President Reagan stunned fellow citizens and the world 30 years ago this month with a dramatic announcement that the United States would develop and deploy a system capable of intercepting and destroying strategic ballistic missiles. Like President Kennedy's pledge to send a man to the moon, Reagan's vision was meant to stretch minds to new realities that most found inconceivable.
As the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, developed, this vision encompassed three big ideas. First, technological advances would make it possible to "hit a bullet with a bullet." Second, when fully deployed, this missile defense system would "render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete." For Reagan, this was an essential steppingstone to his even grander vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Third, to persuade America's Cold War adversary to eliminate its superpower nuclear arsenal as well, Reagan proposed to share this SDI technology with Moscow.
All three dimensions of Reagan's vision drew immediate, fiery criticism at home and abroad. Skeptics argued that killing a missile with a missile was technically impossible. Thirty years and more than $150 billion of investment later, this objection has been largely overcome. Today, the United States and its allies have deployed missile defense systems for shorter-range missiles (for example, the Israeli Iron Dome and U.S. Patriot systems) and for longer-range missiles (the sea-based Aegis system and a ground-based system deployed in Alaska). Just this month, in response to North Korea's threats, the Obama administration announced plans to deploy an additional 14 ground-based interceptors.
Reagan's vision of a world free of nuclear weapons was initially rejected by most of the American establishment as naive and dangerous. In the last decade, however, four of the bluest chips from the American Cold War establishment — George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn — have put this back on the American strategic agenda.
In his first international speech as president, in Prague in the spring of 2009, Barack Obama made this goal his own, arguing that the existence of nuclear weapons is "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War." The new START arms control agreement reached by Obama and Russia's then-President Dmitry Medvedev in April 2010 took a modest step toward that end.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Reagan's concept was his proposal to share this technology with our Soviet adversaries. During their October 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan proposed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "to share the benefits of strategic defense. We will agree now to a treaty committing to do so in conjunction with the elimination of ballistic missiles." Moreover, Reagan promised that it would be a "binding treaty that would provide for the sharing of research that demonstrated a potential for defensive applications."
Although Gorbachev was intrigued by Reagan's aspiration to eliminate all nuclear weapons, he and his government were suspicious of U.S. intentions. Thus, at the end of the summit, Gorbachev rejected Reagan's bold package because Washington refused to accept Moscow's condition that SDI research be confined to laboratories for a decade.
Today, the issue of ballistic missile defense remains a major stumbling block in U.S.-Russian relations, stalling both greater cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in countering Iran's nuclear ambitions and efforts to negotiate further reductions in nuclear arms. Specifically, Moscow is insisting on "binding guarantees" that U.S. missile defenses will not target or affect Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent. In reality, current U.S. missile defense systems are capable only of defending against a limited number of primitive ballistic missiles (without sophisticated decoys), and thus could not effectively defend against a Russian nuclear missile attack. Instead, the unambiguous objective of current U.S. missile deployments is to defeat Iranian and North Korean missile threats and provide protection for U.S. forces and allies against those missile programs.
At this impasse, what would Reagan do? One can be sure that he would be thinking well outside the box of conventional proposals now on the table. My bet is that he would offer the Russians not only transparency about U.S. missile defense systems, but actual shared control of those systems in a reconfigured deployment that would incorporate Russian as well as U.S. radar systems, and invite Russia to join the U.S. in deploying defenses against emerging nuclear threats. This proposal would also include major reductions in both U.S. and Russian strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals. And the prospect of serious, joint deployments that promised to neutralize the Iranian missile threat would certainly have a stunning impact in Tehran.
If Obama borrows a page from Reagan's playbook, Republicans in Washington who claim the 40th president's mantle would be shocked. But the burden would be theirs to explain why deploying missile defenses that would make the U.S. and our allies safer from attacks by Iran and North Korea is not in America's interest.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School and a former assistant secretary of Defense.