President Bush has offered a new strategic vision for the US: Deploy national missile defenses at the earliest possible date and unilaterally reduce our nuclear arsenal to the lowest levels consistent with our security.
Assuming that the technological hurdles can be cleared, the main selling point of the president's vision is that the United States could defend itself against ballistic missiles launched by rogue states armed with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, and thereby avoid being blackmailed or coerced in a crisis. In an era of continuing proliferation, this is an appealing prospect.
But the president was largely silent on two of the most important questions we must ask before deciding whether and how to pursue national missile defense, or NMD: What are the risks involved? And, in the end, will the benefits of NMD outweigh the risks?
The jury is still out on both of these questions. Translating the president's vision into reality will take many years, not to mention tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars. If, however, the president wants to ensure that the benefits of deploying NMD ultimately do outweigh the risks, he will have to take decisive action in the following areas:
Make Russia part of the solution. If the president is serious about building a new relationship "based on common responsibilities and common interests," he must find ways to give Russia a stake in an effective missile defense system for Europe. This means engaging Russia in cooperative projects aimed at the development and deployment of a missile defense system that would cover the Russian homeland.
As far-fetched as this may sound to analysts steeped in cold war thinking, this approach is utterly consistent with the president's vision. The alternative is to exclude Russia from any such system and, in so doing, guarantee renewed Russian hostility toward the United States and its allies.
Bring NATO allies on board as full partners. The transatlantic alliance remains a cornerstone of US security. The US cannot afford to have a dispute over NMD weaken NATO.
President Bush must convince our allies of four things: first, that the deployment of defenses will not drive Washington and Moscow into a more adversarial relationship; second, that NMD will not decouple America's security from Europe's; third, that Europeans, too, must worry about missile threats from rogue states; and fourth, that they should invest a portion of their limited defense budgets in joint research and development programs.
Mitigate the impact of China's reaction. Beijing will almost certainly view any US national missile defenses as undermining the effectiveness of its strategic deterrent and will likely build up its nuclear arsenal in response. This could trigger nuclear deployments by India, which could trigger similar actions by Pakistan. The administration must do everything in its power to reassure China, lower tensions in South Asia, enhance confidence-building measures, and reduce the likelihood of a nuclear arms race on the subcontinent.
Pursue other means of dealing with proliferation. If we build effective missile defenses, future adversaries will find other ways to use weapons of mass destruction against us, be it via other delivery means (aircraft, ships, truck bombs) or via terrorism. We cannot afford to invest in missile defenses at the expense of all other forms of defense. NMD must be part of a larger program that includes a broad range of measures to prevent and, if necessary, counter proliferation.
This is a tall order. But the president has no choice but to spend substantial effort and political capital in these areas if he wants to ensure that the benefits of his NMD decision ultimately outweigh the costs. If he can't manage the risks, the answer may be worse than the problem it was meant to solve.
Michele A. Flournoy is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor