"The Betrayal of Reagan's Star Wars Vision"

by Gordon R. Mitchell

Pittsburgh Federalist (Fall 2000): 10-11

While President Clinton's recent deferral of an NMD deployment decision has been hailed across the globe as a triumph of prudence over politics, such a moment of lucidity may turn out to be fleeting. Once a new administration takes office, missile defense advocates stand ready to hawk veritable alphabet soup of pet programs including ABL, NMD, NTW, PAC-3, SBL, THAAD, and THEL.

What separates contemporary missile defense proponents from Ronald Reagan is that they dismiss, and even ridicule Reagan’s hopeful vision of a world free from nuclear terror. Post-cold war missile defense proponents are not interested in making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete; they cling to the logic of deterrence and hope for imperfect defenses that will make American atomic warheads permanent and potent.

The rhetorical fulcrum leveraging Reagan’s missile defense advocacy was a simple, yet powerful equation: Star Wars = disarmament. This equation was codified in secret planning documents, voiced in official promotion campaigns, and accepted by a considerable segment of the American population that identified with the appeal of defensive arms as a hopeful strategy to "make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."

Even a cursory examination of the U.S. negotiating stance in talks with Russia over proposed ABM Treaty modifications reveals how far American officials are behind the curve of swelling world-wide momentum for nuclear disarmament. In ABM Treaty "Talking Points" presented by U.S. negotiators to their Russian counterparts earlier this year in Geneva (and leaked to the public in April 2000), the U.S. attempts to ease Russian fears regarding NMD with the alarming reminder that "under the terms of any possible future arms reduction agreements, large, diversified, viable arsenals of strategic offensive weapons" will exist on both sides, and that forces of this size "can easily penetrate a limited NMD system of the type that the United States is now developing."

In essence, the U.S. negotiating position tells Russians not to worry about NMD (because it is not reliable enough to work against their sophisticated weapons), but that just in case, Russian leaders might want to hang on to a huge nuclear arsenal (kept on "hair trigger" alert status), in order to make sure that they can overwhelm the U.S. missile shield. Russian objections to this contorted logic were major factors driving Clinton's deferral of the NMD deployment decision.

Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush advanced a similar "NMD plus nukes" formula for security in a recent foreign policy address. In this speech, while Bush dangled the prospect of unilateral cuts in U.S. nuclear forces, in the next breath, he proclaimed a rock-solid commitment to follow the advice of Pentagon leaders who insist on maintaining a massive arsenal of over 2,500 offensive nuclear warheads.

One of the clear lessons of the cold war is that "purely defensive" weapons can be highly provocative and destabilizing when introduced into a climate of hostility and suspicion. Yet, defensive arms may have more utility as tools of peace if they are shared openly and introduced into a world where nations have already abolished their dependence on nuclear weapons as tools of statecraft. This point was made by the unlikeliest of pro-BMD sources, nuclear abolition advocate Jonathan Schell, who wrote in 1984 that "if defenses were arrayed against the kind of force that could be put together in violation of an abolition agreement, they could be crucial." On this logic, missile defense could work as an insurance policy that would underwrite the credibility of a worldwide agreement to abolish nuclear arms.

Contemporary missile defense advocates betray Reagan’s legacy as a visionary advocate for disarmament when they argue for a new Star Wars system to lock in American nuclear superiority and ensure U.S. escalation dominance in international crises. While decades of technical futility have exposed Reagan’s notion of a leakproof "Astrodome" shield as a pie in the sky, this is no reason to give up on his argument that the nuclear balance of terror is immoral. In fact, it may be high time to resurrect Reagan’s recipe of BMD = disarmament, after putting the ingredients in proper order: disarmament paves the way for BMD.

In the context of a nuclear abolition regime, it would be appropriate to conduct scientific research on BMD out in the open, and to develop defenses that would protect all nations who rejected nuclear armaments. Since the eyes of the world could follow the details of every test, calculation, and conclusion of missile defense scientists, there would be little place for secrecy, trickery, and waste in such a program. Scientists and engineers from around the globe could collaborate on peaceful space projects that would make the strengthening of a nuclear abolition regime a primary objective. Since research would be conducted in the open scientific community, scientists could throw off the shackles of secrecy that constrain and corrupt the process of inquiry.

Ultimately, Reagan’s vision of spaceborne X-ray laser defense never came to fruition, in part because the secrecy and corruption that pervaded his national laboratories caused a parade of talented scientists to abandon the project in protest. In a nuclear abolition regime, those nations and groups seeking to develop advanced offensive weapons could find themselves in a similar predicament, since they would be forced to labor in isolation, cut off from the lifeblood of science. Alternatively, those scientists working on defensive weapons would enjoy the creative fruits of inquiry that is nurtured in open scientific communities, which encourage the sharing of ideas.

The only truly comprehensive solution to the problem of nuclear proliferation is worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. Missile defense’s real value should be measured by how it furthers or retards this goal. A secretive missile defense program, rushed into existence before the emergence of a nuclear abolition regime, and designed only to protect a handful of rich nations is likely to sow seeds of international fear and distrust that could make disarmament impossible.

On the other hand, nuclear abolition would likely transform the idea of missile defense in profound ways. In fact, abolition could turn out to be the most promising strategy for delivering on Reagan’s vision of a world where missile defense could help make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

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Gordon R. Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Director of Debate at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Working Group on East Asian Theater Missile Defense, and author of STRATEGIC DECEPTION: RHETORIC, SCIENCE, AND POLITICS IN MISSILE DEFENSE ADVOCACY, forthcoming from Michigan State University Press.