President Clinton has to decide soon - perhaps after seeing the results of a new test scheduled for tomorrow - whether to go ahead with efforts to build an antiballistic missile (ABM). Whatever he decides will intensify - not end - the argument over the most contentious defense- policy issue in recent memory.
Most of the debate has been technical: Will the system work? The weight of scientific opinion is that it will not, that it is beyond our technological grasp, given the present state of our knowledge. That this has not ended the argument is evidence of the powerful push to get the system built.
The basic issues are not technical, but political: How will proceeding with the ABM affect US foreign policy? The ABM will destabilize both Eastern Europe and northeastern Asia and will especially roil US relations with Russia and China. This will happen at a time when other events seem to be moving in our favor.
North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are cited as the potential nuclear threats to the US, with North Korea the most imminent. But North Korea has stopped work on nuclear weapons and has suspended missile tests. The US has relaxed longstanding economic sanctions against North Korea, and US-North Korean talks are forthcoming. Further, the presidents of North and South Korea have met for the first time since the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and have agreed on further steps toward rapprochement. If it happens, Korean unification would have an impact in Asia comparable to that of German unification in Europe.
The Chinese, who already have nuclear weapons, are fearful that the ABM is really designed to be an offensive weapon which would permit US attacks on China without fear of Chinese retaliation.
Even more threatening, in the Chinese view, a US ABM would permit Taiwanese attacks on China without fear of retaliation. The Chinese are also concerned that the ABM would strengthen US-Taiwanese defense relationships and would encourage Taiwan in its reluctance to come to terms with China.
This would not be in the national interest of the US, which requires, at a minimum, maintenance of the status quo in China-Taiwan relations and, at a maximum, the negotiation of a rapprochement. Only last month, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian said he was prepared to accept the "one China" policy that the People's Republic of China demands as a first step in that negotiation. The PRC dismissed this as "lacking sincerity"; but at least it is forward progress. We ought not to do anything to discourage further steps.
A good deal of the pro-ABM political pressure in the US comes from a sizable body of opinion that wants to do precisely that. These are people who have never accepted the Chinese Communist revolution of the 1940s. They have never abandoned the Chinese Nationalist dream of someday returning from Taiwan to govern the mainland. This school of thought is well represented in Congress, probably disproportionately to its strength in the American public at large. This explains a good deal of the opposition to establishing normal trade relations with China, the push for military assistance to Taiwan, the alarm over Chinese espionage, and the opposition to anything that might improve US-Chinese relations.
There is another factor in US domestic support for the ABM. This comes from the defense contractors (mainly Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and TRW) who would make, develop, and deploy it.
In Europe, Russia views the ABM as an American effort to obtain a strategic advantage in violation of a 1972 US-Soviet treaty. NATO fears that the ABM would jeopardize its gradual reconciliation with Russia and that it might drain resources from other NATO projects.
Nevertheless, US-Russian cooperation is continuing on less ambitious projects to design defenses against short-range missiles.
When President Reagan was pushing an earlier version of the ABM, he offered to make the results of American research generally available, but found no takers. Mr. Clinton has talked of a similar plan. So, too, has Russian President Putin, who envisages a joint effort with NATO. So far, neither side is interested in the suggestions of the other.
US pursuit of the ABM would work at cross purposes with other US policies in both northeast Asia and Eastern Europe.
If successful, these policies would bring greater stability to both areas.
For this reason alone, Clinton should scrap the project.
*Pat M. Holt writes on foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society