The Magazine

The Bush Doctrine

ABM, Kyoto, and the New American Unilateralism

Jun 4, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 36 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Liberal critics argue that a missile defense would launch a new arms race, with the Russians building new warheads to ensure that they could overcome our defenses. The response of the Bush administration is: So what? If the Russians want to waste what little remains of their economy on such weapons, let them. These nukes are of no use. Whether or not Russia builds new missiles, no American defense will stop a massive Russian first strike anyway. And if Russia decides to enlarge its already massive second strike capacity, in a world in which the very idea of a first strike between us and the Russians is preposterous, then fine again.

The premises underlying the new Bush nuclear doctrine are simple: (1) There is no Soviet Union. (2) Russia -- no longer either a superpower or an enemy, and therefore neither a plausibly viable nor an ideological threat -- does not count. (3) Therefore, the entire structure of bilateral arms control, both offensive and defensive, which was an American obsession during the last quarter-century of the Cold War, is a useless relic. Indeed, it is seriously damaging to American security.

Henceforth, America will build the best weaponry it can to meet its needs. And those needs are new. The coming threat is not from Russia, but from the inevitable proliferation of missiles into the hands of heretofore insignificant enemies.

Critics can downplay and discount one such threat or another. North Korea, they say, is incapable of building an intercontinental ballistic missile. (They were saying that right up to the time when it launched a three-stage rocket over Japan in 1998.) Or they will protest that Iraq cannot possibly build an effective nuclear capacity clandestinely. They are wrong on the details, but, even more important, they are wrong in principle: Missile technology is to the 21st century what airpower was to the 20th. In 1901, there was not an airplane in the world. Most people did not think a heavier-than-air machine could in theory ever fly. Yet 38 years later, the world experienced the greatest war in history, whose outcome was crucially affected by air power and air defenses in a bewildering proliferation of new technologies: bombers, fighters, transports, gliders, carriers, radar.

It is inconceivable that 38 years from now, we will not be living in a world where missile technology is equally routine, and thus routinely in the hands of bad guys.

It is therefore inexplicable why the United States should not use its unique technology to build the necessary defense against the next inevitable threat.

Yet for eight years, the U.S. government did nothing on the grounds that true safety lay in a doctrine (mutually assured destruction) and a treaty (the antiballistic missile treaty) that codifies it. The logic of MAD is simple: If either side can always launch a second strike against the other, then neither side will ever launch a first. And because missile defenses cast doubt on the efficacy of a second strike capacity, they make the nuclear balance more unstable.

This argument against missile defense was plausible during the Cold War. True, it hinged on the very implausible notion of a first strike. But at the time, the United States and the Soviet Union were mortal ideological enemies. We came close enough in Berlin and Cuba to know that war was plausible. But even then the idea of a first strike remained quite fantastic because it meant initiating the most destructive war in human history.

Today, the idea of Russia or America launching a bolt from the blue is merely absurd. Russia does not define itself as our existential adversary. It no longer sees its mission as the abolition of our very way of life. We no longer are nose-to-nose in flashpoints like Berlin. Ask yourself: Did you ever in the darkest days of the Cold War lie awake at night wondering whether Britain or France or Israel had enough of a second strike capacity to deter an American first strike against them? Of course not. Nuclear weapons are not in themselves threats. They become so in conditions of extreme hostility. It all depends on the intent of the political authorities who control them. A Russian or an American first strike? We are no longer contending over the fate of the earth, over the future of Korea and Germany and Europe. Our worst confrontation in the last decade was over the Pristina airport!

What about China? The fallback for some missile defense opponents is that China will feel the need to develop a second strike capacity to overcome our defenses. But this too is absurd. China does not have a second strike capacity. It has never had a second strike capacity. If it has never had one in the absence of an American missile defense, why should the construction of an American missile defense create a crisis of strategic instability between us?