Going back at least to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, missile defense has been regarded as a threat to the stability produced by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD is the strategy of nuclear deterrence that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union adhered to for much of the Cold War. This doctrine states that if one side launches a first nuclear strike, the other side will retaliate with unacceptably devastating losses (i.e., if you destroy my country, I’ll destroy yours). Hence, no rational leader would supposedly contemplate a nuclear strike, knowing this would be tantamount to national suicide. But a missile defense that reliably prevented nuclear retaliation would upset this balance and tempt its owner to launch a first strike with impunity. The ABM Treaty prohibited the construction of national missile defense, thereby keeping both the U.S. and Soviet Union vulnerable to retaliation and maintaining MAD. (President George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty after 9/11, citing the need to develop missile defenses against new threats).
President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was an ambitious attempt to develop a missile shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete, but it faced serious technical and political obstacles and was never built. But smaller defenses that can stop a limited number of missiles are more feasible and have been pursued by recent U.S. administrations–and now, NATO.
Even if a missile defense shield does not render its owner immune to retaliation, critics charge that it could increase tensions and provoke enemies to build up their arsenals in an effort to penetrate the shield and maintain their deterrent capability–thus sparking dangerous and unnecessary arms races. This suggests a security dilemma may be operating here: steps that countries take to make themselves more secure may paradoxically make them less secure.
While it does not appear that the limited system envisioned by NATO could even come to close to threatening the Russian nuclear deterrent (given its thousands of nuclear weapons), if Russia perceives the defense system as a threat then its responses could make NATO countries less secure. Thus far Russia’s numerous threats, missile tests, and other saber-rattling efforts indicate NATO may indeed be facing a security dilemma in the context of missile defense.
What do you think? Is NATO’s planned missile defense a good idea, given the threats faced by Europe and the likely responses of Russia? Let us know your thoughts by scrolling down and taking the poll on missile defense posted on May 22.