Doomsday scenarios are back. The most credible has Pakistan unleashing
a pre-emptive strike against India. Or perhaps North Korea, a suspected
nuclear power, attacks South Korea. Or maybe China hits Taiwan with
a few nukes before a land invasion.
After a decade of civil wars in Africa, the Balkans and Russia,
as well as the spread of the AIDS pandemic, the world's most serious
threats seem decidedly non-nuclear. Not so. "Nuclear weapons have
become usable again," says Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council
on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think tank that's close
to the Russian government.
Anxieties about nuclear weapons are rising, fed by the new Bush
administration's avowed interest in building a missile "shield."
Defense experts fear this could spawn a new arms race--or worse,
launch an actual nuclear attack.
Even before the new president can decide whether a missile-defense
system is technically feasible, political costs are mounting. European
leaders are bewildered by the U.S. position, and China is angry.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in January that
a missile shield would "irreparably damage" global stability and
probably kill the possibility of an agreement between Russia and
the United States to dramatically reduce weapons stockpiles.
What's pathetic about all this is that even if a missile defense
system were to be developed, which is itself unlikely, everyone
from the CIA to independent security experts say that a missile
is the least likely form of nuclear attack on the United States--for
the obvious reason that such a missile would carry a "return address,"
guaranteeing swift and certain U.S. retaliation. More plausible
threats come from below-radar "cruise" missiles, ships and even
So why is missile defense so appealing to the new administration?
To start with, U.S. political leaders have long sought to placate
Americans by promising technological "fixes" for the inherent instability
of being a world superpower. And then there is the need to find
new rationales for huge increases in spending on military innovation.
Bush clearly sees in a missile defense system a respectable cover
for a giant defense boondoggle (official price tag $60 billion but
likely far higher) of the sort not seen since Reagan launched "Star
There is a long history of the U.S. government setting fantastic
goals for nuclear weapons builders to attract funding and public
fascination. In the '50s, Edward Teller, then chief of one of the
nation's two bomb labs, personally lobbied President Eisenhower
to endorse work on a radiation-free nuclear bomb. No matter that
Teller himself knew such a "clean" bomb was a fiction. The mere
possibility convinced Eisenhower to oppose a ban on nuclear testing,
which was Teller's real aim.
Graham Allison, a nuclear strategist at Harvard University, concedes
that domestic political needs have always driven U.S. administrations
to push weapons systems with little regard for the effects on international
relations. Now it's déjà vu all over again. Allison
warns that many countries are unlikely to understand that U.S. politicians
aren't serious about missile defense. He worries that China, which
he estimates has only 20 working nuclear weapons and none deliverable
by missile, might choose to launch a pre-emptive strike against
a U.S. ally (such as Taiwan) in order to reset the international
balance of power prior to the deployment of a missile defense system.
The Bush administration, of course, wants to undermine any international
backlash by insisting that U.S. allies would be covered by any defense
system. But this offer is meaningless. "A defense against nuclear
missiles is technologically possible, but it won't provide a real
cover," Karaganov says.
And this is precisely the point. Reducing nuclear tensions must
come the old-fashioned way, by patient negotiation, compromise and
giving incentives (or imposing penalties) on nations intent on developing
nuclear weapons. Until all countries agree to foreswear nukes and
destroy their stockpiles, the risk of nuclear war--accidental or
otherwise--remains. No technological fix can change this.