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Published on Friday, July 21, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
The World Fears President Bill Clinton's Son of Star Wars Missile Defense Project.
And Rightly So.
by Thomas Axworthy
The G8 summit, taking place in Okinawa this weekend, offers a revealing contrast in the respective positions of Russia and the United States on how best to protect citizens from the horrors of nuclear war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the concept of deterrence as enshrined in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In the days leading up to this summit, he engaged in a whirlwind of diplomacy, visiting Germany, China and North Korea to gain support for his view that there should be no radical change in the doctrine that has discouraged nuclear war for a generation. U.S. President Bill Clinton, on the other hand, has been mandated by Congress to build a National Missile Defence system, and this prospect will be one of the central issues engaging the world leaders in Okinawa.

To hit an incoming bullet with another bullet is a daunting task, yet that is what the United States is essentially trying to achieve. The test failure earlier this month -- the second in a row -- of the Pentagon's proposed $60-billion (U.S.) plan to hit an incoming missile with an interception missile should not have surprised anyone. The real surprise is that the Clinton administration has been mounting a full-court diplomatic press for more than a year to persuade allies such as Canada and former adversaries such as Russia and China to support missile defence and amend the ABM treaty even before the technology is proven. The Pentagon's missiles may have missed their test targets, but they have certainly scored a bull's-eye on Mr. Clinton's waning diplomatic credibility.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan stunned the world (and his own administration) by proposing the Strategic Defence Initiative, his Star Wars scheme for an invulnerable defensive shield of space-based lasers. After years of expensive research, Mr. Clinton closed down the program in 1993. The Republican Party, however, whether out of fealty to Mr. Reagan's legacy or genuine belief in the efficacy of defence versus deterrence, continues to be enamoured of the idea.

In 1998, a congressional committee warned that North Korea, Iraq and Iran had the capability to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea then raised the temperature by firing a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Faced with a possible threat from these rogue states, Congress issued a mandate in 1999 under which Mr. Clinton is obliged to field a missile defence system as soon as it is technically feasible -- Son of Star Wars.

The technical problems, however, are mind-boggling. To work, missile defence requires orbiting satellites capable of detecting the launch of attacking missiles, radar systems to track the incoming warheads, and interception rockets that must be launched quickly, find the warhead among decoys, then kill the warhead in space. These are a lot of moving parts. Nineteen intercept tests have been planned by the Pentagon; last October, the first test was hailed as a success, but the Pentagon later acknowledged that the intercepting rocket had destroyed a decoy balloon instead of the mock warhead (i.e., the results had been fudged). In a second test in January of 2000, the kill vehicle missed the mock warhead by 400 feet after a cooling line clogged; during this month's test, the kill warhead failed to separate from the second-stage rocket booster. Lieutenant-General Ronald Kadish, the man in charge of the Pentagon's program, commented on the recent test failure, perhaps with some understatement: "What it tells me is we have more engineering work to do."

A National Missile Defence system is not just another military program. To meet the so-called North Korean threat by 2005, the Clinton administration proposes building a radar station on Alaska's Shemya Island, with 20 interceptor missiles. The second stage will include radar stations in Greenland and England and an additional 70 interceptor missiles. To build such a system will require that Russia amend the ABM treaty, which bars the construction of such rockets and missiles for active defence. Mr. Putin has adamantly refused to reopen the treaty, and he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin issued a communiqué this week denouncing the proposed U.S. missile shield, saying it would upset decades of arms-control agreements that have deterrence, not defence, at their core.

The vehemence of Russian and Chinese opposition was evident at last month's meeting of the Inter Action Council that I attended. The council, a body made up of former world leaders such as Pierre Trudeau, Helmut Schmidt, Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter, meets annually to discuss issues and prepare reports; the former leaders use their influence to prod their former governments. The council's 18th meeting, in Helsinki, focused on the future of Russia.

On the subject of Mr. Putin, the experts were quietly optimistic. He is seen as pragmatic and competent. But his background in the KGB obviously worries many, and the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of Russia's only independent media group just before the conference began, was chilling.

But if opinions were mixed on Mr. Putin's future, there was near unanimity that the United States was playing a very dangerous game on missile defence. Several speakers made the point that the so-called rogue states of Iran and North Korea were moving away from confrontation with the West. In Iran, reformers have won a clear majority in recent elections, and North and South Korea held a historic summit in mid-June. As part of his pre-summit diplomatic offensive, Mr. Putin announced on July 19 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had offered to abandon his rocket program. The United States is running out of credible threats as diplomacy brings these states out of the cold.

That said, one doesn't have to be clairvoyant to see the impact of missile defence on China. Beijing has a small force of 18 to 20 long-range missiles. If the Son of Star Wars can be made to work, a force of 100 interceptor rockets would be enough to destroy the existing Chinese arsenal. Beijing, already nervous about the possibility of Taiwanese independence, is not likely to accept U.S. efforts to neutralize its deterrent. If Washington carries out its program, China's solution would likely be to expand its rocket force.

The impact would not stop there. Any expansion of Chinese missile forces would raise fears in India and, if India built up its missile forces to match China's, then Pakistan probably would expand its forces to match India's.

Missile defence in Alaska -- seemingly so far from any conflict -- has the potential to destabilize the existing nuclear balance and promote a new nuclear arms race in Asia.

It doesn't have to happen. The United States is no longer a superpower. It is a hyperpower with no real economic, military or technological competitors. It is so rich that it can contemplate spending $60-billion on unproven technology against a questionable threat from North Korea. But as Mr. Putin has said, "the cure of missile defence is worse than the disease."

Let us pray that, in the discussions on nuclear strategy at the G8 summit, the United States will demonstrate wisdom as well as power.

Thomas S. Axworthy is adjunct lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive


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