WASHINGTON -- Here is a new measure of an old phenomenon, the fetish many people make of arms control agreements: Many who say that weapons developed in the Cold War context have necessarily lost all usefulness also say that arms control agreements negotiated in that context -- even though negotiated with a political entity that no longer exists -- must at all costs be preserved.
This mentality has been a barrier to progress toward providing the nation with defenses against ballistic missile attacks. But the barrier is crumbling beneath the weight of its intellectual implausibility. One sign of the crumbling was the Senate's recent 85-13 vote to require the nation to develop for deployment a multisite antiballistic missile (ABM) system by the year 2003.
The ABM treaty concluded with the Soviet Union in 1972 limits each side to one ABM site of no more than 100 interceptors. That is no defense; it was not supposed to be. The point of the treaty was to codify "mutual assured destruction" (MAD), the doctrine that two heavily armed and ideologically antagonistic superpowers could be secure if, but only if, they agreed to remain equally vulnerable to a nuclear onslaught.
Even in the context of 1972 this was strategically dubious and morally repugnant. It was dubious because even if ballistic missile defenses could not produce the impermeable umbrella Ronald Reagan envisioned when proposing his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, even a partially effective defense could contribute to stability by complicating, to the point of paralysis, the calculations of anyone thinking about attempting a disarming first strike. MAD was repugnant because it was based on a practice of warfare that had been condemned for centuries -- the holding of civilian populations as hostages.
The current task
Whatever sense such a bilateral agreement for mutual vulnerability ever made in a bipolar world, it makes no sense in a world of proliferating nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies. The Soviet Union is gone. Russia will still have at least 3,000 nuclear warheads in the year 2003, and China, which has at least 100 ICBMs, will surely attain a superpower's strategic nuclear arsenal. However, for now the task for missile defense is not to counter the threat of a saturation attack by offensive forces.
Rather, the immediate task is to deploy a missile defense system adequate to defend the nation against an undeterrable attack from a fanatic rogue state, and to reduce, if not destroy, the leverage that a small nuclear (or chemical or biological) arsenal might otherwise give to a small state possessing ballistic missiles.
China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya do not exhaust the possibilities.
The ABM treaty is now construed to permit theater defenses. It does not define them, but creates the anomalous situation in which U.S. technology can be used to protect other nations, but not this nation, from attacks. The Senate measure only calls for being ready to deploy an "affordable" system. It neither commits to deployment, nor defines "affordable," which suggests that the measure is partly designed to give hope to believers in missile defense, but to still adhere to the ABM treaty.
Arms control as its believers envision it -- agreements making the world safer by limiting technology -- rests on the notion that the threat to peace is technological, not political, that the threat is the nature of particular weapons, not of particular regimes. People who subscribe to this catechism cannot comprehend this truth: Arms control generally is impossible until it is unimportant. Until, that is, the political roots of conflict disappear.
However, for the clerisy of specialists that negotiates them, arms control agreements are ends in themselves, independent of any demonstrable contribution they might make to national security. The clerisy's assumption is that the mere act of nations negotiating to an agreement necessarily makes the world safer, hence treaties, unlike the Rockies which may tumble and Gibraltar which may crumble, must last forever.
But treaties are like roses: they last while they last. Which is why most, like the ABM treaty, contain provisions for revising or terminating them. Sen. Bob Dole, by accusing the Clinton administration on Monday of "clinging" to the ABM treaty
instead of responding to the growing threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, has put the issue where it belongs, at the center of the presidential campaign.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.