There may be as many different opinions in Washington on national missile defense as there are experts. The debate over the wisdom of deploying a national missile defense system has been determined in large part, however, by the struggle between two main schools of thought: those that favor maintaining the current global treaty regime and those who seek to replace it with a new conservative defense paradigm.

President Clinton has tried to bridge the gap by advocating deployment of a missile defense system that is compliant with an amended Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. However, when the U.S. administration failed to overcome the deep misgiving of the NATO members, they lost any chance of winning Russian support for sweeping treaty amendments. The effort appears to have failed, at least for this year.

The debate over missile defense is certain to continue. It can best be understood in terms of this larger clash of world views.

Defenders of the Regime

The establishment view seeks to preserve the existing framework of interlocking treaties and agreements that has, with some noticeable failures, prevented the spread of weapons of mass destruction from a few to many nations and has helped prevent wars involving these weapons among the nations that still possess them. The treaty regime has been painstakingly assembled oven the past fifty years through the efforts of many nations, but most often with the leadership of the United States under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

This view is similar if not identical to the views of European leaders and publics. Most leaders of the NATO nations have summarized the current situation in words similar to those of President Jacques Chirac:

"Worrying events have occurred in the last two years with renewed tests of nuclear and ballistic weapons, the fact that three nuclear-weapon States failed to ratify the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], and that the fundamental provisions of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty were challenged yet again. The 21st century should not only seek to safeguard the valuable achievements generated over the pas fifty years by multilateral treaties, but also enable the international community to regain the momentum it appears to have lost today." ("L'Action de La France: Maîtrise des armements, désarmement et non-prolifération, La Documentation Francaise, Paris, 2000)

The basic strategy for preventing further proliferation and for thwarting missile attacks on the United States was summed up by then-Secretary of Defense William Perry in 1996. The United States, he said, has three lines of defense against proliferation. The first and strongest is to prevent and reduce the threat through the non-proliferation regime. But some nations will cheat on the treaties or remain outside the regime. Therefore the second line of defense is a strong military to deter any attack and to seek out and destroy mass destruction weapons before they can be used. If this line fails, a third line of defense is provided by active defenses, including ballistic missile defense systems.

Within this camp, there are differences over how serious are the threats from new ballistic missile programs and how effective and reliable missile defenses can be. In general, however, if forced to choose between deploying a limited national missile defense system and preserving the treaty regime, they would choose the regime.

The Conservative Assault on the Regime

For proponents of the new defense paradigm, this is precisely the problem. Hundreds of articles and speeches by conservatives have used the South Asian tests and the Korean and Iranian missile launches as proof that future threats are inherently unpredictable, our intelligence estimates are consistently unreliable, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction fundamentally unstoppable and, thus, the only truly effective response is reliance on American defense technology. This requires substantial defense budget increases and the deployment of new weapons systems, including new types of nuclear weapons and, most prominently, missile defense systems. Conservatives have skillfully deployed expert commissions and congressional investigations to endorse this view.

The reports of the Commission on the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States in 1998 (the Rumsfeld Commission) and the Committee on U.S. National Security and the People's Republic of China in 1999 (the Cox Committee) were particularly influential in shaping media and political elite opinion. The Administration's response has been to cede ground, embracing missile defense and budget increases while husbanding the political and personal capital usually devoted to the first line of defense. With the most conservative elements of the Republican Party in control of congressional committees, treaty ratifications and diplomatic appointments have been delayed for years. The impact is global. A regime in need of repair and revitalization remains in a state of suspended anticipation.

It is difficult for many in Europe to fathom this rather cavalier disregard for existing treaties and threat reduction arrangements. But the now dominant side in this debate forcefully rejects the very idea of negotiated arms reductions as a Cold War relic, unsuited for the current period. Treaties lull the country into a false sense of security, it is said, as America keeps to them while other nations cheat. Worse still are multilateral arrangements. These weaken America, like "Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, stretched out, unable to move, because he has been tied down by a whole host of threads," as Senator Jeff Sessions (R.-Al.) warned his colleagues during the debate over the Comprehensive Test Ban. The Senate defeat of the test ban crystallized the new attitude popular among conservatives: mistrust treaties, increase defenses, assert American authority.

Many conservative experts believe that they can pick and chose among the treaties. In reference to President Chirac's statement cited above, they would see only the first item as one of concern and rate the others as progress (some, in fact, view India's nuclear status as a welcome counter-weight to China). START treaties are no longer necessary, in this view. The United States, they say, does not negotiate with the British and the French on force levels, why should we with the Russians? The nuclear test ban and ABM treaty should be jettisoned because they restrain US force options.. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, on the other hand, can restrain others and should be kept as long as no one takes the Article IV commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament seriously. Better still are export restraint agreements such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Australia Group, which are agreements among the weapon-states to keep technology out of the hands of states of concern.

The Dangers Ahead

This arms control à la carte approach echos to the embryonic U.S. strategy of the 1950s, where a few nations thought they could stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction by forming supplier groups to contain key technologies, while developing nuclear, biological, chemical and missile arsenals for themselves. It was precisely the failure of this piece-meal method that brought about the current non-proliferation regime.

The regime only works as an integrated whole. Without the test ban treaty and serous reduction in U.S and Russian arsenals, the Non-Proliferation Treaty will lose credibility, suffering a death by disinterest if not outright defection. Proliferation of missile defenses could weaken the Missile Technology Control Regime, encourage the proliferation of missiles and defense counter-measures. For those without nuclear production capabilities, chemical and biological weapons will hold new appeal. As legal, diplomatic and political deterrents weaken, it becomes easier for a nation to shatter the barriers, triggering a global crisis.

This is not an abstract debate. If the United States disassembles diplomatic restraints, shatters carefully crafted threat reduction arrangements and moves from builder to destroyer of the non-proliferation regime, there will be little to prevent new nations from concluding that their national security requires nuclear arms. Nor will it be just a matter of diplomatic emergency meetings. Nuclear insecurities and regional tensions could freeze foreign investments, strangling economic growth both regionally and globally.

The two years after the U.S. presidential election will be critical to determining which side in this debate will dominate U.S. policy. The fate of the regime is at stake.

A short-hand chronolgy of the key developments, 1992-1999

1992President George Bush promotes Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system of space-, sea-, and land-based missile defense systems. President negotiates Chemical Weapons Treaty and START II treaty. President Bill Clinton elected.

1993. President Clinton assumes office, basic policy framework created but fails to move key treaties to early ratification (START II and CWC)

1994. Conflict with North Korea over violations of the NPT is resolved through diplomacy, but serious concerns remain. North Korea becomes key "rogue state" Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, gain control of the House of Representatives and large majority in Senate.

1995. Using the chairmanships of key committees, Republicans push national missile defense as key issue, oppose Agreed Framework with North Korea, CWC and other arms control agreements. NPT extended indefinitely.

1996. Presidential politics distort US policy on arms control issues. CWC ratification blocked as presidential candidate Senator Robert Dole withdraws support. Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich introduce the "Defend America Act," mandating deployment of a national missile defense system. Try, but fail, to make missile defense key issue in presidential campaign. In response, President Clinton creates "3+3 program" to research NMD for 3 years and then be in position to deploy within 3 years of a decision to do so. (For a complete history, see Joseph Cirincione, "How the Right Lost the Missile Defense Debate," Foreign Policy, Spring 1997.)

1997. Congress passes legislation creating commission to review national intelligence estimate of ballistic missile threat to United States after first effort (a panel headed by former CIA director Robert Gates) concludes administration estimates are accurate and free from political pressure. New panel headed by Donald Rumsfeld is created.

1998. Key year. South Asia nuclear tests, Rumsfeld Commission reports, Cox Commission investigation of alleged Chinese nuclear espionage and medium-range ballistic missile tests by North Korea and Iran create heightened sense of a nuclear and missile threat. Political attacks on President Clinton reach a crescendo. The House of Representative impeaches the President.

1999. Senate defeats CTBT. Technical problems turn "3 + 3" into "4 + 5" putting the Deployment Readiness Review decision in the middle of another presidential campaign year. New National Intelligence Estimate in October adopts Rumsfeld lowered standards for predicting threat emergence. Perception of success of first NMD intercept test in October leads to Secretary of Defense Cohen call for decision to deploy system. (For a critique of the national intelligence estimate and an independent assessment of the declining ballistic missile threat, see, Joseph Cirincione, "Assessing the Ballistic Missile Threat," Testimony to Committee on Government Affairs, United States Senate, February 2000.


Joseph Cirincione is Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He is editor of the new book, Repairing the Regime: Preventing the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction (Routledge, 2000).