History Hasn't Stood Still for ABM Treaty

Bruce Herschensohn is a fellow at the Claremont Institute

French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and a number of other European leaders have made it clear that they want the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to remain in force. President Bush has made it clear that the treaty is a relic of the Cold War and that "it's necessary to set aside the ABM treaty."

During the height of the Cold War, on May 29, 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Gen. Sec. Leonid I. Brezhnev signed an agreement in Moscow. Article 1 stated that "each party undertakes not to deploy ABM systems for a defense of the territory of its country and not to provide a base for such a defense, and not to deploy ABM systems for defense of an individual region except as provided for in Article III of this treaty." Twenty years later, after the Cold War was over, former President Nixon said: "While the Antiballistic Missile Treaty contributed to peace and security during the Cold War, it has been overtaken by the Cold War's end." Yet the ability to put events in context with their times is not a virtue common to most politicians, and today there are those in Europe and in the U.S. Congress who insist that a treaty signed in 1972 should be maintained in 2001. They often cite the sanctity of international agreements, and no one can deny that our signature, our word--even a handshake--should be golden.

Nixon knew that at the time, and therefore he made part of the agreement a provision for the unknown.That provision states: "Each party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to the other party six months prior to withdrawal from the treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying party regards as having justified its supreme interests."

In the 29 years since the treaty was signed, there have been a number of extraordinary events that have jeopardized the United States' interests.

First, one of the two nations that signed the agreement, the Soviet Union, no longer exists.

Second, when the Soviet Union did exist, it violated the agreement. President Boris N. Yeltsin confirmed this.

Third, ballistic missiles have proliferated throughout the world since those two governments held a monopoly of such systems.

Fourth, the U.S. Constitution requires that the government "provide for the common defense." Adhering to the ABM treaty makes that requirement impossible.

One frequent argument in favor of maintaining the ABM treaty is that there have been failures in our tests of an antiballistic missile defense system.That would have been a good argument in the late 1950s for canceling our missile programs and space vehicles because they blew up with regularity. But we stuck with both programs, and both were eventually successful.

Another frequent argument in favor of the ABM treaty is that an antiballistic missile system cannot be foolproof, and even if it did work 95% of the time, the 5% of enemy missiles that got through would be enough to destroy our major cities. You could make that same argument for presidents and the Secret Service and police to throw away their bulletproof vests, since they are not foolproof. No defense is foolproof, but implements of defense are vital to save innocent lives.

A more recent argument for the ABM treaty is that nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are more likely to be hidden in suitcases than delivered with missiles. This is the most mystifying argument of all. It's also more likely that more Americans will die of heart disease than AIDS, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the risk of AIDS. And if there really is no threat of a missile attack, what is so important about having an ABM treaty?

Something else to consider: The treaty states that "five years after entry into force of this treaty, and at five-year intervals thereafter, the parties shall together conduct a review of this treaty." Next year, 2002, is one of those five-year intervals. The only difficulty is finding the agreed-upon party called the Soviet Union to have the agreed-upon consultation.

Putting events in context with their times is vital, and not putting them in context with their times can lead to disaster.

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