A World Restored?

BERLIN: Like old battle horses feeling young as the bugle sounds, Cold War strategists are feeling the adrenalin mount as missile defense becomes front page news. True, the defense against missiles which Bill Clinton (reluctantly) and George W. Bush (enthusiastically) are proposing – with massive support from America’s Congress – is different from Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars dream of twenty years ago: NMD is supposed to catch only a modest number of warheads, not provide complete protection against enemy missiles. Nevertheless, the issue rekindles old debates over deterrence, mutual assured destruction and nuclear arms control, and revives the rivalry between the nuclear powers just when nuclear weapons had lost much of their relevance.

Amazingly, debate is heating up even though it is uncertain that NMD will work. Even if it does work, it will be ten to fifteen years, possibly longer, before NMD is operational. So tempers are rising over something which, if and when it happens in the distant future, may or may not have much impact. Normally cautious governments are positioning themselves now as if the future were around the corner.

What explains this odd behavior? Not blind faith in technology. After all, the history of missile defense is a tale of technology constantly disappointing its advocates in and out of government. No one in his right mind can assume that something never achieved before, namely destroying a small number of warheads in flight, will happen over night. Of the three tests so far conducted, one failed almost, two entirely, which is why President Clinton left the matter to his successor. If President Bush, as he has hinted, now favors a different design, it will take even more time to develop the architecture and devise a test program. Nobody can be sure that it will work either.

Governments are worried now, not because of capabilities, but because of America’s real or imagined intentions. While Americans claim that NMD is not directed against anyone, that all the US wants is to protect its citizens against states like Iraq or North Korea, almost everyone else thinks differently: Russians fear that America wants to cement its military superiority (and Russia's inferiority) forever; the Chinese are concerned that NMD signals American readiness to help Taiwan remain independent; Europeans worry that America's plans invite tensions with Russia and may separate the US from Europe.