Missile Defense and the Geopolitics of Proliferation

A demonstrator carries a banner during a protest march in May 2007 in downtown Prague against a possible location of a U.S. missile defense radar system in the Czech Republic. (Petr David Josek/AP)

President Obama's decision to scrap a missile defense system has prompted questions about the motives and speculation about the consequences. We asked for a perspective from Thomas Graham, Jr., coauthor with Keith Hansen of "Preventing Catastrophe: The Use and Misuse of Intelligence in Efforts to Halt the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction," published last month by Stanford University Press. Graham is a former special representative of the president for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament.

GUEST BLOGGER: Thomas Graham, Jr.

Missile defense has had a long and tumultuous history in the United States. First, in the mid-1960s there was the plan to defend US cities against Soviet strategic missiles. That plan lasted only a short while until Americans across the country made it clear that they did not want nuclear tipped anti-missile missiles in their backyards.

Subsequent proposals later in the Johnson administration and in the Nixon administration likewise went nowhere.

In 1983, moving away from missile defense systems that utilized nuclear armed interceptors, President Reagan proposed a system based on futuristic, non-nuclear technology, such as lasers and particle beams declaring that it would create an impermeable shield that would protect the nation from Soviet missiles. This system was never deployed and since that time missile defense has always been more about international politics than military utility.

After 1983, missile defense plans came and went under subsequent Presidents, none successful.

Toward the end of the 1990s, another idea emerged of a limited system which might provide a defense against the launch of perhaps a single missile by North Korea. In 2002 the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and deployed missile interceptors in Alaska and California with this limited objective in mind.

Then President Bush decided to seek the deployment of such a limited system in Poland, with accompanying radars in the Czech Republic, to defend against the eventual development by Iran of long-range nuclear capable missiles. Russia strongly objected to this plan, claiming that the system eventually could be utilized to assist a U.S. first strike.

President Obama has now canceled the Eastern European plan on the ground that an Iranian long-range nuclear capable missile is nowhere in sight and that instead the U.S. should deploy a shorter range missile interceptor near Iran to defend against an emerging Iranian medium range missile threat.

Some have said that this change is an unwise concession to Russia. But it is difficult to understand why it is a concession to put aside a missile defense system designed for an obsolete threat while at the same time going forward with a system designed to counter a real and emerging threat.

Perhaps the most serious national security challenge that the United States faces is the very real risk that nuclear weapons will spread more widely across the world. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has reasonably well held the line against nuclear weapons proliferation for 40 years but is declining in effectiveness.

Some experts believe that the world could be on the verge of a new wave of nuclear weapon proliferation which would create such a security nightmare that today's dangerous world would seem like paradise by comparison. In order to prevent such a disastrous development, close cooperation between the U.S. and Russia--the two states that hold 95 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world--is essential.

But in recent years this has not been possible, U.S.-Russia relations have been in a bad place. Russians have many complaints about the United States, such as U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the invasion of Iraq and NATO expansion up to their border. The deployment of a U.S missile defense system in Eastern Europe to some extent has come to symbolize this list of grievances about which Russia has appeared to have become somewhat "paranoid."

The Obama administration wants to "reset" its relationship with Russia in order to strengthen U.S. national security and to have a chance to prevent the danger of future nuclear weapon proliferation. The decision that the Obama administration has made is more realistic with respect to the Iranian missile threat but perhaps more importantly it reopens the door to a real strategic dialogue with Russia, the key to international stability in the past, today, and in the future.

By Steven E. Levingston |  September 22, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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no mention of israel?

Posted by: sanderblome | September 22, 2009 12:10 PM

If the Europeans want and need protection from Iranian threats they should buy and install their own anti-missile system. When our country become within range of Iranians missiles we should install more GBM sites in-country in addition to those already in Ft Greely AK, and Vandenberg, CA.

Why are Republicans always so dogmatic and confrontational? We should not allow Russia to reestablish Soviet boundaries, but, as the author suggests, a greater thread looms; we need Russian cooperation.

Posted by: 1234xyz | September 22, 2009 3:04 PM

Is there any chance in hell that Levingston will ever offer space on his blog to a conservative? Of his last posts, he's had Carter and Clinton's arms control negotiator, he's had two professors supporters Jimmy Carter's idiotic claims (but yet there's no mention of Carter's anti-Semitism); and offer the authors' of book about how to help Obama a chance to claim they are non-partisan.

Why not give both sides a chance to present their views?

Posted by: alvint | September 22, 2009 4:27 PM

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