President Clinton can expect to have a hard time convincing Russia that the National Missile Defense system the United States is thinking about building poses no threat to Russian security, and he has also found deep doubts about the project among America's closest allies.
Meeting with European Union leaders as he makes his way toward Moscow and weekend talks with President Vladimir V. Putin, Clinton has heard the same concerns voiced that the CIA is reportedly going to raise in an intelligence estimate being prepared for the president.
The main concern is that rather than strengthening national security, NMD could instead prove to be a destabilizing factor, encouraging nuclear proliferation and igniting a costly new arms race. Even Clinton's proposal to share antimissile technology with other "civilized nations"--assuming that the technology can be shown to work--is unlikely to ease doubts about its security value.
The key deterrent to a Soviet-U.S. nuclear exchange throughout the Cold War was a shared recognition that each side was capable of destroying the other. Each understood that in a nuclear conflict there would be no victor, probably even no survivor. What came to be called the doctrine of mutual assured destruction--MAD, an apt acronym--paradoxically proved stabilizing. And the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between Moscow and Washington was a key part of the process.
The ABM treaty banned deployment of a national missile defense. It implicitly recognized that even the most costly and elaborate antimissile system could be penetrated if enough missiles were launched against it. That conclusion is no less valid today. Any NMD, whether consisting of 100 interceptor missiles or the much greater number that some U.S. conservatives are urging, would provide Russia with an incentive not to reduce its nuclear arsenal and China with an inducement to greatly expand what until now has been a puny missile force.
Most U.S. proponents of NMD argue that it's not meant to protect against Russia or China but rather a limited attack from North Korea, Iran or Iraq, "states of concern," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright now describes them. A few years ago, when it was feared that North Korea and Iran might be making rapid progress in developing missiles and nuclear weapons, that worry seemed plausible. But those concerns have abated considerably. It's unlikely that any country would invite obliteration by attacking the United States with missile-mounted weapons of mass destruction. Leaders of these states may sometimes behave provocatively, but none seem inclined to commit national suicide.
The potential threat does not present an urgency or magnitude to justify a problematical $60-billion investment or the destabilizing strategic consequences of thrusting ahead. The Clinton administration, Congress and the presidential candidates would all be wise to reconsider their embrace of this dubious and dangerous project.