The Bush administration is pressing hard to make the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty a thing of the geopolitical past and put the United States on an almost irreversible path toward strategic missile defenses.
Any US antimissile shield is still years away from deployment. Yet teams of high-ranking officials will travel to Europe next week, in the wake of the president's speech yesterday on nuclear issues, to engage ally and adversary alike in delicate ABM and missile-defense diplomacy.
In essence, the nation's new security team is bringing up a tough subject before it really has to. The likely goal: create a sense of inevitability about the dawning of a new nuclear age.
"They're sending a clear signal that this is what we're going to do," says Wade Boese, a senior research analyst at the Arms Control Association in Washington. "They want to get that out of the way."
There is debate even among administration officials as to whether an accelerated, more aggressive approach toward nuclear issues will be effective.
Under a best-case scenario, European governments will quietly accept the US move toward a defense-dominated atomic regime. Russia, lured by a promise of further deep reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, will agree to some sort of framework that includes a mutual reworking or elimination of ABM restrictions.
The US could then pump billions into defensive research projects, secure in the knowledge that they could be deployed, if proven to work.
A worst-case scenario would involve continued fierce Russian opposition to something that it believes could make its own nuclear deterrent obsolete. Key European governments such as Britain and Denmark, where the US would like to upgrade early-warning radars, would remain nervous, or worse. The US could be then be caught in a game of high-stakes chicken, edging closer year by year towards unilateral deployment of defenses, saying all the while, "we really mean it, we really mean it."
Yet some aspects of the more-robust layered defense system that the president favors aren't yet even in the design stage. "I'm a little uncertain that they really need to fight this fight now," says William Hartung, director of the Arms Trade Resource Center at New School University's World Policy Institute.
Missile defense is not solely a GOP issue. Almost 20 years after Ronald Reagan brought the defenses back to public view with his ambitious Star Wars initiative, Republican and many Democratic lawmakers have struck a consensus that the rapid advance of guidance and targeting technologies has brought effective defense within the realm of possibility.
Differences lie mostly in the avidity with which lawmakers want to pursue such a system. The Clinton administration's plan called for a limited, single-layer system relying on ground-based interceptors. Clinton officials also were careful to fudge their attitudes toward the 1972 ABM pact, which bans defenses as destabilizing to nuclear deterrence.
In the end, President Clinton handed off the decision on whether to push the bounds of the ABM treaty to his successor.
And President Bush has made no secret that he considers the treaty a piece of paper from a far-away era that needs to be torn up or radically changed. "We need new concepts of deterrence that rely on both offensive and defensive forces," he said yesterday.
In sum, the administration's approach to the issue includes: more money, and thus a faster move toward deployment; the addition of sea-based and, eventually, space-based layers to Clinton's land-based system; and a muscular approach to ABM pact changes.
Last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that he would soon be traveling to Paris to talk with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, about ABM issues. "We want to hear why they think [the ABM treaty] is still as relevant today as it was in 1972," he said. "And we want to see if we can persuade them that that might not be the right answer."
One carrot for the Russians might be continued deep cuts in offensive warheads in concert with a move toward defensive deployments. Moscow, weary of the costs of maintaining nuclear weapons, has long wanted to move beyond reductions currently codified in START arms-reductions treaties.
"The new framework must encourage still further cuts in nuclear weapons," said Mr. Bush yesterday. "We can and will change the size, composition and character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the cold war is over."
Some of America's European allies are interested in such a US-Russian "grand bargain." Germany and France are among the NATO nations that have recently muted their rhetorical opposition to missile defense, as they wait to see which way the process is going.
"Europe recognizes that yes, political and strategic situations have changed," says Cathleen Fisher, an analyst at the Henry L. Simson Center. "They are pinning their hopes to the possibility that there can be negotiated changes to the ABM pact."
In the end, much will depend on the approach of Bush diplomacy. If Bush is to be successful in moving the world away from decades of mutual assured destruction, he must likely come across to the rest of the world as interested in using his nation's unprecedented power for the common global good, rather than its own unilateral interests.
"This is not a fait accompli, but the president will take leadership on this issue," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor