Commentary Magazine


Welcome Back, MAD

The New START treaty signed today does what critics have feared: it gives Russia an out should it conclude that any evolving situation is destabilized by America’s missile defenses, and it prohibits the U.S. from expanding our missile-defense capability by converting decommissioned ICBM silos in North America.

The language in the ninth paragraph of the treaty preamble gives the Russians whatever latitude they choose to object to U.S. missile defenses:

Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.

As Keith B. Payne points out in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already clarified the Russian interpretation of this passage:

[Lavrov] stated at a press conference in Moscow on March 26 that “The treaty is signed against the backdrop of particular levels of strategic defensive systems. A change of these levels will give each side the right to consider its further participation in the reduction of strategic offensive armaments.”

Meanwhile, Paragraph 3 of Article V, on page 10, specifically prohibits either side from converting ballistic-missile launchers (including silos) to missile-defense launchers. There was no valid reason to accept this unconscionable restraint on our national defense: a limitation that will bind us while the treaty is in effect no matter where threats may emerge.

Obama’s September 2009 cancellation of the Bush missile-defense deployment in Europe has already shown us how he reacts when Russia objects to U.S. missile-defense plans. Moreover, last fall’s decision was made without any implied threat of Russia’s opting out of its arms treaties. Now that such a threat hovers expressly over Moscow’s commitment to the New START treaty, it seems unlikely we can expect more backbone in Obama’s missile-defense posture.

This passage from the Obama Nuclear Posture Review (page 16) is certainly suggestive about our prospects:

A strategic dialogue with Russia will allow the United States to explain that our missile defenses and any future U.S. conventionally-armed long-range ballistic missile systems are designed to address newly emerging regional threats, and are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia.

But the premise of this is false. An effective missile defense is, in fact, intended to affect the strategic balance, not just with Russia but also with any other nuclear power. The purpose of missile defense is precisely to obviate the old calculations of Mutual Assured Destruction. This was the reason George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002 and divorced the negotiation of the Moscow SORT treaty from any haggling over missile defense. His intent was to predicate our security and that of our allies on defense, not on the mutual hostage situation — what we used to call the “balance of terror” — inherent in MAD.

Russian leaders have repeatedly rejected America’s offers to cooperate and share technology for strategic missile defenses. They have remained determined instead to hold American and allied populations at risk as the guarantee of Russian security. With the New START treaty, they have prevailed on that point, placing America’s missile-defense program under limitations both implicit and explicit. Obama is effectively returning us to the MAD regime.