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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Arming a Gullible Media

An alternative does exist to the United States' unilaterally deep-sixing the present ABM Treaty so it can pursue a national missile defense. It is this: The Bush administration proposes only a defense against a limited missile attack by rogue nations or terrorists. Russia has recently indicated a willingness to negotiate the present defensive prohibitions in the ABM Treaty — provided changes are coupled with reductions in the numbers of offensive missiles. That is the alternative that should be pursued.

The Russian military wants to reduce its strategic missile force because of its high costs in maintenance and military manpower. We can reduce our offensive missile force; but these reductions should be considered in connection with negotiating amendments to the ABM Treaty. There is no need, while reducing our nuclear forces (even if unilaterally), to abandon the clear benefits that derive from the treaty's provisions for verification, transparency and confidence-building negotiation processes.

For almost 30 years, the ABM Treaty has preserved strategic stability and kept the peace by restricting strategic ballistic missile defense systems. Those restrictions, in turn, have ensured that both Washington and Moscow could retain confidence in their respective retaliatory capability. It appears that both the United States and Russia plan to maintain sizable, even if declining, numbers of strategic nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. This being the case, mutual deterrence is an inescapable element of a stable relationship between the world's two major nuclear powers, whether they see each other as partners or as adversaries.

The concept of mutual deterrence is less a function of policy than of the reality that both Russia and the United States will continue to have enough strategic weapons to destroy each other many times over. If mutual deterrence is to remain with us, it is essential that an amended ABM Treaty remain with us as well. It is the key to maintaining stability between the two largest nuclear forces. Thus an amended ABM Treaty remains as relevant to peace and security today as it was 30 years ago. It ensures that the relationship of mutual deterrence is stable and predictable. Deep-sixing the treaty instead of negotiating amendments would only create a less stable and less predictable deterrent relationship.

The Russians and Chinese have already said they intend to maintain their retaliatory capabilities. They state unequivocally that their response to a unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty would be a buildup of their nuclear stockpiles, a reaction that would significantly decrease international stability.

The administration has hoped it could minimize this reaction by unilaterally reducing the number of U.S. strategic weapons. While such plans certainly would not harm international security, they are unlikely to affect the actions by Russia and China to maintain their retaliatory capability.

It's not sufficient to contend that Russia or China can't afford offensive increases. They might try. In such a process, the United States would sacrifice stability without cause. There is no substitute for the predictability, transparency and irreversibility that come with formal arms reduction agreements. We should not take the risk that missile defense, to be effective, will impose such high costs that we will have to divert substantial resources from other authentic national security needs.

We cannot let our country drift into a period of isolationism or unilateralism. We are the strongest country in the world, ethically, economically and militarily. The Senate was right in questioning the Kyoto accord, hastily signed on to by then Vice President Al Gore, and President George W. Bush is right in pursuing a course of amending these accords. We can have a revised form of multilateralism in which all participating partners share not only in results but in costs and resources as well.

We must clearly work for these goals in a bipartisan manner. There is no reason to abandon the clear benefits of the ABM Treaty. We can have those benefits and at the same time pursue appropriate missile defense alternatives.

Melvin R. Laird served as defense secretary from 1969 to 1973 and played a key role in obtaining Senate ratification of the ABM Treaty. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.