So George W. Bush blasts Al Gore as a Cold War relic, and Gore fires back, in effect, that Bush is a Cold War fossil. Last week Bush announced his intention to move boldly toward major new reductions in the nuclear arsenal while simultaneously pressing for a workable and comprehensive missile defense system to protect not only America but our allies in Europe. Gore immediately denounced Bush's proposals - the two impulses flatly contradict each other - but with little authority, because the Clinton administration has squandered its chance to reduce nuclear weapons and has itself been confused about missile defense.
Will it fly or won't it? Purportedly aimed at rogue states and accidental launches, will it escalate the arms ambitions of the first while making the second more likely instead of less? Is American missile defense hair for Russian and Chinese triggers? Will President Clinton sell the program to Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow next month? Will Clinton then green light development and deployment, or will he, as usual on this question, keep flashing yellow?
Meanwhile, Gore and Bush deride each other for being stuck in ''a Cold War mentality,'' but neither shows any real sign of understanding that the Cold War mentality, besides its paranoid demonizing, also involved a deeply humane breakthrough in moral reasoning about war.
At the heart of this debate is the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and all that it protects is gravely threatened by these bipartisan American impulses. The treaty is spoken of now as if it were the relic, the fossil, and not the one entirely positive legacy of an otherwise terrifying era. The ABM Treaty rejected a dynamic that was as old as history. Here is what it said no to: I pick up a knife, you pick up a longer knife, called a sword, which makes me pick up a shield, which makes you pick up a shield-piercing lance, which I then wield from a horse, which you then saddle, and which I then clothe in armor.
And so on through arrows, battlements, gun powder, pistols, rifles, cannon, tanks, bazookas, bombers, antiaircraft batteries, missiles, nukes, lasers - and anthrax? What the Cold War brought into bold relief was the way every defensive measure leads inevitably to offensive counter-measures, which lead in turn to new defenses, forever bringing about less security, never more.
''America's development of missile defenses,'' George W. Bush said last week, ''is a search for security'' - but it is precisely that search that has brought the human species to the brink of mass suicide.
The leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States firmly grasped this elusive paradox in 1972. In place of a mutually self-defeating rush toward ever more devastating levels of offense and counteroffense, they erected not just the horror of ''mutual assured destruction'' but, far more significantly, a complex structure of negotiation and dialogue that is what finally enabled the Cold War to end without disaster.
That structure went by the names, first, of arms control, then arms limitation, then arms reduction. And at its center stands the ABM Treaty, which for a generation has provided the basis for further treaties. A binational antinuclear consensus developed among scientists, engineers, and generals as well as politicians - and whole populations.
Because of the treaty regime through which this consensus expressed itself, the savage antagonisms of the Cold War did not lead to the nuclear nightmare, a triumph often chalked up to the perversities of the so-called ''balance of terror.'' But the deeper balance was a balance of mutual movement toward agreement, and even trust.
The sad fact is that the United States, not Russia, is the one upsetting this balance now. When the Clinton administration failed to make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty a national priority last year and when the US Senate, with George W. Bush's approval, then rejected that treaty, the most sacred fabric of international hope was torn. Now the United States - the Clinton administration implicitly, the Republicans openly - behaves as if it will not long be bound by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, inviting the universal return to a ''search for security'' through weapons instead of through agreement. We are on the verge of a world-historic mistake.
And even sadder is the moral meaning of this moment as I grasp it in memory of my father. A skeptical military man, he often told me that negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union was futile because the Communists had no sense of honor and would therefore abide by agreements only as long as they served their self-defined interests to do so.
The ABM Treaty, as a rejection of the futile ''search for security'' through armed moves and counter-moves, is not a relic but a jewel. That the United States now prepares to violate this treaty because it may no longer serve our self-defined interests dishonors our nation's past and endangers the world's future.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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