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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Guiding Missile Defense

U.S. President Bill Clinton's first meeting with Vladimir Putin produced a dry, formal statement on strategic nuclear stability. But the fine print makes clear that Clinton gained what he needed to keep moving toward deployment of a limited national missile defense system. And Putin gained a role in helping to shape the outcome.

For the first time, the Russian president formally acknowledged a basic U.S. argument: There is a "dangerous and growing threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery." Putin accepted that the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty was designed to consider possible "changes in the strategic situation" and, "as appropriate, to consider possible proposals for further increasing its viability."

This obscure formulation was all that Clinton needed. Its import is that, without scrapping the ABM treaty, Russia is prepared to consider measures to meet the new circumstances and has agreed with the United States "to take necessary steps to preserve strategic stability in the face of new threats."

Teams from both sides will start meeting immediately on the full range of offensive and defensive arms issues. Behind these diplomatic circumlocutions lies a significant climb-down by Putin f a fact leading to charges of betrayal by Moscow hard-liners. Yet it is based on two realities: that the United States is bent on building some form of national missile defense, and that Putin must try to avoid becoming enmeshed in U.S. presidential politics. He has no better idea than anyone else whether he will have to deal with Al Gore or George W. Bush as president.

By opening the door to revision of the ABM Treaty, Putin meets Gore's desire to continue with the limited Clinton missile defense system, designed to protect the United States against a handful of missiles launched either by accident or by an obdurate country such as North Korea. And Putin offers Bush an opportunity to develop his own thinking on national missile defense, without automatically crashing head-on into Russia's opposition to scrapping the ABM treaty.

Putin's carefully worded concession to Clinton also might ease the U.S. dilemma with European allies, who have objected, almost unanimously, to U.S. missile defense plans precisely because they see the risk of eroding nascent strategic relations between NATO and Russia. Further, in proposing that missile defenses be developed jointly with the West, Putin is playing to a widespread desire in Europe to focus, at least at first, on defending military forces rather than the far more expensive and problematic goal of defending populations.

Putin's proposal also plays to Russian military fears that the current U.S. missile defense program, once started, would naturally proceed to the point of eroding the effectiveness of Russia's nuclear deterrent. U.S. officials deny this latter possibility, but both physics and the rhetoric of some Bush advisers give some credence to Russian fears.

Meanwhile, in the wings, China is watching carefully what the United States does about missile defense as Beijing considers how large f and how menacing f an offensive nuclear arsenal to build.

What Putin has done poses a choice for Bush. Bush can see his potential presidency as starting off on a positive and cooperative note with Moscow, in the expectation that some national missile defense program can go forward without causing the collapse of three decades of bipartisan effort to create U.S.-Soviet strategic stability. Or he can listen to those of his advisers who continue to hanker after Ronald Reagan's thoroughly discredited notion of a "Star Wars" missile shield, which could produce radical new uncertainties in the worldwide nuclear environment.

The Clinton-Putin summit thus opened up the chance of getting right the new, post-Cold War offense-defense nuclear equation. It also offers the chance of taking some of the heat out of current discussions so that the United States finally can have the wide-ranging national debate on halting the spread of mass destruction weapons f developing a strategy within which missile defense is a component, along with controlling technology, enhancing deterrence and trying to resolve political conflicts.

The right U.S. response to the Clinton-Putin agreement in Moscow is to take the national missile defense issue out of the U.S. election campaign and put it back into the channels of critical analysis and careful diplomacy where it belongs.

Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is a senior adviser at the Rand Corp. in Washington. He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.