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Dateline: The Politics of the ABM Treaty

President Bush announced earlier this month that the United States would formally withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty. Supporters of the decision say the treaty is a relic of the Cold War and impedes American development of a missile defense system. Opponents say withdrawal from the ABM Treaty will adversely affect relations with Russia and China as well as undermine efforts to curb the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. And, they argue that in any case, an effective missile defense system is, at best, many years away.

In this edition of Dateline, Carol Castiel examines the politics of the ABM Treaty withdrawal.

For almost 30 years, the ABM Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union preserved nuclear deterrence. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union ten years ago, the U.S.-Russian relationship has evolved into one based more on cooperation than confrontation.

In announcing American withdrawal from the ABM treaty, President Bush underscored that shift. "The 1972 ABM Treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at a much different time, in a vastly different world. One of the signatories, the Soviet Union, no longer exists, and neither does the hostility that once led both our countries to keep thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert pointed at each other," he said.

During a series of meetings over the past few months, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin have outlined a framework for a new strategic relationship that calls for a major, mutual reduction of offensive nuclear weapons. A formal agreement ratifying such a cutback is supposed to be signed within the next six months.

Jack Spencer, a national security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, favors scrapping the ABM treaty not only because of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, but also to facilitate development of a U.S. missile defense system. "The ABM treaty prevented us from deploying a missile defense system to protect us from a very real threat that's existing today and continues to grow and that's the threat of ballistic missiles in the hands of third world rogue nations, whatever you want to call them," he said. "Often these are the same countries who also involved in harboring terrorists. And the second reason just as important is that this really is a relic of the Cold War. It really prevented the United States and Russia from really moving beyond or from progressing to the next level of our relationship because it was so rooted in the Cold War. It was developed to maintain an adversarial relationship 30 years ago between two powers who had literally thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other and it was an attempt to stabilize that relationship. But the international environment has changed so much that I think it was really necessary to get beyond this treaty."

However, Joe Cirincione, Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disagrees. He said building a missile defense system will trigger rather than deter an arms race. "If one country erects a strategic defensive force, the other nation, whether it's the United States, Russia or China has got to plan to increase their offensive forces to counter that defense," he said. "So you're forcing the other side to deploy more nuclear weapons than they otherwise would to take measures to defeat your system to enter into this hostile relationship. It's not a relic of the Cold War, it's a relic of the nuclear age."

In addition, Mr. Cirincione seriously doubts that a missile defense system would be either technically feasible or cost-effective. "Since the President made his withdrawal announcement, there has been a major failure of the booster that has been designed to launch an interceptor into space setting that program back years," he said. "The Navy announced the cancellation of its near-term short-range defense system because it's two years behind schedule and 100 percent over budget, and the House of Representatives killed one of the major satellite sensor programs without which a national missile defense can't work because it was years behind schedule, way over budget, showed no technological possibility of working. This program is beset with immense, technical and budgetary challenges. It's unlikely that we are ever going to have a missile defense system, certainly not an effective one in the next 10 years."

Mr. Cirincione also said that withdrawing from the ABM treaty not only imperils U.S.-Russian and U.S.- Chinese relations but also undermines the concept of international treaties. "This is the first time that any country has withdrawn from a major security agreement since the end of World War II. This action cheapens the currency of international treaties and makes it more likely that other countries will withdraw from agreements that they find inconvenient," he said. "There are also very practical consequences. This undermines President Putin at home. Russia's protests haven't been very strong. Putin can't admit that he's suffered a defeat here. But, the criticism has been scathing not just from the military and security apparatus, but from members of his own alliance in the Duma. The Chinese so far have reacted calmly and quietly to this but this is certain to affect their military plans. They're already engaged in strategic modernization. They're improving their nuclear forces. Any Chinese leader is now gonna have to calculate that the US will deploy a missile defense system and therefore it will have to react accordingly, increasing the pace and number of nuclear weapons that it's likely to deploy." But, Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation is more concerned about what he calls rogue states than about China. He cites media and intelligence reports indicating that Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Syria are conducting ballistic missile tests. Mr. Spencer contends that the lack of an American missile defense system actually stimulates proliferation of ballistic missiles. "These countries have been trying to get this capability for the last 10 or 15 years," he said. "Countries like North Korea may actually have this capability to reach the United States with a ballistic missile. So, the fact of the matter is, the arms race was ongoing and in fact I believe what stimulated the arms race was America's policy of vulnerability to this one single weapon. So, I think actually our vulnerability stimulated the arms race, certainly in the third world, and by stating a commitment and building a missile defense, I think we will actually stymie the proliferation of ballistic missiles." It's clear that the Bush administration decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty has sparked a wider ideological debate about the nature of threats to American national security. It has also revived the controversy over whether a missile defense system deters or encourages development of ballistic missile technology by this country's adversaries. Moreover, the decision appears to pit those in favor of abandoning international treaties against those who want to preserve them.

For example, Jack Spencer, along with many on the political right, hopes the ABM withdrawal sets a precedent with respect to all international treaties. "I hope it sets the precedent that treaties should not be the objective of any international relations," he said. "Treaties should be a means to an end. The reason for a treaty is to receive greater security or to achieve something else. Too often, and there's no better example of this than the ABM treaty, the treaty itself becomes the end regardless of how historically irrelevant it is, regardless of how much things have changed. The treaty, certainly in this case, became the objective."

Joe Cirincione and those on the political left believe this position is merely a pretext for unilateral behavior by the United States. And, they see it as an excuse to build a missile defense system. "I believe that this administration feels that it can pretty much do whatever it wants right now," he said. "It's filled with senior officials who disdain the treaty regime that the president's predecessors labored for years to erect. They think U.S. security is best protected through force of arms not through what they call pieces of paper." The long-term impact of American withdrawal from the ABM treaty is as yet unknown. Will it deter an arms race because it facilitates construction of a U.S. missile defense system? Or will it encourage nuclear proliferation and hurt U.S.- multilateral relations? And how will the U.S. Congress respond next year when faced with administration requests for increased funding for missile defense? Only one thing is certain, the debate over ramifications of U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty is far from over.