Go slow on defenses, negotiate any deployments, and devalue nuclear weapons. That was the message Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell sent at his December 16 press conference. For those who have pushed to abrogate the ABM Treaty and for a crash program to deploy national missile defenses, it was not welcome news.

Many commentators have predicted that national missile defense would be an early crisis confronting the administration. However there are no decisions officials confront on defenses early in the year that would force such a crisis. On the contrary, all signs point to a protracted process, at least until the promised strategic review is completed late next year. Colin Powell is one of several Bush advisors notably restrained on missile defenses. He made four key points in his brief remarks to reporters on December 16 in Texas.

First, rather than elevate the importance of a national missile defense he placed them as "an essential part of our overall strategic force posture, which consists of offensive weapons, command and control systems, intelligence systems and a national missile defense." He then added an oft-forgotten goal of any defenses: "I still hearken back to the original purpose of such a defense, and that is to start diminishing the value of offensive weapons.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other missile defense proponents hold that the technology now exists for an effective defense; all that has been holding the US back is the political will to deploy. Powell is more cautious, saying that the next secretary of defense would, "make a full assessment of the state of technology--where are we, what can we accomplish--and structure a plan." He clearly wants to go forward, but not without negotiations with US allies, Russia and perhaps China. "We have to spend time discussing it with our allies," he said, "discussing it with other nations in the world that possess strategic offensive weapons and don't yet understand our thinking with respect to national missile defense. These will be tough negotiations; I don't expect them to be easy."

Powell returned to his theme of reducing the value of nuclear weapons as he closed his brief remarks. Defenses in his view are not simply about providing a shield against nuclear blackmail, but part of an effort "to finally start to move in the direction where we can take away the currency associated with strategic offensive weapons." As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Powell designed and implemented the last fundamental revision in US nuclear posture in 1991, withdrawing and de-alerting thousands of nuclear weapons. By comparison, the Clinton administration 1994 Nuclear Posture Review made minor policy adjustments.

If Powell's role in the new administration is as influential as many believe, it may mean more dramatic changes in both the number and rational for the 7,200 strategic nuclear weapons now deployed in U.S. bases around the country.