Heritage News Forum: ABM treaty – not with a bang

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 16, 2002


Here we are, officially withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and we hear hardly a peep from the arms control crowd.

For years, they warned us not to withdraw. They told us how the treaty formed the “cornerstone of strategic stability.” They assured us that a document binding two nations to Mutually Assured Destruction – the idea that neither side would launch a missile attack if it knew it would not survive the retaliation – made the world safer.

Not only Russia, but China and Europe would object. Our “go it alone” attitude would leave us without a friend in the world and the world without a hope of peace. And all so we could pursue our half-banked delusions about building a missile defense.

Inconveniently, almost none of these predictions panned out. Sure, the Russians complained (sort of) when President Bush announced in December that the United States would withdraw in six months. But within a week of our withdrawal becoming final, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement with President Bush to slash our respective nuclear arsenals.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, it was clear the treaty was as outdated and meaningless for Russia as it was for us. The Soviet Union had signed and supported it because its leaders feared a U.S. missile-defense system would allow the United States to bomb Moscow, then fend off the retalitory strikes. Now, virtually no one in Russia believes we hae, or ever had, any intention of launching a “first strike.” And virtually all realize that the real threat for both countries comes from rogue regimes such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq.

The Russians’ future is with us, and they know it. In addition to agreeing to cut their nuclear arsenal, they just signed up to become a junior member of NATO. Even with Putin – a former KGB officer – at the helm. they view us as strategic partners in the real war of the 21st Century; the war on terrorism. The ABM Treaty has no place in such a world.

Indeed, it’s been clear for a while that the pact had to go. Barely a decade after it was signed in 1972, President Reagan realized that the stalemate the AMB Treaty enshrined was untenable – and that it blocked the road to the more reliable peace that could flow from weapons reductions and missile defense. He became the first U.S. president to point out the treaty’s faults and declare that America needed out of it.

President Reagan’s determination to build a missile shield that the Soviets knew they couldn’t afford to match or counteract did as much to bring about the Soviet Union’s demise as any Vaclav Havel speech or Lech Walesa rally.

When Soviet President Mikail Gorbachev concluded President Reagan wouldn’t be deterred, he ordered the leader of Hungary to open his border to Austria. This meant those who suffered most under the Soviets’ iron fist were free – and that regimes had to begin to respect human rights or watch their citizens flee to the West. What followed was a series of events – regime changes, etc. – viewed as amazing only by those who don’t grasp the way power truly works.

It’s ironic that modern-day peaceniks complained loudest when President Bush announced America’s withdrawal from the treaty, given the enormous contributions to world peace President Reagan made merely by threatening to do so years earlier.

Now we can finally develop the kind of robust missile-defense program the ABM Treaty prohibited. Most importantly, we don’t have to remain vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous world.

EDWIN FEULNER is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.