Commentary Magazine


Destroying Missiles

On Sunday, Russia and the United States jointly urged all countries to destroy medium-range nuclear-capable missiles. The call came in a joint declaration published by Moscow’s foreign ministry.

At present, Russia and the United States are parties to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. In February of this year, the Kremlin called for the termination of the INF agreement, as the pact is called. Sergei Ivanov, then defense minister, said: “Today, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel all have short-range or intermediate-range missiles.” Ivanov continued, “Only two countries do not have the right to have them, the United States and Russia. This cannot go on forever.”

Ivanov was right, but that was not the Kremlin’s reason for threatening to pull out. A few days after Ivanov spoke in February, General Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian general staff, made the point that Russia’s decision whether to terminate the INF pact would depend on Washington’s missile defense plans. Sunday’s joint declaration indicates that the Bush administration was able to get Moscow to step back from maintaining its extreme position.

It’s one thing for Washington to influence the Kremlin to moderate its tone. It’s another to persuade a whole range of nations to give up the delivery systems for their most destructive weapons when some of them have little stake in the current international system—and when others even talk about upending it. Moreover, none of the new missile countries will give up intermediate range missiles while both Russia and the United States maintain arsenals of longer-range ones. A missile-destruction agreement will, as a practical matter, have to include all missile nations and virtually all ground- and sea-based missiles.

Should the United States and Russia even try to abolish missiles? We thought the stakes were high during the cold war, but at least the Soviets were deterrable. They did not use their thousands of warheads against America because, in addition to other reasons, they knew America could make good on Barry Goldwater’s threat to lob a nuke into the men’s room in the Kremlin—and a big one into just about every other lavatory and latrine in the USSR. Perhaps the new missile nations will be afraid of our weapons—but with rogue states added to the cast, perhaps not. So now is not a bad time to think anew about deterrence, missile defense, and even abolition.