World

Washington's tough sell

Clinton pushes missile defence, but Moscow doesn’t like what it hears

Andrew Phillips June 19 2000
World

Washington's tough sell

Clinton pushes missile defence, but Moscow doesn’t like what it hears

Andrew Phillips June 19 2000

Washington's tough sell

World

Clinton pushes missile defence, but Moscow doesn’t like what it hears

Andrew Phillips

American voters, conventional wisdom has it, don’t care much about the rest of the world anymore. With a big, mostly prosperous country facing few obvious threats abroad, they don’t have to. But you’d hardly know it from the way their leaders—and would-be leaders—are talking these days. Suddenly, along with post-Cold War standbys like education and health care, the politicians are talking about issues that seem to be dragged out from the attic of a bygone era: arms control, missile defences and “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD.

President Bill Clinton was at it last week, trying to persuade Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, to go along with Washington’s drive to build a controversial new shield against hostile missiles. He didn’t succeed. After two days of talks in Moscow, the Russian leader reaffirmed his country’s strong opposition to the proposed U.S. national missile defence plan. The system would violate a 1972 arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow. More important for the Russians, it would threaten the carefully negotiated balance of nuclear terror worked out over decades between the two countries—a balance that traditional strategists see as crucial to global security. The United States may face new threats from socalled rogue states like Iraq and North Korea, Putin acknowledged. But, he added, “we’re against having a cure that is worse than the disease.”

That reasoning is shared by many

U.S. allies—including Canada. Europeans worry that Washington might set off a new arms race by developing a defence against incoming missiles, thus prompting other countries (notably China) to strengthen their nuclear arsenals as a counter-measure. In Ottawa, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy echoes that logic, arguing that NMD would involve “precipitating an arms race that could result in the expansion of nuclear weapons.” For those critics, better the familiarity of MAD—a peace based on the ability of nuclear adversaries to annihilate each other—than a leap into an unknown world where such weapons might actually be rendered impotent.

That is the promise, however farfetched, of missile defence. The current NMD system under development by Washington is a limited plan designed to defend, at first, against a handful of missiles fired from North Korea. If Clinton gives the go-ahead this fall, work will begin in earnest on that system, to be based in Alaska and aimed at knocking a hostile missile out of the sky by 2005. It would be expanded later to protect the entire United States, as well as Canada and other U.S. allies. Problems abound: no one is sure such a system can be made to work; the cost (an estimated $88 billion) is exorbitant; and many experts question the seriousness of the “rogue state” threat.

But the debate has called into question the old verities of the arms-control debate, worked out over the four decades of the Cold War. In a groundbreaking speech in late May, the man

who will be the Republican nominee for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, proposed both a more ambitious form of missile defence and biggerthan-planned cuts in stockpiles of nuclear weapons. U.S. strategy, he argued, has not caught up to new developments—the death of the Soviet Union, the inability of Russia to maintain its existing nuclear arsenal, and new threats from hostile countries (notably North Korea, Iraq and Iran). And U.S. security needs no longer rest on keeping thousands of warheads ready to launch at a nonexistent enemy. “Almost a decade after the end of the Cold War,” Bush said, “our nuclear policy still resides in that already distant past.”

Even the modest version of missile defence proposed by Clinton (and the Democrats’ de facto nominee, VicePresident AÍ Gore) has put U.S. allies on the spot. Top American officials have been pressing Ottawa, for example, to drop its opposition to NMD and agree that it could eventually be co-ordinated by NORAD, the 42-year-old joint Canada-U.S. continental defence structure. Now it is clear that if Bush wins the presidency in November, he is prepared to go much further and break decisively with traditional thinking on arms control. With Canada and other U.S. allies publicly wedded to the orthodoxy of MAD, that could well mean more American pressure on Ottawa to change its views—or at least get out of the way.