A Conversation Among Friends About National Missile Defence

By Metta Spencer (moderator) | 2001-07-01 12:00:00

John Valleau: If we're concerned with these missiles carrying nuclear weapons, deterrence is the only game in town. Defence is unrealistic in practice, and deterrence has proved fairly effective, though worrisome. To destroy that form of deterrence with a National Missile Defence seems madness.

Sergey Plekhanov: There's merit in your argument, but the madness is inevitable. The system of arms control that was created during the Cold War reflected parity between the United States and the Soviet Union. The US is now the hegemonic power, and inequality of power is increasing between it and Russia. I can hardly imagine anything that could recreate the regime of arms control as we knew it.

The mutually assured destruction (MAD) equation, as codified in the ABM Treaty, can only exist if each side shows that it can use nuclear weapons. However, an arms control treaty leads people to believe that the nuclear weapons will never be used. If the impression gathers that they will never be used, then the mutually assured destruction is undermined. The MAD mechanism is inherently unstable and dangerous. That is why it is entirely justifiable to call for complete nuclear disarmament, with deep cuts in conventional arms and replacement of the balance of terror with negotiated arrangements - peace without resort to military force. Gorbachev proclaimed that vision in 1986, and it was a very well-thought plan. It was based on a recognition that the balance of terror is unworkable as a basis for peace. The balance of terror is now under attack by those who would like to remove constraints on the use of nuclear arms, and we feel that we must defend it. But how can we defend something that is inherently flawed and was created only for want of a better arrangement? We face the virtual inevitability of the erosion of arms control internationally.

John Valleau: Unless plans were made to wind down the threat by other means.

Sergey Plekhanov: Exactly. So the choice is between allowing it to fall apart or struggling for the modification of arms control regimes, allowing for the changed reality.

John Valleau: I agree with most of what you said. But, in the short term, deterrence still exists between Russia and the States. That's worth preserving, and is likely to be undermined by NMD. But my focus is less confined to the relationship between the States and Russia than yours. It seems to me that the auxiliary effects of the NMD on the rest of the world are enormous. China is likely to arm seriously, and India and Pakistan are likely to follow suit, creating a world without this bipolar rough parity you were talking about, and would be a far more dangerous place. Deterrence is actually working, in that sense. No one else is likely to attack the United States, so the idea of NMD seems both wrong-headed and dangerous.

Jack Santa Barbara: That's comparing the traditional arms control regime to missile defence - the option that Bush is presenting. But surely there are other alternatives. To me the issue is, how do you get some of those alternatives more seriously considered? Obviously, you don't want to do away totally with the deterrence system until you have something to replace it. Missile defence is a tiny part of global security. I mean, why not deliver a bomb in a suitcase? What do you need a missile for?

John Valleau: The only country that is seriously building missiles is North Korea. They've already built a two-stage missile and probably are working on a three-stage missile. Why? Because having missiles lends a certain stature vis a vis other Asian nations. But being elected as a "rogue state" by the United States has already accomplished this. The United States has made their case for them and they can drop the whole issue now.

Joanna Santa Barbara: We do have an alternative to deterrence on the one hand and NMD on the other hand. That is the agreement that was made in the NPT Review Conference, and the thirteen steps that were agreed to universally. These would mean a nuclear weapons convention and the abolition of nuclear weapons. The task is to work out how that can be taken seriously.

Jack Santa Barbara: What objections are offered to it by the major players?

Joanna Santa Barbara: They prefer to pretend that it hasn't happened. But in talking to NATO, we have to make them face it again and again - that it's been agreed to, and that there are steps, beginning with de-alerting, no first use, ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, and so on.

Jack Santa Barbara: Would the argument against that be that it only deals with nuclear weapons - it doesn't deal with global security?

Joanna Santa Barbara: Well, it protects from the risk of nuclear explosions, deliberate and accidental, which would be a substantial increase in security for everybody. It allows for stringent verification.

Jack Santa Barbara: How does it stop Iraq from attacking its neighbors and taking over the oil fields? I'm trying to anticipate what the counter-arguments would be. It seems to me it has to do with the belief that military power is necessary to ensure that the bad guys don't win and take over our resources.

Joanna Santa Barbara: But nuclear weapons can't be used for most deliberate purposes. They were not used in Iraq. There's always the risk, and that risk is intolerable, but in terms of usable military strategy, nuclear weapons don't make sense.

John Valleau: Jack's question was, why aren't people proceeding with the NPT process? That's a question worth considering.

Sergey Plekhanov: People living in the West are in a fortress, as it were, but they nevertheless feel vulnerable to possible challenges from people not living in the West because the inequality is growing between them. So Westerners worry about military technology proliferation and protecting their troops from attack. A scramble is on to join those inside the fortress. That's why the expansion of NATO is taking place. This scramble is new. Back in the 1970s, the struggle was between two systems, the Third World being split down the middle - a struggle for the future of the world. Now the world accepts the same set of principles, yet the logic of the market increases inequality. Just let the market forces do their thing and you will see greater gaps. That leads to conflict - within societies, between societies. So those who have power will encounter objections and may have to use force. They prefer to use that force with minimal disruption of business. Nuclear weapons are the worst thing for capitalism, which depends on the uninterrupted flow of money. Think about what arms control has done for capitalism! It has made it possible for the global economy to emerge. It has made it possible for communism to collapse.

Jack Santa Barbara: The world trade agreement took place within months after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Sergey Plekhanov: Yes. Suddenly the walls were down and the capital flow could go anywhere. The communists were inviting it in and benefiting from the flow. We have capitalism as the only project in town, but some people benefit and lot and many other people lose. So how can the richer countries protect their interests without interrupting business? Not with nuclear weapons. Those should exist only as a threat - not for war fighting. Or if for war fighting, only on a very small scale.

John Valleau: But nuclear weapons are not well-suited for small scale. That's why they won't go on with the NPT. The agents of the US and the corporate world even say in print is that their purpose is to control the world. And the effective way they see of doing it is precisely to have a blanket of space weapons, so they can threaten at the level they choose and therefore not disrupt more than is necessary.

Sergey Plekhanov: That's right. Think of the militarization of space as a project to create an integrated police force for the world, which will punish those who challenge the status quo. Nobody has an alternative project, so it's difficult to argue against creating this new mechanism for global security.

Jack Santa Barbara: We need a new economic model.

Sergey Plekhanov: Yes, but let me remind you of the situation that arose in the late 1950s. The Soviet Union under Stalin is pursuing peaceful co-existence with the West - stabilizing relationships, signing treaties. The war in Korea is over. The United States and the Soviet Union are competing in making the most attractive disarmament proposals. China is dead set against the Soviet quest for peaceful coexistence with the West. Mao Tse Tung says to Khrushchev, "What are you doing? You are betraying the struggle of the people for liberation! What about the poor people? We need nuclear weapons for our fight against these monsters. You are surrendering the cause of the revolution." They couldn't imagine capitalism being defeated without war. And we now know from the documents that if Stalin had not died in 1953, the likelihood was that we would have had a third world war not long afterward. Horrible scenarios were being devised by his folks.

I mention this to show that peace can be good for those who enjoy the status quo, and war can be seen by the underdogs as the only effective means to achieve their goals. Saddam Hussein, for example, and other disgruntled people around the world, know that the free flow of global capital is pushing them down, and if they have no peaceful means of adjusting that, they will be thinking of the means of war. So where does that put the pacifists?

Jack Santa Barbara: It should put pacifists in a position of dealing with social justice issues - dealing with structural violence.

John Valleau: We have a General Assembly motion passed by a hundred and umpteen to two or three that space should be free of weapons. Yet the United States just announced a plan for weapons in space.

Sergey Plekhanov: In this new situation US policy is opposed by the vast majority of the world's governments. If it wants to be the hegemonic power, it will need to deal. One cannot maintain world leadership without a reasonable degree of acceptance of the hegemony by others - it cannot be simply imposed. Inevitably, there are political struggles in various arenas, including the United Nations, to dissuade the United States from doing things that the majority of the world disapproves of. Can we imagine the United States ignoring even its own allies, and telling them all to go to hell? No. Can the US ignore Russian objections: No. Putin is trying to achieve greater independence for Russia but the dominant groups in Russia don't see an alternative to being recognized as a member of the G8. And WTO is the club to join; otherwise you are nobody. China is going to get there before Russia. The scramble is on.

The globalization game is stacked in favor of the United States, but the global order cannot be managed by commands from Washington and Wall Street. In fact, the more you're in control of a complex system, the more that system is in control of you. If there are feedback signals coming from this machinery saying that you must change your course, then you will have to change your course to some extent, for the sake of your own hegemony. The Bush administration has already backed down from some extreme positions. Their plan is going to be bigger than Clinton's, but smaller than the Rumsfeld plan in Ballistic Missile Defence. They're talking about more interceptor missiles for the ground component of the BMD. And they'll be closely watching the result of the August test. If they don't hit a bullet with a bullet in August skeptical voices in the Senate - which is no longer under the control of the Republicans - will be louder: "Wait a minute! It isn't working. It's a boondoggle."

Why would the US refuse to talk to the Russians and Chinese about missile defences? Why not say, "Okay, let's hear your arguments. You want to find an alternative to the status quo? Let's do it together."

Joanna Santa Barbara: Would that it were so, Sergei! Would that there were some kind of US hegemony that was open to influence by a coalition.

Sergey Plekhanov: Today, there's no communist system. When we look at attempts to challenge the US hegemony what are we looking at? Authoritarian, nationalistic proposals.

Jack Santa Barbara: One problem is that state power has declined relative to corporate power. Environmentalists say that international NGOs are playing an increasing role in forming a tripartite type of governance - with corporations and government - to try to set a balance. So, while there's an elite around the world trying to promote growth, there's also another layer of civil society that opposes the inequality gaps. It's not really China and the US and Russia, and so on. It's really economic growth against those who want a more just economic world.

John Valleau: The plans were announced in print to build American control of the whole world by using American weapons in space and denying space to other people. That is their stated intention. Indeed, what other purpose is there for the NMD but that? To be sure, there's the purpose of feeding the U.S. military-industrial complex as a kind of military Keynesianism, but I don't think that is sufficient to explain going ahead with NMD. I think the purpose is precisely to establish U.S. weapons in space and to gain world control.

Joanna Santa Barbara: I don't dispute that. Most people who have taken notice of the issue are extremely alarmed. But the worry is that people may take their eye off the ball - the nuclear danger that is with us right now, with systems on high alert.

John Valleau: I agree.

Sergey Plekhanov: One of arguments against the NMD program has been the possibility of a buildup of offensive weapons by Russia and China in order to overcome NMD. I'm skeptical about that argument - first of all because any system that could ward off offensive weapons requires a long time - at least fifteen years or so. In the meantime, ordering a drastic buildup would certainly increase the clear, present danger of posed by the offensive weapons. A supporter of disarmament should have a problem both with the creation of a missile defence system and with such a response. You look at both sides and you can't support either of them. Only yesterday they were signing agreements for the reduction of weapons and doing things which were in the interests of the world. And now they are locking themselves into a different type of vicious circle, where everything they do will be destructive of the existing arms control agreements and the prospects for disarmament.

Joanna Santa Barbara: The reason the US gives officially for wanting NMD is to ward off attack by rogue states - or "states of concern."

John Valleau: A visible attack by a small state directly on the US presumably would lead to annihilation. Deterrence works as well with them as with anybody else. A person would have to be insane to carry it out. And, supposing they were insane, there are more reliable methods than long range missiles. To get a weapon into the US you carry it in a suitcase or drive it in a truck.

Sergey Plekhanov: Still, we need to understand the reality of the so-called "rogue" state problem. Whatever the label, it's the issue of the possibility that some actors in the world system may resort to force to disrupt the status quo and challenge the dominant powers. The West's vulnerability is real. For instance, we depend on satellites in our economic affairs and in our daily lives. So imagine the creation of secret weapons which, at the click of a mouse, could deliver a few well-aimed blows at the seamless web of global communications with catastrophic consequences. That would be an act of a "rogue state." It could be a terrorist attack. I can understand the growing sense of vulnerability among the managers of the world order. It is not just in Washington. Others elsewhere would say, "Well, I don't quite like your dominance, but I don't want the computers to go dead for even a few hours."

John Valleau: How would that relate?

Sergey Plekhanov: I think you were making the case that the NMD is just a foot in the door for the militarization of space. The Pentagon web site describes plans to deploy weapons in space which will be useful for all kinds of purposes. The "rogue state" does not necessarily want to lob missiles at the United States. It could hack the global communications system to death - or could threaten to do so. "Here is my warning. I will count to three and if you don't do what I say, all your computers will go dead." There are no deterrence systems now that cannot be broken by hackers.

Jack Santa Barbara: Weapons in space cannot stop hackers.

Sergey Plekhanov: Weapons in space can threaten them. If there is communications warfare in the next 30 or 40 years, then space will be a battleground, not so much for defence against missiles as for the defence of the global economy.

We had a short period of comfortable status quo. That is over and we are entering a period of instability. All bets are off. How do we preserve as much as can be preserved of the past achievements in arms control and disarmament and and move toward an alternative system? There have to be such paths. We have to say, "Yes, MAD is bad. Let's work to replace MAD with something good."

Sergey Plekhanov is a political science professor at York University and was formerly Deputy Director of the USA-Canada Institute in Moscow.

Joanna Santa Barbara is a child psychiatrist in Hamilton, Ontario and teaches peace studies at McMaster University.

Jack Santa Barbara is a psychologist in Hamilton, Ontario.

John Valleau is an emeritus chemistry professor at University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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