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In Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, World Policy Institute Senior Fellow Ian Bremmer illustrates a historic shift in the international system and the world economy—and an unprecedented moment of global uncertainty.
By Elizabeth Pond
When President Barack Obama shortly orders his generals to implement the latest Nuclear Posture Review, he should rethink Washington's planned defense against rogue-state missiles.
At best, a more modest and supple missile defense might rescue the defunct "reset" of Russian-American relations, restore impetus to Obama's stalled drive for further cuts in global nuclear arsenals, and perhaps even incubate a "Euro-Atlantic Security Community." At a minimum, a new approach could help rationalize the United States' own forces and free some of the $150 billion missile-defense budget for more urgent military priorities.
The need for a rethink follows from the new nature of 21st century threats. By now the West deems its old foe of Russia less a danger than a nuisance. Ever since Mosow pulled back its 20-odd top divisions from Central Europe in the 1990s and grudgingly let its former client states there join the NATO alliance, the West no longer fears that Russia might attack Western Europe with superior ground forces—and that conventional war might then escalate unintentionally to nuclear war.
Today, by contrast, the West sees peril in nuclear-armed failed, failing, or fanatical states, or even non-state terrorists who could one day acquire nuclear weapons and embrace martyrdom by launching them and accepting a devastating response. In the fluid 21st century, the United States does not regard nuclear-armed North Korea or nuclear aspirant Iran (or, sotto voce, a nuclear-armed Pakistan that might be captured by Islamist extremists) as rational actors who would be deterred by the superpowers' 20th century certainty of mutual suicide in any resort to nuclear weapons.
On taking office, Obama calculated that Moscow would therefore have as much interest as Washington in preventing chaotic nuclear proliferation, especially in view of violent Islamist secessionist movements in Russia's Caucasus. He therefore sought to reset strained bilateral relations by means of the 2010 New START bilateral agreement cutting both countries' huge nuclear stocks. He further stepped up efforts at bilateral cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation and a missile defense that could defend the US, its allies, and even Russia against the few nuclear-tipped missiles that any outlaw regimes might muster.
Obama endorsed the declared assumption of George W. Bush's administration that an elementary missile defense could deter rogue states from firing nuclear weapons at the United States, Western Europe, Russia, or Israel—and the undeclared assumption that it could also help deter Israel from making a preemptive strike at Iranian nuclear development sites. But he reconfigured his predecessor's blueprint in order to allay Moscow's concerns that the nascent Western missile defense might one day surge in quantity and quality and be turned against Russia.
Initially, Russia welcomed Obama's decision to scrap Bush's planned radar site in the Czech Republic and postpone any deployment of future high-speed SM-3 Block IIB missile interceptors until after 2020. Moscow later hardened its position, however—especially after NATO adopted the U.S. missile defense project as its own in late 2010—to demand a binding guarantee that the resulting system would not be directed against Russia's nuclear deterrent. American negotiators gave political assurances to this end, but rejected a legal guarantee. And starting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, they dismissed as "ludicrous" Russia's angst that a few dozen U.S. kinetic kill vehicles in Europe might devalue Russia's 1,550 strategic warheads.
In recent months the bilateral impasse has been aggravated by the anti-American rhetoric of President redux Vladimir Putin and by a warning from Russia's Chief of the General Staff that Russia might resort to a preemptive strike on European missile defense bases. Part of Moscow's intransigence arises from Moscow's humiliating loss of superpower status except in nuclear weapons, part from the prospect of having NATO interceptor missiles based in its neighbor and former client state of Poland, and part from the reversal of its overwhelming cold-war conventional military superiority in Europe to overwhelming Western conventional superiority today.
Yet Russia has analytical as well as psychological grounds for concern. It fears that ongoing US missile defense deployments are only, as President Bush's original National Security Directive 23 described them, "a starting point for ﬁelding improved and expanded missile defenses later." Moscow wants to avert any augmentation after 2020 of vastly improved US radar and infrared sensors, along with any breakout of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors with a velocity above the critical five kilometers per second on both European land sites and American Aegis cruisers in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In the worst-case scenario, Russia fears some ultimate marrying up of NATO European deployments with America's domestic ground missile defense and Aegis-class cruisers and perhaps even with future space-based command and control. It agreed only reluctantly in 2010 to the bilateral New START ceilings on strategic nuclear warheads, which did little more than codify cuts the Russians had already planned for domestic reasons. In the absence of any hedge against U.S. breakout, it will certainly balk at deeper cuts that in theory could make its nuclear deterrent vulnerable to a comprehensive missile defense. Such a global constellation could destabilize the perceived offensive-defensive nuclear balance, invite mutual misreadings of the adversary's intent, and trigger a dodgy and expensive new arms race.
On the presumption that the U.S. goal is indeed what Washington claims—not a front for an eventual global missile defense that might tip the bilateral nuclear balance against Russia, but a prudent measure to deny erratic North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan any political leverage from possession of nuclear weapons—various non-governmental groups have tried to draw up compromise proposals for a new Russian-American understanding on missile defense. Steven Pifer at the Brookings Institution has advanced one possible approach in an initial four-year-long confidence-building agreement that would not necessarily require a formal treaty.
For its part, the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI) team under former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and Chairman of the Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger has brought American, Russian, and European experts together to outline concrete technical architecture for Russian-Western cooperation on the issue up to 2020. At their most visionary, the Carnegie Endowment-sponsored EASI participants hope that such interim cooperation could be a game-changer and lay the foundation for an eventual reshaping of a world order that would escape both cold-war anachronism and an international law of the jungle.
Characteristic of these and other Track II proposals are common threat assessments, transparency, pooling of relevant warning data showing regional launches of ballistic missiles, joint command-post exercises and reciprocal observance of interceptor tests, preservation of each party's command and operational sovereignty, confidentiality of "sensitive technologies such as hit-to-kill and advanced radar algorithisms," step-by-step pragmatism—and skepticism about reliance on drawing-board interceptors that so far have not been tested under realistic conditions.
Given official preoccupation with the never-ending financial crisis and the U.S. election campaign, these proposals have found no political resonance. But if Obama is reelected, he should take them as rough roadmaps for continuing to reduce the residual risk of Armageddon.
And if Mitt Romney is elected, he should do the same. After all, the landmark American-Soviet arms-control treaties of the 20th century—on the Nixon-to-China paradigm—were signed by Republican presidents.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Friendly Fire: The Near-Death of the Transatlantic Alliance.