Build security through engagement

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2001, 12:00am

UNITED STATES President George W. Bush's decision to go ahead with plans for a missile-defence system is dangerous for Asia and the rest of the world. It is also bad for the US. Here is why.

If the US were to build a system to shoot down incoming missiles, it would end the delicate balancing act by which the world's nuclear powers have managed to live with the enormous destructive power of their weapons.

Until now, they have avoided the risks of nuclear war through a policy that seemingly contradicts common sense. Instead of building defensive shields against nuclear attacks, they have deliberately left themselves vulnerable. If any country were to launch a nuclear attack, it would in turn be vulnerable to massive retaliation. It was by keeping themselves open to retaliatory attacks that the five nuclear powers ensured that their weapons were never used. Mr Bush's plan will overturn the rules by which the world has lived with nuclear weapons for so long.

The US has the world's most powerful and sophisticated stocks of offensive nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the world several times over. The rest of the world lives with this partly because the US cannot launch its nuclear forces without running the risk of retaliation from another nuclear power. With a missile shield, it would theoretically become possible for the US to threaten or order a nuclear attack against another nuclear power while remaining secure against retaliation. This would give the US an effective nuclear monopoly. The US president would in effect hold the power of life and death over the rest of the world.

The idea of a US president deciding to destroy the world is something only a Hollywood scriptwriter would take seriously. But a US nuclear monopoly is still worrying because of the political impact it would have. It would add to the preponderance of economic and political power the US already enjoys.

Countries such as China, and to a lesser extent India, have interests and a view of the world which do not coincide with that of the US. They would clearly be uncomfortable with a US missile shield. These are countries that have no desire to be minor players in a world dominated by US nuclear power. A natural response would be to find some way to minimise the impact of US power by developing new kinds of weapons-delivery systems. Russia is also unhappy about the missile-defence system. Although it does not have the money, it does have the scientific know-how to develop offensive weapons to thwart the shield.

The Bush administration is selling the missile-defence system as a way to protect itself and its allies against rogue states, such as North Korea, Iraq, Iran and Libya. At present, none of these countries have the ability to build missiles with a range long enough to threaten the US. The CIA has estimated it would take decades for North Korea to be able to build a missile system with intercontinental capabilities, and the scientific capabilities of the other countries on the US radar lag even further. This has led to doubts in Russia, China and other parts of the world about whether these small countries are the real reason for the missile shield.

Last year, the Federation of American Scientists pointed out in a letter to then-US president Bill Clinton that: 'It would be difficult to persuade China that the US is wasting tens of billions of dollars on an ineffective missile-defence system against small states that are unlikely to launch a missile attack on the US. The Russians and Chinese must therefore conclude that the presently planned system is a stage in developing a bigger system directed against them.'

In his speech on Tuesday outlining his plans for a missile-defence shield, Mr Bush did hit on the crucial issue facing the world today. With the Cold War over, he spoke of the need to build a new basis for security. We must seek security based on more than the grim premise that we can destroy those who seek to destroy us.

So what would be the best way to build a more secure world? There is a way the US can help build global security. This would not be through its military muscle but rather by using the other great source of its power: the strength of its economy.

Recent history has shown that the greatest carrot the US can offer potentially hostile countries is trade and investment. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, has demonstrated that his biggest preoccupation at present is developing his wretchedly poor country and opening it to the outside world. Mr Clinton had begun a process of engagement with North Korea which, had it been taken forward, might have reduced the threat to US interests from Pyongyang.

The Bush administration has put engagement with North Korea on hold. Rather than spending billions of dollars building missile shields that might not even work, the US would be better off engaging with countries such as North Korea and demonstrating to their leaders the benefits that would flow from a co-operative rather than a confrontational relationship.

Such a policy would help build stability and prosperity in Asia far more effectively than any missile-defence system.

Thomas Abraham is a Post Deputy Editor (