The New Nuclear Thing

WASHINGTON, D.C.: For half a century, nuclear war was avoided thanks to deterrence and the notion that striking first held little attraction because the other party could and would retaliate with devastating consequences. This concept was codified in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) Treaty, in which the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to keep to a minimum their capacity to shoot down the ballistic missiles of the other side. Subsequent arms-control agreements – the SALT and START pacts – were negotiated and implemented in this context. Levels and types of nuclear weapons were permitted and limited so as not to challenge the fundamental reality of mutual vulnerability.

The nuclear proposals and counter-proposals of the recent summit between President Clinton and President Putin may be among the last put forward under these Cold War concepts. For the question now is whether the time is ripe to make the transition to another strategic paradigm altogether, one in which the levels of offensive and defensive systems change in both absolute and relative terms. More specifically, the question is whether it makes sense to move to a world of less nuclear offense and more missile defense.

This question results from several changes. First is the end of the Cold War. It makes no sense (if it ever did) for the US and Russia to maintain massive nuclear arsenals capable of destroying one another many times over. The two countries may not be allies, but neither are they adversaries in a global struggle, bent on the other's destruction. Moreover, maintaining large inventories of missiles is dangerous – the chance of accidental or unauthorized launches can never be eliminated – and expensive.

Second, new threats are appearing; more may follow. A number of countries, including but not limited to North Korea, Iraq and Iran, are developing ballistic missiles and possibly nuclear weapons to go with them. Depending on their range, these missiles could threaten US troops in critical regions, American allies or US territory. Leaders of these countries may not be deterred by the same logic that worked vis-ŕ-vis the Soviet Union.