What was George W. Bush doing when the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty was being signed back on 26 May 1972? Well, we can make a fair guess. He was just out of Yale and figuring out what to do with his life. At that moment Brezhnev and Nixon signed the treaty it's a bet that George's gaze was flicking between a sports game, a pretty girl and an open refrigerator. He probably didn't take much notice of the events in Moscow, but at some stage he may have grasped the treaty's underlying doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction because there was a certain dreadful simplicity in the idea, which even the juvenile George W. Bush would have found arresting.
Thirty years later Bush comes to the White House, with no substantial achievements to his name or experience of international affairs, and announces that the ABM treaty is no longer appropriate to the modern world and the US is going to pursue its dream of a missile defence system. The reaction around the globe to his speech contained a common element and that was indignation that the fragile structures and trust of the nuclear stand-off had been ended by a man with neither the intellect nor humility which this issue requires. Slim Shady and his chainsaw were now in charge of world peace.
In an address of 1,991 words, Bush had managed to turn geopolitical orthodoxy on its head, and every leader with bombs at his disposal went to his most private councils and asked where does that leave us? What do we stand to win? What will we lose? The world was back to calculating missiles and launch times. George may be a little foggy on the issues involved, but he sure has provided the greatest challenge the world's leaders have faced in 30 years. The crucial point that few missed after Bush's withdrawal from the Kyoto Agreement is that the US is in the grip, not of isolationists, but of unilateralists who care little about world opinion and are focused on consolidating American superiority. In his address Bush included the notion of increasing world security at a time when rogue states are allegedly in a position to mount a nuclear attack but his proposal is for a national missile defence system, not a global system.
It seems the US wants the power but not the responsibilities of world leadership - a policy reminiscent of imperial Rome rather than a modern superpower. Nevertheless, the boy George seems to go along with this archaic vision. In his first 100 days he signalled to the Balkans and the Middle East that the US will not be supplying more troops for peacekeeping and the shuttle diplomacy would end. There is a new abrasiveness in dealings with the Russians and Chinese and a dismissiveness about Europe.
It is both an aggressive and defensive stance. The defensive part interestingly displays the fearfulness of many dead empires. When the Chinese started the Great Wall in 214BC and Hadrian commissioned his defensive system across northern England 300 years later they were reacting to precisely the same instinct that is driving US policy now - keeping hostile barbarians out. The Missile Defence Shield is, in military terms, a wall, albeit an exceptionally complex one which owes much to the Americans' fear of the Outside World.
But walls have a habit of being overwhelmed or side-stepped, as any historian of the Maginot line will confirm, and this wall may be avoided with low yield nuclear suitcase bombs or someone in a speedboat running round the Island of Manhattan, spraying anthrax on the shores of the unsuspecting city. So clearly, defence is not the whole story and our calculations of what is pushing Bush should include the fact that his wall will cost $60-$100 billion, most of which will be spent in the defence industries.
In Europe liberals may despair and in Russia and China nationalists and communists will fume, but we cannot complain that Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have misled us. They have been exact and unabashed in the elucidation of their agenda. The tawdry, interest-heavy US political system, in which they have thrived for nearly 30 years, has thrown up Bush and now he in turn has thrown over the table.
The first thing Bush has done is to rob the US of diplomatic muscle. If America doesn't care what the world says, it follows that the world is going to take a good deal less interest in what America says. Within days of the speech, America lost its seat on the UN Human Rights Commission which it had held for 50 years, which shows that with this domineering posture America will have fewer opportunities to persuade.
More important is the way last Tuesday's speech sharply affects policy in China, Russia and Europe. China feels it has been placed at the focus of the Missile Defence Shield. Its relatively small number of nuclear warheads would be strategically downgraded by a shield. So, the natural course for China is to build many more weapons of different varieties, on the basis that the more they have, the more they stand a chance of reaching target area. Richard Butler, the former head of the weapons inspectorate in Iraq, says that this is precisely the opposite of what a missile defence system should achieve.
Russia has a vast number of warheads and may be soothed by Bush's reference to the possibility of a joint American-Russian missile shield. But at present there seems little hope of President Putin offering to reduce numbers, particularly as the Bush regime has removed 50 Russian spies from American soil and reopened links with Chechen guerrillas. The European powers are no less cross about America's high-handedness. France's nuclear strike force loses significance in the event of US plans going ahead. Their clout can only be assured if they pursue the idea of a European Defence Force. Rifts in the Atlantic alliance may follow. This will prove difficult for Britain which will be forced to choose between Europe and America. And that surely is the point. Even if feasible, the shield will take years to develop, during which rogue states can plan an infinite variety of terrorist attacks on the US, and China will consider increasing its arsenal. Of course, the Americans say they are anxious to consult, but why didn't they do this before committing to an idea which may not work and has simply established their credentials as one of the least responsible nations of the West?
All in all, it's been a very bad week for the world and America, though one doesn't suppose that George W. Bush has the slightest inkling of this.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001