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Bush, the Europeans, and missile defence

By Philip Gordon - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

In his May Day speech outlining his plans for ballistic missile defence, George W. Bush made clear what many observers have long suspected and some have long feared: the United States is both determined to deploy a missile defence system and no longer interested in preserving the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia. Instead of preserving the treaty, which for decades was considered by many a cornerstone of arms control and prerequisite for a stable relationship with Moscow, Bush’s speech called for a "new framework" that would allow us to build missile defences "to counter a different threat." Last week, high-level teams from the White House, Pentagon and State Department travelled to London, Brussels, Paris, Warsaw, and Moscow, as well as to several Asian capitals, to try to explain Bush’s thinking, reassure troubled allies, and win support or at least acquiescence for the plan.

In Paris and other European capitals, the Bush team confronted skepticism about the threat, doubts about the technology, consternation about the cost, and strong opposition to any unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty, considered by Europeans (and many American Democrats) to be essential for the maintenance of strategic stability. The main fear is that by unilaterally opposing the ABM treaty prior to a new agreement with Moscow, the Administration is needlessly provoking Russia, possibly setting off a new nuclear arms race and undermining the prospects for cooperation on a whole range of issues, including nuclear arms control and proliferation.

In fact, Bush’s anti-ABM announcement was really just a statement of some obvious facts about the post-Cold War era—Russia is no longer an enemy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a real threat. While it remains preferable to work constructively with the Russians to negotiate modifications to the treaty to adapt it to today’s world, the Russians are unlikely to cooperate with such an approach absent an implicit or explicit threat to abrogate the treaty if necessary—as the Clinton administration’s futile efforts to renegotiate during 1999-2000 demonstrated. Now at least the cards are on the table: the United States does not intend to restrict the types of testing or deployments it feels it needs to do in order to deploy effective missile defences against a growing missile threat.


Bush is thus right to declare the ABM treaty ill-adapted to our era, but this does not absolve him from pursuing missile defences in a way that will increase, rather than undermine, global security. Indeed, if it makes the right choices on missile defence, the American administration should have every opportunity not only to win over the skeptical Europeans but even to get Moscow on board. It can do so if it keeps five fundamental principles in mind.

First, unlike the way he approached the Kyoto climate change treaty—by tearing it up without proposing any realistic alternative—Bush should follow up on his proclaimed willingness to negotiate a new, up-to-date strategic relationship with Russia. Such a new deal with Russia should include significant reductions in offensive weapons in exchange for an agreement to permit missile defences so long as they do not undermine the ultimate Russian deterrent. Russia, which needs to cut its offensive forces dramatically for budgetary reasons anyway, and which would welcome the prestige resulting from a continued bilateral strategic relationship with the United States, might well accept. And the Americans should also talk seriously to Moscow about possible technical cooperation on theatre missile defences, to contain a threat that is more real to both of them than each others’ strategic missiles.

Second, any U.S. missile defence plan must include coverage for allies, both in Europe and Asia, or it is almost meaningless. The failure to include allies was one of the greatest flaws with the Clinton plan, which would only have provided protection for U.S. territory. Not surprisingly it was unpopular abroad. A capability to defend the American homeland from missile attack is of little use if Paris, London, and Tokyo (to say nothing of the large American populations abroad) are vulnerable to nuclear blackmail. This is an advantage of "boost-phase" defences—which could destroy incoming missiles just after they are launched and before they enter the atmosphere—which Bush is right to explore.

Third, the Americans should accept that any eventual deployment decision must be driven by strategy—not ideology or politics. Some Republican ideologues want to deploy right away, despite having no viable system, just to be certain to bury the ABM treaty once and for all. Others in the administration call for deployment by 2004 in part so that Bush can be the first President to deploy a missile defence system, not coincidentally in time for his re-election campaign. In fact, however—and as recent test failures of the only plan currently on the table show—the technology is not yet ready. A missile defence system that does not work is not worth deploying and a waste of money.

Fourth, any system should focus on so-called rogue states—the most likely scenarios—and not be directed at Russia or China, both of which have the capacity to vastly augment or improve their offensive forces to overwhelm anything the United States could deploy in the near term. For now, the administration seems to be fudging the issue of the Chinese force by advocating a defence capability against an "accidental launch," which might just happen to be the size of the Chinese missile force. But an explicit deployment against China would be needlessly provocative, and more likely to result only in a Chinese nuclear build-up.

Finally, Bush needs to recognize that missile defence cannot be a substitute for non-proliferation efforts, but that the two efforts go hand-in-hand. This means, for example, that Bush should keep spending money on Russian de-nuclearisation and other nuclear threat-reduction efforts, rather than cut them back as the administration seems inclined to do. Non-proliferation is difficult, but it nonetheless remains far easier to prevent a country from acquiring nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in the first place than to try to thwart them once the missile and warhead are in the air.


For a range of historic, political, cultural and strategic reasons, Europeans are likely to remain far more skeptical than Americans about the need for missile defences, and about their consequences. Over the past year, however, transatlantic views on the subject have converged as Europeans have come to better understand the threat and Americans have become more sensitive to the concerns of their closest allies. If Bush pursues his legitimate exploration of missile defence along the lines proposed here, he should be able to avoid turning this issue into the divisive transatlantic disagreement it has every potential to be.

Note: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and should not be attributed to the staff, officers or trustees of the Brookings Institution.

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This article was originally published in Libération, on May 18, 2001.

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About the Author

Dr Philip Gordon is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

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