To limit—or expand—missile defense

Since 2002, when the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the international arms control regime has included no limits on missile defense. Washington wants to keep it that way, insisting that it "will continue to reject any negotiated restraints on US ballistic missile defenses." Many experts believe that missile defense undermines strategic stability; but some argue that missile defense can play a role in denuclearization. Below, authors from China, Russia, and Romania debate whether arms control arrangements should include limits on missile defense—or whether advances in missile defense should be encouraged because they might contribute to disarmament.

Round 1

Missile defense in the eye of the beholder

Fortunately, only limited empirical evidence is available regarding nuclear weapons' effectiveness as instruments of foreign policy. This means that assessments of nuclear policy are grounded deeply in theory—and that one's views on missile defense are heavily influenced by theoretical assumptions.

But views on missile defense also depend on personal allegiances. I am a native of Romania, a second-tier US ally in Europe, so I will tend to support viewpoints that align with the interests of Romania and similar nations. I will judge theoretical approaches to missile defense in light of their implications for my own country. I believe debates over nuclear weapons and missile defense can best be understood within frameworks that emphasize disarmament, stability, or national supremacy. Which aligns best with my own allegiances?

The disarmers. Advocates for disarmament come in at least two varieties—those who reject nuclear weapons' ability to deter and constrain, and those who accept it. People in the first camp dismiss the idea that nuclear weapons can allow cooler heads to prevail. They believe instead that nuclear weapons are bound to cause miscalculation and war. Though missile defenses could potentially be used to enforce compliance in a denuclearized world, people in this first camp believe that missile defenses only distract from abolition efforts and render an already unstable world even more dangerous.

The second camp accepts the idea that nuclear weapons perform a restraining function, but believes that this benefit is outweighed by associated risks like accidental use or nuclear security hazards. Most who hold this viewpoint, though they might once have hoped to reform the current global security architecture in order to enable disarmament, have abandoned this ambition. They now hope that nuclear-armed states will recognize the risks inherent in weapons possession and proceed toward abolition. In such a scenario, conscientious governments might cooperate to establish a global missile defense system that would make nuclear-armed missiles obsolete. Thus the last nuclear holdouts could be persuaded to disarm.

At first glance, disarmers' arguments are appealing. Any use of nuclear weapons would surely have catastrophic consequences for the whole world. But with much of the planet relying on nuclear weapons for security in one way or another—and with no serious discussions under way to reform the current global security architecture—abolition remains little more than pie in the sky, no matter how desirable a goal it might be. So missile defenses must be assessed within the competitive international system that currently exists, not within a hypothetical world of enlightened governments. There is little reason to believe that any state would give up its hard-won advantages in missile defense technology or acquiesce to a truly cooperative system.

Stability seekers. The theoretical approach of stabilizers, meanwhile, is characterized by valuing the status quo and seeking to maintain it in perpetuity. Stabilizers abhor interstate conflict. They contend that in a nuclear-armed world, it is more imperative than ever that all nations employ military force only to ensure their physical security from foreign aggression. Stabilizers aim to prevent security dilemmas and thereby help avert wars. Some stabilizers would welcome nuclear abolition but assess the current prospects for disarmament as gloomy—they hope a step-by-step process will produce the desired result. Other stabilizers accept the notion that nuclear weapons are generally stabilizing, and they are willing to live with the weapons' inherent risks. But all stabilizers disapprove of challenges to the current international order.

According to stabilizers, missile defenses are both pointless and perilous. They are pointless because the overwhelming conventional and nuclear capabilities of the dominant states can deter proliferators from adventurism. Though emerging nuclear powers can inoculate themselves from invasion, they cannot coerce others into submission; they know that launching a nuclear attack would invite overwhelming punitive action. Missile defenses are perilous, meanwhile, because they can destabilize relations among great powers. If a nuclear power fears that most of its missiles could be destroyed in a first strike and the remainder intercepted by missile defenses, it will build a larger arsenal and develop its own defensive capabilities.

Stabilizers'arguments seem very reasonable from the perspective of second-tier US allies in Europe. These countries have benefitted from an unassailable US security umbrella. The resulting peace and predictability have allowed economic growth and relative prosperity. The adventurism of new nuclear powers far from European shores seems a manageable problem to nations such as Romania. It is conflict between great powers that seems threatening to them. Admittedly, some of the tension between the United States and Russia concerns missile defense. But missile defense may be only a symptom of larger disagreements between the two nations. If that's the case, banning missile defense would achieve little. US-Russia tensions would simply erupt in some other arena.

Supreme interests. Supremacists, on the other hand, are focused on furthering the well-being of their own nations by all means available. They see the world as something to be made secure for the pursuit of their interests. Stability is valuable if the status quo happens to be favorable—but if it is not, circumstances can be adjusted through the exercise of power. Though the toolbox of power contains many instruments, the ability to menace others is paramount. Tinkering with military power in a nuclear environment is surely dangerous, and an escalatory spiral is always a possibility. Supremacists, however, are comfortable leaving something to chance.

To supremacists, missile defenses are therefore useful. To be sure, stronger states can usually deter weaker nuclear states from reckless behavior. But if the preferences of dominant states collide with the fundamental interests of weaker ones, the result is an imbalance in stakes that might prevent the powerful from strong-arming the weak. A reasonably well-functioning missile defense system could provide the antidote to this problem. It would render uncertain the weaker state's ability to strike the stronger one and—along with the stronger state's ability to inflict colossal punishment—would strengthen the coercive hand of the mighty. Though missile defense might distress other great powers, it can also force them to divert scarce resources to safeguarding their nuclear deterrents. This will weaken their power in other areas.

Supremacists' arguments seem unworthy of support (except perhaps for citizens of supremacist countries). Still, from a Romanian perspective, the current US-dominated international order is very positive. However, it seems a daring bet to assume that the current international order—so favorable for my own interests—can be maintained in perpetuity without conflict. A global economic realignment is under way, and rising powers will soon demand their place in the sun. What is the best way to ensure that any transformation away from the current order is slow and non-disruptive? Will reliance on military prowess enable such a transformation, or will it only lead to war and destruction? This is a crucial question.

The current missile defense deployments of the United States are limited and toothless. Yet they serve the interests of US allies well. They represent an American trip wire, one that reassures elites in many countries that Washington is guarding their security. Whether the deployment of full-fledged defenses would further or harm the interests of US allies remains hard to tell. Then again, considering the poor performance of US missile defense in many recent tests, such full-fledged defenses might never become reality.

Avoiding renewed arms races

Should arms control arrangements include limits on missile defense? They used to—under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The treaty included limits only on strategic ballistic missile defense, not on regional or theater ballistic missile defense, but nonetheless it contributed to strategic stability. When the United States withdrew from the treaty in 2002, and began in 2004 to deploy missile defense capabilities that would not have been permitted before withdrawal, chances increased that a new nuclear arms race would emerge.

Since the termination of the treaty, Russia has embarked on a deep modernization of its own A-135 system for ballistic missile defense, presumably with a view to giving it a more layered structure. But Russia’s system is operational only around Moscow, and though it is capable of intercepting single or perhaps multiple ballistic missiles, it would be rather ineffective against a massive missile attack. Russia, unlike the United States, has no plans to extend its ballistic missile defense system worldwide.

The United States has already begun to deploy basic elements of what might become a global missile defense system. These include a variety of means for intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range air-launched cruise missiles—as well as medium- and short-range ballistic missiles. The US system’s capabilities are still limited. But if the number of interceptors were increased, and their performance were enhanced, significant challenges would be posed for international stability and security.

Regional powers, notably Russia and China, are deeply concerned by US plans to deploy elements of missile defense systems in locations around the world. For instance, George W. Bush’s plans to create a "third site" in Poland and the Czech Republic threatened to create a crisis in US-Russia relations. The crisis was averted only when the Obama administration abandoned Bush’s plans in 2009, opting instead to pursue a "phased adaptive approach"—basically, countering known missile threats through existing means while also pursuing new technologies to counter threats that might develop in the future. Still, Moscow believes that Europe-based elements of the US missile defense system are directed against Russia, even if Washington denies it. Russia’s concerns have not been alleviated by recent reports that some NATO countries are calling for the European missile defense system to be formally directed against Moscow.

It appears that the United States may also establish a regional missile defense system in Asia—an Asia-Pacific Phased Adaptive Approach—which would entail cooperation from Japan, South Korea, and other countries in the region. It would be a layered system whose first tier would include offshore combat ships armed to intercept ballistic missiles at the boost stage, or early in the midcourse of their flight trajectories. Ground-based systems would provide a second tier. Officially, such a system would protect US and allied troops and military facilities in the Asia-Pacific region from ballistic missiles launched by states such as North Korea. But China views such plans with concern, and it would be no surprise if Beijing took countermeasures against the deployment of such a system. The region’s strategic balance would be upset under such a scenario, efforts to achieve arms reductions would be hindered, and an arms race would become more likely.

But the greatest threat associated with US ballistic missile defense would be posed by the deployment of space-based capabilities. If Washington makes a political decision to deploy space-based weapons to intercept ballistic missiles, the militarization of outer space would become inevitable. The international community would be forced to stop complying with the Outer Space Treaty. The resulting arms race in space would have unpredictable consequences and would undermine the foundations of strategic stability.

Few alternatives. Given all this, it is essential that limits be placed on ballistic missile defense within the framework of the international arms control regime. What alternatives to such an approach exist? Only two. First, missile defense could be transformed into a cooperative undertaking­—something that Russia has proposed to the United States repeatedly, but to no avail. Second, nuclear powers could engage in a renewed arms race. Russian experts are already arguing that, in response to the US deployment of a global missile defense system, Moscow should withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and resume production of intermediate and short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. (The US government, meanwhile, argues that Russia has already violated that treaty.)

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is among the top priorities on the international security agenda. It is high on the agendas of many individual countries as well. But enforcing the international nonproliferation regime will be difficult if the unrestricted development of missile defense systems leads nuclear weapon states to engage in a renewed arms race of their own. A first practical step toward averting this outcome would be to address missile defense in the next stage of US-Russia arms control negotiations.

No stability without limits on missile defense

Analysts have been discussing missile defense and its potential impact on strategic stability since the 1960s, and a basic insight that emerged decades ago still pertains today. If a nuclear-armed nation can develop a missile defense system capable of neutralizing a second nation's capacity for nuclear retaliation, the first nation's incentives for launching an initial strike will increase.

This would undermine strategic stability—so nuclear-armed states must refrain from building missile defense systems that cover their entire territories and populations. Indeed, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty), a cornerstone of arms control during the Cold War, prohibited the deployment of antiballistic missile systems except around national capitals and around silo launchers for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unfortunately, the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and began to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in 2004. This has prompted serious concerns in China and Russia.

The concern springs not so much from the current US architecture for ballistic missile defense, which is small in scale and not very effective, but rather from what US missile defense might become. Today, the United States maintains 30 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California. This number is slated to increase to 44 by 2017, but even a system of that size will be incapable of neutralizing a Russian retaliatory attack. It will also be incapable of neutralizing China's nuclear deterrent. But that might change if the system displayed greater effectiveness—something the United States is working hard to achieve.

Discriminating between real warheads and decoys is the greatest challenge facing systems for midcourse missile defense. To address this challenge, the United States is deploying X-band radar in Japan and possibly in South Korea. It is constructing a new land-based X-band radar. It is developing a new "kill vehicle"—the segment of an interceptor that actually destroys a missile—that will be capable of transmitting photographs. This will help the United States implement a firing doctrine, known as shoot-look-shoot, which involves firing an interceptor, waiting to see if it has destroyed its target, and firing again if necessary. If the United States can improve its discrimination capabilities sufficiently through measures such as these, neutralizing China and Russia's nuclear deterrents will simply be a matter of deploying enough interceptors.

The United States maintains that its homeland ballistic missile defense system is intended only to guard against threats from North Korea and Iran, not from China or Russia. But if the system's purpose is really so limited, Washington should accept limits on its missile defenses. It refuses to do so. Russia has requested that the United States provide legal guarantees that its interceptors will not target Russia's strategic missiles. It has requested military-technical guarantees that a European-based missile defense system cannot neutralize Russia's strategic missiles. It has suggested that a system be established allowing NATO and Russia to exercise joint control over the launch of interceptors. The United States has resisted all these proposals, and it seems unlikely that Russia and the United States will reach a deal on missile defense in the near future. To Russia—and to China, for that matter—Washington's refusal to accept limits on its missile defense suggests that the system holds underlying potential to neutralize Russia and China's nuclear deterrents. It also suggests that the Obama administration wants to provide future administrations with the flexibility to harness this potential.

Contradictory policy. An open-ended US commitment to ballistic missile defense will hinder the global disarmament process and perhaps even trigger a renewed nuclear arms race. In particular it will be very difficult to persuade Russia, as long as the future of missile defense remains unpredictable, that strategic stability can be maintained with nuclear arsenals reduced to low levels. Moscow is already skeptical about nuclear reductions because of the US capability to launch precision conventional strikes, as well as Washington's commitment to qualitatively enhancing its offensive nuclear forces even as it quantitatively shrinks its arsenal.

From China's perspective, things look even worse. China's modest nuclear arsenal could be neutralized even by a small-scale US ballistic missile defense system—as long as the system were sufficiently effective. If China's leaders come to believe that the US missile defense system can neutralize Beijing's deterrent, they may well decide to construct more nuclear weapons to restore strategic stability. The result would be a defense-offense arms race.

The Obama administration is pursuing a contradictory nuclear policy. On one hand, the administration insists that it "will continue to reject any negotiated restraints on US ballistic missile defenses." On the other hand, it expresses a desire to maintain strategic stability with China and Russia, carry out further reductions in nuclear stockpiles, and work toward a world without nuclear weapons. The paradox is that Washington's refusal to accept limits on missile defense makes the administration's other goals unachievable. Maintaining strategic stability and making progress toward disarmament both require the United States to accept limits on its missile defenses—and also require it to demonstrate that its missile defenses are capable of countering threats only from North Korea and Iran—not from China and Russia.

Future arms control arrangements must include limits on missile defense. Given US concerns about missile threats from countries such as Iran and North Korea, it seems impractical simply to resuscitate the ABM Treaty and try to “uninvent” US homeland missile defense. But limits on strategic defensive capabilities must be embedded in any future agreements on strategic offensive weapons. If Russia and the United States negotiate further treaties to reduce nuclear arsenals, limits on missile defense must be an element. And if the United States expects China not to expand its nuclear arsenal, it must give China assurances that the effectiveness of its missile defense system will remain at a modest level—robust enough to counter the simple intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea or Iran might fire, but unable to contend with China’s sophisticated missiles. As a first step, the United States must express a political willingness to accept limits on missile defense. This is a precondition for any serious arms control dialogue going forward.

Round 2

Strategic stability and arms control: Not sacred

Underpinning the missile-defense arguments of my roundtable colleagues Wu Riqiang and Tatiana Anichkina are a core belief in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence and a core interest in preserving the nuclear status quo. They hope to maintain an environment in which mutual assured destruction, otherwise known as "strategic stability," prevents the United States from using nuclear weapons to coerce China or Russia into making painful concessions. Wu and Anichkina are true stability seekers of the kind I described in Round One.

Their arguments make sense only within the narrow framework of their own assumptions and longings. Observers with different assumptions—disarmament advocates, or proponents of national supremacy—would simply dismiss their arguments as irrelevant. Convinced disarmers, for example, believe that deterrence does not work. Slight imbalances in nuclear arsenals are meaningless. It's abolition that's important. Supremacists, if they're honest, would admit that nuclear superiority is precisely the aim of effective missile defense. But Wu and Anichkina's arguments suffer from several flaws even within the framework of the authors' assumptions.

My colleagues are correct that, as US missile defenses improve, China and Russia will become more reluctant to reduce their nuclear arsenals. But China's arsenal is small in the first place and Beijing has few options for trimming its forces. Russia also appears to have exhausted many of its arms control options, especially taking into account the overwhelming conventional military superiority of the United States. So US missile defenses seem to provide both China and Russia a convenient excuse for avoiding discussions about nuclear reductions. But in any event, from the perspective of a small, non-nuclear country such as my own, what difference does it make whether Russia can obliterate Romania 1,000 times or 2,000? Why should minute arsenal adjustments among great powers seem truly relevant to Romanians?

Even if all nuclear powers reduced their arsenals, I don't believe that such reductions would ever lead to abolition. But given Wu and Anichkina's assumptions about deterrence, I don't understand why they favor complete nuclear disarmament. Complete disarmament—unless it were accompanied by world government, or unless weaponry of all kinds were abolished—would expose Russia and China to the conventional military superiority of the United States, requiring both nations to divert significant resources to upgrading their armed forces. If Russia and China seek stability, they have no reason to favor nuclear disarmament. Pledges to the contrary are nothing more than public diplomacy.

What of disarmament's relationship to nonproliferation? Anichkina advances the well-known argument that nuclear reductions are necessary if the nonproliferation regime is to be maintained; the regime is needed in turn if proliferation is to be prevented. This logic seems appealing, but little evidence supports it. First, limited nuclear reductions appear to have a very modest impact on the success of the nonproliferation regime. Second, it remains unclear how much credit the regime can claim for stopping proliferation in the past. Finally, much nonproliferation activity is currently occurring outside the regime, often as a result of US efforts. It is therefore far-fetched to argue that everyone opposed to proliferation must oppose US missile defense.

In Round Two, Anichkina argued forcefully that US missile defenses harm US-Russia relations. I don't dispute the fact that US missile defenses are troublesome to many within Russia's strategic and nuclear planning apparatus. Current US missile defense deployments are innocuous, but Russia has good reason to suspect Washington of harboring supremacist intentions. (A close examination of US behavior over the last two decades supports this suspicion.) But Russia has good reason to dislike any US military deployment in Central and Eastern Europe.

Moscow understands, as do the countries where US missile defenses are deployed, that the US presence solidifies the transatlantic alliance and allows host nations to behave in a less accommodating fashion toward Russia. Seen from a broader perspective, the US security guarantees of which missile defense is one component—along with the economic attraction of the European Union—are pulling Central and Eastern European states out of Russia's sphere of influence. Moscow's concerns about losing influence in Europe are legitimate. But if Russia wishes to forestall this trend, it would do better to build a free and prosperous society within its own borders. Bitterly protesting US and Western European encroachment accomplishes little.

Missile defense: The heart of the matter

Liviu Horovitz writes that second-tier US allies in Europe aren’t very concerned about the weapons capabilities of "new nuclear powers." What they fear is conflict between major powers, particularly Russia and the United States. Horovitz recognizes that missile defense can create tensions between great powers, but he concludes—partly on the reasoning that "missile defense may be only a symptom of larger disagreements between [Russia and the United States]"—that US missile defenses "serve the interests of US allies well." But from the Russian perspective, missile defense is by no means a symptom of problems in the US-Russia relationship. It is a fundamental cause of problems in the relationship.

In December 2001, when the United States announced that it would withdraw the next year from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Russian response was relatively muted. Vladimir Putin called the withdrawal an "erroneous" decision, but no crisis resulted—until 2006, when the George W. Bush administration announced plans to locate elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, close to Russia’s borders. This time, Russia’s response was quite negative. Moscow threatened, for example, to deploy short-range nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad.

Washington acknowledged Moscow’s concerns with a few transparency measures. But the United States ultimately declined a Russian proposal, first made in 2007, according to which Washington would have gained access to information provided by Russian radars in Gabala, Azerbaijan and Armavir, Russia in exchange for scrapping its plans to place a radar station and missile interceptors in Eastern Europe. The United States likewise rejected Moscow’s idea for establishing joint data exchange and threat assessment centers. Relations became so strained that bilateral dialogue, including negotiations for New START, very nearly came to a halt.

The situation improved for a while after Barack Obama instituted his "reset" policy, a key element of which was abandoning plans for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. But relations began to suffer again in 2010 when the United States rejected Russia’s "sectoral" approach to building a ballistic missile defense system in Europe. According to this plan, Russia woul­d have taken responsibility for defending against missiles launched toward Europe from the southeast. By November 2011, the situation had deteriorated to the point that then–President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Moscow would take countermeasures enabling Russia to destroy a US ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

All this demonstrates that, to Russia, missile defense isn’t some sideline issue. It’s at the heart of relations with the United States. Moscow sees missile defense as a potential game-changer for strategic stability and international security. And the West’s conduct regarding missile defense is a litmus test for whether Russia will be taken seriously as a partner in the maintenance of European security.

Three’s a crowd. To judge from Wu Riqiang’s first two roundtable essays, missile defense is no peripheral issue for China either.

The world’s number three nuclear power, unlike Russia and the United States, isn’t bound by a bilateral nuclear arms control regime. China continues to build up its nuclear forces, and recently revealed the existence of the Dongfeng-41, a new intercontinental ballistic missile perhaps capable of carrying multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles as far as the United States. "As the [United States] continues to strengthen its missile defense system," a Chinese military analyst recently said, "developing third-generation nuclear weapons capable of carrying multiple warheads is the trend."

Though the official purpose of the US system for ballistic missile defense in Asia is to protect against North Korea’s nuclear weapons, in reality the system seems intended to prevent China from gaining strategic parity with the United States. This means that involving China more closely in the disarmament process, and moving from a bilateral to a multilateral arms control framework, will be quite a daunting prospect—even if the crisis in US-Russia relations can be overcome. Wu is quite correct when he writes that "Washington’s refusal to accept limits on missile defense makes the administration’s [goals in nuclear disarmament] unachievable."

Bad idea for South Korea

US missile defenses serve the interests of US allies well—this is what Liviu Horovitz argued in Round One. Horivitz's argument might be valid for his own nation of Romania and for other countries in Europe. But it is not the case in the Asia-Pacific region and it is certainly not the case for South Korea.

The Asia-Pacific Phased Adaptive Approach, which Tatiana Anichkina discussed in Round One, is a regional missile defense system that the United States envisions creating in Asia. The system would be established through two sets of trilateral dialogues—one involving the United States, Japan, and Australia and the other involving the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The potential involvement of South Korea is a matter of high concern to China. Admittedly, South Korea is an excellent site for missile defense radars intended to monitor North Korean missile launches, but South Korea is also next door to China. Installation of US missile defenses there would intensify Chinese suspicions that Washington's true intentions are to neutralize Beijing's nuclear deterrent.

South Korea is reluctant to integrate its own missile defense system, known as Korean Air and Missile Defense, into a US global missile defense system. Seoul has pledged to make its own missile defenses more interoperable with those of the United States, but so far it is sticking to its decision not to join the Asia-Pacific Phased Adaptive Approach. This is partly because of Seoul's residual tensions with Tokyo about Japan's wartime history but partly because of Chinese sensitivities about US missile defense. South Korea's paramount interest is stability on the Korean Peninsula; China plays a key role on the peninsula. South Korea would provoke China if it joined a US ballistic missile defense program. That would represent a poor choice. Nonetheless, the United States continues to pressure South Korea to do just that.

In June, the commander of US forces in South Korea recommended that a US missile defense technology known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense be deployed in South Korea. Ahead of the recommendation, the United States had surveyed sites where the system might be deployed. But deployment of this system would pose a threat to Beijing's conventional and nuclear missiles—and would harm relations between China and South Korea.

In any event, the putative rationale behind US missile defense in Asia is a North Korean missile threat, but that threat has often been overestimated. In 1998, for example, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States maintained that "emerging ballistic missile powers" such as North Korea and Iran were capable of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles "within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability." Sixteen years later, this appears a serious exaggeration. In June of this year Dean Wilkening, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said this: "[E]ither you conclude that North Korea did not have an intent to build [intercontinental ballistic missiles], or it's more difficult than people were led to believe. I think it's the latter."

Yes, North Korea has successfully launched a satellite. But Pyongyang must overcome serious challenges before it can use an intercontinental ballistic missile to deliver a nuclear weapon. First, it needs to build a rocket engine more powerful than its current Scud-based engines. Second, it must develop workable reentry vehicles. These vehicles' performance cannot be tested on the ground or in space launches; they must be verified through flight tests. Third, North Korea needs to produce a nuclear bomb small enough to deliver with an intercontinental ballistic missile. This means that the international community must prevent North Korea from testing more powerful rocket engines, flight-testing reentry vehicles, and carrying out additional nuclear tests. Preventing these activities won't be easy, and it will require the international community to cooperate closely. China could play an important role in the international effort—but Beijing's incentives for cooperation will decrease if the United States deploys missile defenses over China's objections.

Round 3

Strategic stability—nice for those who benefit

In this roundtable Wu Riqiang and Tatiana Anichkina have consistently argued in favor of maintaining strategic stability in the nuclear arena. I have presented a number of reasons for questioning strategic stability's value. But do I disagree with my roundtable colleagues because my views on nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from theirs? No—I disagree because I look at strategic stability from a different vantage point than Wu and Anichkina do.

My colleagues believe that mutual vulnerability among great powers eliminates coercive force as an instrument for settling disputes among those powers. This, they argue, prevents arms races and diminishes the risk that tensions will escalate into conflict; the world becomes more stable and secure and all states benefit. Strategic stability among great powers is a global good, my colleagues believe, and everyone ought to cherish it.

I certainly understand why Wu and Anichkina don't want their own nations (China and Russia) to become exposed to US military superiority, and why they argue in favor of mutual vulnerability in the nuclear realm. But their argument becomes deeply flawed when it is applied universally. "Stability" might align well with Russia and China's interests, but there is no reason to think it aligns with the interests of everyone else.

The international system, for better or for worse, is highly competitive. Governments advance their own interests through every instrument of power at their disposal. Nations cooperate at times, but it's more often the case that one state can achieve its interests only at the expense of another. In such an environment, strategic stability among great powers can have undesirable consequences for less fortunate states. That is, mutual vulnerability among the United States, China, and Russia would diminish Washington's ability to constrain the actions of both Beijing and Moscow. This would free China and Russia to pursue their interests, as they see fit, within their own neighborhoods. In Russia's case at least, historical experience does not suggest that greater "stability" would produce what Anichkina calls a "common security space in Europe." To the contrary, it would allow the powerful to get their way while the weak would pay the bill.

The last time Russian power was unconstrained, the Soviet Union expanded its European sphere of influence to within Germany's former borders. It imposed on its satellite states a political and economic order that failed to produce the wealth and prosperity that the Western system, imposed elsewhere by the United States, did produce. Any attempt to evade Russian dominance was quickly crushed. Later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a weak Russia had no choice but to accept numerous US-imposed constraints on its power. But now, two decades later, a resurgent Russia resents limits on its influence and uses military force to bring entire provinces under its control.

I am no adherent of moralistic approaches to international politics—I know that the strong do as they can and the weak suffer what they must. I understand why Russia wants to preserve military access to the Black Sea and I appreciate why Russians want "strategic stability." Yet there is no reason that policy makers in Central and Eastern Europe should relish the prospect of Russia gaining greater scope for maneuver.

Therefore, I still maintain that the interests of American allies in Central and Eastern Europe are furthered by US missile defense deployments. Even if US missile defenses are ineffective, they reinforce the transatlantic bargain. That is, a faraway hegemon provides European nations a benign security environment in exchange for the right to maintain a few military bases, participation in distant US wars by a handful of local military personnel, and some minor economic perks.

From the perspective of Central and Eastern European countries, the most important aspect of this arrangement is that it encourages democracy and promotes economic growth. For this, minor powers such as Romania are willing to accept the idea that missile defense might potentially provoke strategic instability. To be sure, arms races among great powers would be problematic. Any escalating crisis among them would be very worrisome. But the benefits of "stability" are likely to accrue to great powers at the expense of the small. So nations in Central and Eastern Europe—as long as Russia's pursuit of influence does not promise them the same benefits that the transatlantic bargain delivers—will do what they can to ensure that the United States retains its foothold on the continent.

Disarmament? Yes, if it brings stability

Liviu Horovitz wrote in Round Two that he didn't understand why "stability seekers" such as Wu Riqiang and I favor complete disarmament. In his view, disarmament would merely "expose Russia and China to the conventional military superiority of the United States" (unless a world government were established or weaponry of all kinds were abolished). But Horovitz also equated strategic stability with mutual assured destruction—and the two are by no means the same. Horovitz's failure to distinguish the two may explain his inability to understand how "stability seekers" can favor disarmament.

When Horovitz writes that mutual assured destruction is "also known as ‘strategic stability,'" he fails to acknowledge that most up-to-date concepts of strategic stability encompass much besides the long-range nuclear weapons that are so crucial to mutual assured destruction. They also take in missile defense, conventional precision weapons, space weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, and so forth. Beyond that, Horovitz fails to acknowledge that strategic stability is, in Wu's words, "an indispensable means of preventing nuclear arms races in peacetime and preventing nuclear war during crises." Strategic stability isn't about how many times nuclear powers can obliterate each other. It's about how to avoid obliteration in the first place. That's precisely why "stability seekers" value it.

Because "stability seekers" also understand the dangers of nuclear weapons, they may also favor total disarmament. But disarmament isn't an end in itself for security seekers. It's something to be advocated if it makes the world more stable and secure. Before disarmament can make the world safer, however, global security arrangements must be restructured. The international system must ensure that all states enjoy equal security. No reasonable arms control expert—whether Russian, Chinese, or American—would argue for total disarmament if the outcome would be reduced security.

Troubling environment. Wu and I have argued throughout this roundtable that US missile defense deployments undermine strategic stability. If the United States proceeds with further deployments, and Russia and China cannot counter these deployments in a way that maintains the strategic balance within the US-Russia-China triangle, the result will be a crisis in politico-military relations among the three countries. This isn't necessarily to say that Russia and China would form a politico-military alliance and prepare for confrontation with the United States. But the political and psychological environment would be troubling.

This would be bad for everyone concerned—including Horovitz's Romania. So when Horovitz argues that US missile defense deployments contribute to the security of US allies in the sense that they enhance Washington's security guarantees, he is looking at only one part of the picture. If the United States manages to build a functional missile defense system that leaves Russia out in the cold, building a common security space in Europe will be very difficult. New dividing lines will be created. How that might serve the interests of a nation such as Romania is far from clear.

Strategic stability (still) makes sense

I was a bit surprised when Liviu Horovitz wrote in Round 2 that reducing the nuclear arsenals of great powers is of limited importance to small, non-nuclear states such as Horovitz's own Romania. "[W]hat difference does it make," he wrote, "whether Russia can obliterate Romania 1,000 times or 2,000?" Well, it makes no difference at all—but whether a nuclear bomb is ever detonated in Romania certainly makes a difference. Progress toward disarmament reduces the risk of global nuclear war, so disarmament matters for every nation that doesn't want to be a nuclear battlefield.

Horovitz also questioned the value of strategic stability, portraying it as just one approach to the problems that nuclear weapons pose. But that is not how people such as Tatiana Anichkina and I—"stability seekers," in Horovitz's terms—see things. Stability seekers believe that maintaining strategic stability is an indispensable means of preventing nuclear arms races in peacetime and preventing nuclear war during crises. To be sure, policy makers would prefer to establish strategic primacy—the ability to completely destroy an adversary's nuclear weapons in a first strike. Policy makers, who don't enjoy being vulnerable to nuclear attack or retaliation, aren't very fond of strategic stability. But stable force structures make mutual vulnerability a fact, not a choice. Policy makers simply have to accept it.

During the Cold War, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was able to achieve nuclear primacy, so strategic stability took the form of mutually assured destruction. In US-China relations today, standards are (and should be) different. China has never sought to reach strategic parity with the United States. Beijing's nuclear arsenal has always been modest in size and Chinese nuclear weapons are not kept on high alert. Indeed, China's nuclear arsenal does not even provide Beijing a guaranteed ability to retaliate against a nuclear attack. Instead, the Chinese arsenal provides only "first strike uncertainty." That is, the United States lacks full confidence that it could destroy all Chinese nuclear weapons while China lacks full confidence that at least one of its warheads would survive an attack. For now, there is enough uncertainty to maintain stability in Sino-US relations.

But a more effective US missile defense system, by reducing the odds that China could retaliate against a US attack, would have the potential to seriously upset Sino-US stability. The best way to forestall this danger is for the United States to accept limits on missile defense while China agrees to keep its arsenal small. Washington refuses to accept any limits—despite its frequent expressions of willingness to discuss missile defense with China.

The root of the problem is that some US strategists wish to establish nuclear primacy over China. This makes US administrations reluctant, vis-à-vis China, to publically utilize the term "mutual vulnerability." So the United States can only offer China an ambiguous, flexible form of strategic stability.

Because of attitudes that prevail in the United States, US missile defense is likely to expand as fast as technology advances. It will be constrained only by budgets. I fear the worst possible outcome: that the United States steadily and unilaterally deploys greater missile defense capabilities and China responds by constructing more nuclear weapons.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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