- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

That was a collective sigh of relief you heard last week, when the American missile defense test fell, well, a bit short of the desired result. It was the third such test and the second to fail. Not that the failure proved that the advanced technology involved in "hitting a bullet with a bullet" was unworkable. What happened was that the high-speed interceptor fired from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which was supposed to destroy a dummy warhead deployed on a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, failed to separate from the booster rocket. This is pretty basic stuff. It was embarrassing perhaps, but certainly not devastating to the concept of national missile defense (NMD).
Nonetheless, political leaders from Europe to Beijing, who had been having fits of the vapors en masse, were pleased at the failure all as one. Governments all over Europe were said to be "greatly relieved." The weeks leading up to the test had been filled with increasingly hysterical rhetoric from abroad. Russia and China, of course, are adamantly opposed. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a U.S. decision to go ahead would "signify an undermining" of the global military balance, no less. Not surprisingly, his sentiments were dutifully echoed by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. Gen. Vladimir Yakovlev, head of Russia's strategic missile force, threatened to increase the number of warheads on the Russian long-range Topol-M missile or even revive the Russian medium range missile program. Mr. Putin even went so far as to propose European-Russian cooperation on missile defense in a blatant attempt to seed division in the NATO alliance.
The Chinese meanwhile are frantic at the idea that Taiwan might be protected from their missile batteries on the coast of the Taiwan Strait. During a visit to Rome last week, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji warned that a U.S. theater missile defense would be able to protect Taiwan and therefore constitute a "blatant interference in Chinese affairs." The bizarre implication of this statement is that the world should then consider it an internal matter if China unleashes a rain of missiles on Taiwan. Come again?
Barely less intense has been the European reaction. Missile defense today dominates just about every discussion between European and American politicians. French and German officials have warned that for the Americans to abrogate the obsolete 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty will somehow cause all arms control regimes to unravel the world over. Exactly how this would happen, given that the ABM treaty is, strictly speaking, a matter between Russians and Americans, has yet to be satisfactorily explained.
What we are talking about here is defensive weapons capability, so what accounts for the virulence of the reaction? It is, of course, reminiscent of the chorus of denunciation and ridicule that greeted President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Back then, in Cold War days, it would clearly have affected the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union, which made the reaction more understandable.
When it comes right down to it, an argument could be made that balance of power is still the real issue. Indeed, it seems that the rest of the world wants to preserve the arms control regimes to tie down the United States itself. This proposition is made convincingly in Peter Rodman's insightful new monograph published by the Nixon Center, "Uneasy Giant: The Challenges to American Predominance."
"American military policies we see as defensive and necessary, whether on land mines or missile defense, prompt new charges of unilateralism, which other nations seek to restrain through arms control," Mr. Rodman writes.
Now, there is broad bipartisan support here in Washington in favor of proceeding with NMD. Even The Washington Post editorial page has warmed to NMD, in an interesting reversal. So is there anything we can do to make our undeniable "hyperpower" status, as French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine put it, more palatable to the rest of the world? Should we even try?
As suggested by Mr. Rodman, a U.S. foreign policy based on Wilsonian idealism helps create misperceptions abroad. "How else to explain the paradox that international resentment of American power seems to be so high in the time of an administration so eager to be virtuous and that has made it standard procedure to apologize for much of postwar American power in foreign policy." Somehow the "assertive multilateralism" proposed by then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright gives the rest of the world the heebie-jeebies. You never know where it is going to strike next.
Some of us believe that perhaps an internationalist policy based more openly and honestly on U.S. national interest might make other countries less suspicious of ulterior U.S. motives. That would be closer to the model proposed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush. This is worth thinking about since missile defense is clearly going to happen.
E-mail: helle.bering@washtimes.com.


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