- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

There they go again. As if reading from the same well-worn script, opponents of an American missile defense system have attacked President Bush's plans to withdraw from the 1972 ABM Treaty by striking a remarkably consistent theme.

"Amending [the ABM Treaty] in search of national missile defense will tip the global balance, trigger a new arms race and jeopardize world and regional stability," claimed Sha Zukang, director of arms control and disarmament in China's Foreign Ministry. Domestic critics of President Bush's decision, such as Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Joseph Biden of Delaware have echoed the Chinese rhetoric, ominously predicting the initiation of arms races in congressional hearings and Sunday morning talk shows.

However, the claim that a U.S. decision to deploy some sort of missile defense will trigger new arms races is grossly exaggerated. Whereas only six months ago the head of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Security Council declared that unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty "would lead to the destruction of strategic stability" and "a new powerful spiral in the arms race, particularly in space," Russia has only made token objections since President Bush's announcement last week.

In fact, warnings about potential arms races and international stability do not bear close scrutiny. Most arms races that could take place in the international arena already are under way because of dynamics completely independent of the ABM Treaty and U.S. missile defense plans. China, for example, has been working to rapidly modernize its nuclear forces for years, regardless of the ABM Treaty. Similarly, the race in South Asia to develop nuclear-capable missiles and warheads dates back to India and Pakistan's nuclear tests in May 1998, a full year before the Clinton administration reversed its policy of opposition to a missile defense system to one of support.

The notion of the Russians renewing the Cold War arms race, particularly in space, is risible. Because of their economic woes, they cannot even afford to maintain their antiquated weapons, as evidenced by the Kursk tragedy last year, nor can they meet their share of the costs of the Space Station. Thus, despite the various warnings from abroad, it is unlikely that a decision by the Bush administration to build and deploy a missile defense system would trigger an arms race that is not already under way.

These arguments also fail to recognize that arms races are a reflection of geopolitical tensions rather than their cause. As historian Paul Kennedy notes, "Arms races are the reflection of complex political/ideological/racial/economic/territorial differences rather than phenomena which exist, as it were, of themselves." Conflict between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir gave birth to their nuclear ambitions, not the other way around. Furthermore, a strategic arms race with the United States would actually work against China's long-term aims of economic integration and unification with Taiwan. Besides engendering American hostility, every dollar spent on missiles and decoys to overcome a missile defense would be less money spent on the naval and air forces required to threaten Taiwan.

Moreover, despite glowing tributes to the ABM Treaty as a pillar of "strategic stability," even signatory states will ignore arms control commitments if they believe obtaining weapons of mass destruction are in their national interest. Saddam Hussein was able to develop a horrifying germ-warfare capability despite Iraq's status as a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention. Once upon a time North Korea was a member of good standing in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even the esteemed ABM Treaty did little to stop the massive increases in the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals that pushed Cold War tensions to the brink in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the end, lamentations against the Bush administration's withdrawal from the ABM Treaty rest upon false assumptions. Arms races are merely symptoms of a larger disease, and given that most leaders will come to Mr. Putin's realization that it is better to be an ally of the United States than a strategic competitor, a U.S. missile defense is unlikely to trigger a new arms race. More importantly, arms-control agreements do little to deter states bent on developing capabilities that threaten American security.

Legitimate questions about the technical feasibility and cost of any missile defense system remain and must be addressed by the Bush administration. However, the United States must not be deterred from countering the very real threat of missile proliferation by the illusory threat of arms races.

Benjamin Runkle is the Bradley Fellow at the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University and is writing a book on arms races and arms control.

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