Missile Defense: A Tricky Course

President Bush succeeded in getting his proposal for a missile defense system off to a good start. He presented his radical shift in national security policy within a framework of multilateral consultation with allies and promised negotiations with Russia and China. He linked missile defense to a sharp cutback in the number of strategic nuclear warheads held by the U.S. and Russia. And he articulated the goal for missile defense correctly as serving to "strengthen global security and stability."

But the stakes are enormously high in changing security policy at this time. The Bush plan would breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of U.S.-Russia relations. The new system would begin to be deployed well before any of the technologies behind the land, sea, and air-based anti-missile weapons are fully tested. And it could antagonize far more friends and allies than the handful of rogue states it targets. Indeed, ballistic missiles may not be the worst threat from Iraq, Libya, or North Korea. Suitcase nukes or biological weapons carried into U.S. cities may pose more danger.

Europe has expressed great skepticism about any kind of Star Wars-type defense shield, arguing that it could trigger another arms race. And Russia has denounced any unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty. The greatest danger may come from China which could feel the most threatened by a U.S. missile shield, especially a sea-based, forward system that sits off its shore. China only has about 20 Sixties-era ballistic missiles, each carrying a single warhead. Russia and the U.S. have hundreds of missiles carrying thousands of warheads. China could respond by building a large, modern ballistic missile force. That, in turn, could set off a nuclear arms race that includes India, Pakistan, perhaps even Japan, and destabalize the entire Pacific region.

Unless properly negotiated, a U.S. missile-defense system would also strengthen the hand of the military and political hard-liners in China at a time of transition. China is about to enter the World Trade Organization, and it is opening its economy wide to global investment. One-party dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan eventually evolved into market democracies. China could take that route--or remain authoritarian. No one yet knows, but relations with the U.S. will undoubtedly play a role.

President Bush called Russian Premier Vladimir Putin before announcing his plan, inviting him to work together on anti-missile defense. That is the correct approach. If he can negotiate a deal with Russia to join in missile defense, he can get the Europeans to agree to the plan. And that would go a long way toward enhancing the safety and security of the world. But Bush did not make a similar call to Chinese Prime Minister Jiang Zemin. If his missile defense plan makes new enemies and generates nuclear turmoil in Asia, it will not succeed despite the President's good intentions.

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