In recent years, U.S. military planners and hawkish members of Congress have sought to build support for the development of a National Missile Defense system. They assert that such a system would protect the country from an attack involving a limited number of missiles carrying nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. They tell us that a ``missile shield'' could foil an assault by ``rogue states'' such as North Korea and Iraq.
Serious doubts about these claims have been raised. Billions have been spent on preliminary research, but so far, tests of the proposed system's effectiveness have been inconclusive at best. A panel of eminent scientists has determined that simple countermeasures would allow missiles to penetrate the planned defenses. And the proposed NMD system couldn't stop a full-scale attack by Russia or China. Thus its development would have the perverse effect of encouraging those countries to maintain massive nuclear arsenals.
This summer, President Clinton will decide whether to proceed with this controversial project. His decision will depend largely on the results of yet another test of the technology behind the proposed system; this decisive test is scheduled for late June.
Regardless of the test's results, the NMD program should be dropped. The United States instead should seize a remarkable opportunity to exercise moral leadership in the international arena. As the most prosperous nation and the world's only superpower, America has a responsibility to lead the global fight against poverty, inequality and injustice.
Instead of arming itself against imagined military threats, the United States should be doing more to support multilateral efforts to bring peace to conflict-torn regions. Instead of spending huge amounts of money to fuel an arms race, the United States should be contributing to the construction of a more-peaceful world by helping poor countries to develop.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the development of the proposed missile defense system could cost up to $60 billion -- a figure the Pentagon doesn't dispute.
If the money earmarked for the NMD program were invested in projects designed to relieve human suffering, it would make a big difference: According to the U.N. Development Program, an additional investment of $60 billion over the next decade would be sufficient to provide basic education to the entire population of the developing world. Sixty billion dollars over the next six years could provide water and sanitation services for all developing countries.
In the United States, $60 billion could go a long way toward helping the 40 million Americans who lack health insurance. Or it could give the 14.1 million U.S. children living in poverty a chance for a brighter future.
The NMD project will do little to protect the United States from attack, and it will do nothing to help the millions who lack access to adequate housing, education and health care. By making a commitment to help those who live without hope, the United States could help lay groundwork for a more-peaceful future in which all people will be able to live in dignity.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, President Woodrow Wilson understood that the United States could play a lead role in the international community by using its principles and ideals to tackle difficult problems. He once said, ``America is the only idealistic nation in the world.''
Today, the idealism that Wilson represented is under threat from those who think in terms of interests rather than moral responsibilities. Human suffering presents a more-serious challenge to U.S. security than Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. Desperation bred by poverty presents a greater threat to world peace than rogue states and isolated dictators.
As long as huge disparities in wealth exist, the resentment of the poor will fuel conflicts that kill innocent people and threaten U.S. interests. As long as hunger and deprivation afflict the people of Latin America, the United States will continue to receive waves of undocumented migrants.
True peace and security will be impossible while 960 million people are illiterate and while 1.3 billion people live on an income of less than $1 per day.
Rather than seeking out new enemies in a bid to justify increases in an already bloated military budget, the United States should provide moral leadership in the effort to confront poverty and human need -- the true enemies of peace in the 21st Century.
Oscar Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate, was president of Costa Rica from 1986-1990.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald