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Offense-Defense Nonsense

On nuclear issues, conservatives are still stuck in the cold war. Why?

Nestled in the Joint Understanding that Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev issued last week was a line that outraged some conservatives. It notes that the nuclear arms-reduction treaty to be signed later this year will contain a provision on "the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms," by which they meant the link between nuclear weapons and missile defenses. As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Obama's hunger for a diplomatic success, such as it is, allowed the Russians to exact a price: linkage between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons. This is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot. And since defensive weaponry will be the decisive strategic factor of the 21st century, Russia has striven mightily for a quarter-century to halt its development.

I'm not sure what's weirder about this line of reasoning: the implication that we remain in some kind of cold war-style arms race with Russia, or the notion that, if we were, we could win. Despite strained relations over Georgia and other issues, I think it's clear that the cold war is over--indeed, this has been one of the primary conservative arguments against pursuing further arms control agreements over the past 20 years. Given, however, that the Obama administration is not only shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but also is hoping to negotiate or ratify a variety of other accords to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international politics, it's worth dissecting the flaws in Krauthammer's argument.

The linkage between offense and defense in nuclear arms is hardly a concession ginned up by the Obama administration to appease the Russians. In fact, the linkage isn't a policy decision at all. It's an inescapable function of the incredibly destructive nature of nuclear weapons themselves--a conclusion that Robert McNamara, among others, came to nearly half a century ago.

During the cold war, there was a relatively stable nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union because, even if one side launched a first strike, the other had the ability to destroy the aggressor in retaliation. That was the situation known as mutual assured destruction, or MAD.

The problem with missile defenses was that they threatened this balance--or, more precisely, they threatened the perception of this balance--and therefore made nuclear war more likely. Although no defense can adequately defang a retaliatory strike (because there's no such thing as a perfect defense, and because even a handful of nuclear weapons can cause unacceptable damage), cold war defense analysts worried that one side might believe that defenses would allow it to win a nuclear war if it destroyed most of the enemy's weapons in a first strike and used its defenses to mop up whatever rump retaliation came its way. Worse, the other side, believing its enemy might be so bold, might decide that it should launch first. Ultimately, both countries would be destroyed as functioning societies, but 20 million dead was better than 100 million dead, and thus there would be an incentive to get one's missiles off the ground first--that is, an incentive to start a nuclear war. Defenses, in other words, perversely made everyone less safe, which is why they were largely banned by the ABM Treaty in 1972.

Obviously, the world has changed since then. We no longer are particularly worried about a Russian nuclear strike, and one hopes that they are not particularly worried about an American strike. But nuclear weapons are so devastating that Moscow remains concerned about even a possible degradation of its ability to retaliate. (Frankly, the Chinese, who have a much smaller arsenal, have much greater cause for concern, but that's another discussion.) It is not in our interests to stoke that fear, especially given that, as the Georgia war shows, there are still incidents that could lead to a crisis between the United States and Russia.

It's true, as Krauthammer notes, that U.S. missile defense technology is superior to Russian missile defense technology, but I have no idea what he means when he writes that missile defenses will be the decisive strategic weapons of the 21st century vis-?-vis Russia. Everything we learned during the cold war demonstrates that there is no such thing as strategic decisiveness when it comes to nuclear weapons--there is balance; and there is danger. If we were ever to build missile defenses that actually threatened Russia's deterrent capability--say, by deploying a system with hundreds, instead of tens, of interceptors--Russia would simply build more nuclear weapons. If we tried to counter that increase with more defenses, Russia would counter with more offenses. And even if we "got ahead" in this offense-defense race, there would never be a point at which we had a 100 percent effective defense, meaning that if there were a nuclear exchange, the United States would quickly cease to be. Defenses would never be strategically decisive, but it's always possible that Russia might fear they were--which would just destabilize our relationship. Does this sound familiar? It was exactly the problem we faced during the cold war, and frankly I'm not sure why we should have the discussion again.

Now, there is a case for a limited missile defense to counter a potential missile threat from North Korea, which is why we've already deployed a couple dozen interceptors in California and Alaska. (Unfortunately, Krauthammer is stretching things when he says we can "reliably" shoot down an ICBM. In fact, the boosters on the interceptors to be deployed in Eastern Europe have never been tested.) But there is also a case for securing Russian cooperation to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear and missile programs: Wouldn't we prefer to prevent a nuclear warhead from being built than to try to stop it outside the atmosphere when it was a mere 15 minutes from striking the United States or Europe? In fact, we need Russian cooperation on other vital nuclear issues, including North Korea's atomic weapons program and the persistent problem of loose fissile material in the former Soviet states. We can't do away with the offense-defense linkage-but, even if we could, why would we want to? If slowing deployment of the Polish and Czech systems buys us greater cooperation on Iran or North Korea or loose nukes, it'd be well worth it.

Finally, it's worth pointing out that, although the Joint Understanding does mention linkage, it's not clear that Obama is going to give up the European missile defenses. In fact, the other statement issued by Obama and Medvedev--the Joint Statement on Missile Defenses--focuses solely on assessing the ballistic missile threat and says nothing about limiting or linking defenses against that threat. Moreover, as Josh Pollack at ArmsControlWonk points out, Obama has in the past said that defenses will not be a part of the negotiations on arms reductions. Clearly, there are a number of issues still to be worked out between the two countries concerning the new treaty, but rearguing the basic tenets of cold war deterrence should not be one of them.

Peter Scoblic is the executive editor of The New Republic and the author of U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror.