those tenets, however, are being nudged aside by a general desire to look for new answers in a world that has changed dramatically since the Soviet Union broke up and the cold war ended. Anchoring the movement is a steady tip in the scales of arms-control thinking away from offensive weapons and toward defensive weapons, such as national missile defense, a shield against incoming attacks that is under consideration for deployment.
"We have a number of years to go in this direction," says retired Maj. Gen. William Burns, a former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "But I think it's inevitable."
The shifting emphasis was evident in a "statement of principles" agreed to Sunday by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Clinton on missile defense. While the two sides remain far apart on the issue, Moscow formally acknowledged that ballistic missile threats posed by "rogue" nations need to be addressed.
As further evidence of a shift, the Russian leader suggested over the weekend that Washington and Moscow collaborate on new ways to shoot down enemy missiles.
The Russian plan, however, is intended to be a substitute for the nationwide defense shield under consideration by the Clinton administration to protect the United States from incoming warheads. Instead, Moscow envisions a more limited, ground-based system to protect against the nuclear threat posed by "rogue" states.
In the US, the debate over shifting to a more defense-oriented strategy has crossed partisan lines and has spurred at least two authoritative arms-control groups into beginning new studies on the topic.
It was brought to life by the Republican presidential hopeful, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who has put forth a not-yet-detailed proposal for the US to unilaterally slash the number of offensive nuclear weapons, while at the same time building an extensive defense system - at home and abroad - to guard against missile attack.
He and his advisers argue that the US is still handling arms control in the context of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and the US amassed huge arsenals of deterrent nuclear weapons. He argues that the US should, however, begin paying more strategic attention to potential attacks from so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran, which could be capable of a long-range attack in as few as five years.
"When it comes to nuclear weapons, the world has changed faster than US policy," Mr. Bush said in a recent press conference.
Bush's plan - both tantalizing and ambitious - has usurped the Clinton administration, and Mr. Gore, who has yet to articulate a direct response. It has also surprised some of his fellow Republicans, who do not necessarily favor unilateral arms reductions.
"It really exposes the weakness of the Clinton administration, which is arms control," says Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They haven't delivered very much with controlling nuclear weapons."
In Moscow this weekend, Clinton and Putin did take some concrete steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. They agreed to dispose of 34 tons each of weapons-grade plutonium that could have been used to build thousands of warheads. They also initialed a 10-year agreement on a joint early-warning system for missile launches that Clinton called a "milestone" in enhancing strategic stability.
But Clinton has yet to convince the Russians to amend the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty - which would be necessary if the US were to deploy even a limited national missile-defense shield. Still, US officials believe there is room for maneuvering.
"We have acknowledged that the ABM Treaty foresees the possibility of changes in the strategic environment that might require it to be updated," Clinton said Sunday. Putin, however, did not mention any possible treaty changes.
While an increasing number of politicians and experts agree on the need to revise traditional arms-control thinking, they are divided over how to do it.
The Clinton administration has shown interest in missile-defense systems, but it is now willing to give up the notion that deterrence remains the best way to prevent a nuclear showdown, whether the rival is Russia or a rogue state like North Korea. "If you talk about the threat of rogue states, you have to believe that deterrents do not [work]," says Wolfgang Panofsky, a Stanford researcher who belongs to the National Academy of Sciences.
Furthermore, Mr. Panofsky argues, the technology of missile defense systems is untested, and it is neither expensive nor difficult to overwhelm. Because of that, he says, building a missile shield would encourage others countries to make more weapons to try to overwhelm the system.
The administration also wants to cut the US's number of nuclear warheads - currently 7,200. Under the START II arms reduction agreement with Russia, both countries will reduce their numbers to between 3,000 and 3,500 by 2007. START III would drop the numbers down to about 2,500. Beyond that, the administration would likely run into resistance from the Pentagon.
Bush Republicans, on the other hand, say they would likely go even lower. They also envision a comprehensive missile defense that could be launched from land, sea, and maybe even space.
That concept - and its architects - can be traced back to President Bush's 1991-92 plan for a global protection system against limited strikes, an idea that featured sharing missile defense information with the Russians, says Daniel Goure, a defense specialist who worked in that administration.
Mr. Goure says the missile shield, and smaller theater missile defenses, are the only way the US can keep its global presence, as more countries gain nuclear technology.
Certainly, the arms-control agenda is being shaped by politics. Republicans accuse Clinton of using the decision on whether to deploy a national missile defense for political advantage. Clinton is eligible to make a decision on deployment this summer. Doing so would steal the thunder from the Republicans, who have long been the most enthusiastic supporters of missile defense. Democrats, meanwhile, accuse Bush of floating an arms control position that is unrealistic.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society