USIS Washington File

27 June 2000

Byliner: Senator Joseph Biden on National Missile Defense

(Speech to the Cato Institute on June 27) (2400)

(Following is the text of a speech by Senator Joseph Biden [Democrat,
Delaware], as prepared for delivery at the Cato Institute on June 27.)

National Missile Defense and Strategic Security in the Post-Cold War
By Senator Joseph Biden,

(The author is the senior Democratic member of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee.)

Good afternoon. It is a special honor to address this symposium. This
may be the first gathering to be sponsored by both supporters and
opponents of a national missile defense. That is a significant step
forward in the national debate on missile defense. It reflects a
realization that national security issues are too important to be left
to partisan politicking.

As you surely know, I am a skeptic regarding national missile defense.
I can understand why such a capability might be desired. I am not at
all sure, however, that it is yet feasible. Neither am I convinced
that the system proposed by the Pentagon would work satisfactorily, or
even that deterrence is so bad.

I will be happy to elaborate on those points when I take your
questions. But I suspect that you have been debating them all morning.
So let me give you instead some thoughts on the strategic context
within which the issue of national missile defense must be considered.

Let's begin with the objective of statecraft. It is not simply to
achieve this deployment or to preserve that treaty. Rather, it is to
maximize our overall national security. Many issues are so narrow that
we can ignore the broader context; we ignore relativity theory when
analyzing whether a bridge needs repair. National missile defense is
not one of those narrow issues, however; we must consider its place in
the strategic context of our time.

I submit that we are at a pivotal point in our strategic relationships
with major countries in the world. A decade ago, we began the
transition to a post-Cold War international system. That transition
continues today. Our strategic weapons policy decisions over the next
year or so could determine that transition, for good or for ill.

We have moved from a largely bi-polar world to one in which our
military might is effectively unchallenged, although Russia retains
the capability to inflict immense damage upon us. Many aspects of
strategic arms relationships, however, still remain unsettled:

-- What nuclear force levels will the United States and Russia
maintain in the coming years?

-- Will formal arms control treaties, with their associated benefits
of predictability and verification, become a thing of the past?

-- Will China continue its strategic doctrine of "minimal deterrence?"
Or will it significantly increase the number and accuracy of its
missiles or warheads, perhaps deploying MIRVed (Multiple
Independently-Targeted Reentry Vehicle) ICBM's (Intercontinental
Ballistic Missiles)?

-- Will Chinese actions lead India and Russia to increase their
forces, perhaps igniting an Asian arms race? Will other countries in
East Asia decide to go nuclear?

-- Will non-proliferation be reinforced as a principal objective of
the nuclear weapons states, or will they help other countries to
develop those weapons and the missiles (or cruise missiles) with which
to deliver them?

-- Will our allies remain confident of our commitment to their
security and accepting of our leadership? Or, for one reason or
another, will they seek to counterbalance us, keep their distance from
us, or rely more upon their own military forces?

-- Will the countries seen today as potential developers of nuclear
weapons and long-range missiles live up to our fears? Or will changes
on the Korean peninsula, in Iran, or in the Middle East reduce the
current threats and give us more time and more options?

What sort of world will we face in the coming decades, and what role
will we play in it? When the Cold War ended, many predicted a "New
World Order" in which the great powers would realize their common
interests and work together to maintain international stability.

That new world has yet to come about.

A whole series of issues has divided Russia from the United States.
Russia's military, economic and political weakness has given us
greater freedom of action, but has also made Russia more distrusting
of the West. Meanwhile, international and ethnic disputes that had
been sublimated in the Cold War have surfaced and bred wars, terrorism
and proliferation.

These new instabilities have led supporters of a national missile
defense to view the current era as a window of opportunity in which to
build a shield against ballistic missile attack, before Russia or
China becomes strong enough to block us. Some see missile defense as a
hedge against an unstable leader who might not be deterred even by our
overwhelming force. Others see it as a means of maintaining our
freedom from blackmail if another country were to threaten nuclear
retaliation in an effort to keep us from intervening to save an ally
from invasion. Still others see it as a shield against a small attack
by any country, and eventually as a shield against all attacks, even
from Russia.

What I find interesting -- and a little frightening -- is the
unrelieved pessimism that underlies that approach to the world. A
decade ago, even conservatives saw hope for "a world transformed." Now
that vision has been discarded, and their hope is put instead in
better weapons -- both offensive and defensive -- to maintain U.S.

I think the conservatives are missing a bet here. The world has yet to
be transformed into a really benign place, but there have still been
some real advances. I think we still have an opportunity to build a
more stable world. On the other hand, I fear that acting upon our
worst fears will only make those fears come true.

U.S.-Russian relations are often frustrating, but they are far better
than they were in the Cold War. Russia has a NATO relationship. It
participates in peace-keeping operations. It has allowed international
action on Iraq. It has lowered its strategic nuclear forces and is
more than willing to continue that process. It no longer targets its
missiles at the United States - which is no safeguard against a future
decision to fire them at us, but is a very good safeguard against an
accidental attack. And, however much we may question Russia's motives
or its sincerity, it has offered to help wean North Korea away
from long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S.-Chinese relations are similarly a glass that is either half-full
or half-empty. China's impatience regarding Taiwan is a matter of
great concern; rash actions there could lead to terrible consequences.
China has also contributed significantly and foolishly to the
proliferation of long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, China -- which once argued that every country should
develop nuclear weapons -- now recognizes the need for nuclear
non-proliferation. It has given North Korea good counsel on that. It
ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. It reduced its cooperation
with Iran. It did not block international action on Iraq. It is
reducing the stranglehold that the People's Liberation Army had on its
economy. And it is opening up its economy to the world, which will
further erode the grip of the Communist Party upon people's daily
lives and their political expectations.

In recent weeks, we have seen possible steps toward a transformed
world on the Korean peninsula. Will continued rapprochement with South
Korea and with the United States open North Korea to economic reform
and lead it to end its long-range missile programs? A safe bet is that
it won't happen overnight. But the odds of these good outcomes are
better than they have been in more than half a century.

The same is true in the Middle East, where Israel, the Palestinians,
and Syria are enmeshed in difficult -- but serious -- efforts to
settle their disputes. Similarly, in Iran, while conservative clerics
still view America as the Great Satan, other clerics - with
overwhelming popular support - are slowly moving Iran toward a more
rational view of the world.

These trends may change. A safer world to come is far from certain.
But we would be foolish to ignore these forces, just as we would be
foolish to ignore the risks posed by weapons proliferation. We would
also be foolish if we were to sacrifice these possibilities through a
short-sighted obsession with deploying a national missile defense.

I think that a single-minded push for national missile defense would
indeed sacrifice some real opportunities to make the world a safer

-- If we were to abrogate the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, we
would sacrifice both the START process and, perhaps, the INF Treaty.

-- Russia might then see the world's trouble-makers as its only
friends, and undercut the world's non-proliferation regimes.

-- If we were to deploy the national missile defense proposed by the
Pentagon, China would surely increase its nuclear forces. China is
already modernizing its nuclear forces, at least to improve their
survivability. Our deployment -- even if Russia acceded to it - would
lead China to do more.

-- If we were to abrogate the ABM Treaty, China, too, might well
engage in increased arms proliferation.

-- Our allies, as well, would be deeply shaken. Whatever our reasons,
they would see our actions as reckless, rather than prudent. This
would undermine our influence in the world, even if it were to
increase our military freedom of action.

-- Finally, the world's trouble-makers would still be tempted to cause
us grief, but with renewed support from an aggrieved Russia and China.

And make no mistake: even if we were to achieve a perfect defense
against ICBM's, there are other ways to devastate us with weapons of
mass destruction. As our Intelligence Community has made clear, those
other ways are cheaper, easier, and much harder to track - hence, less
likely to lead to prompt retaliation.

Thus, it is not long-range ballistic missiles, but the other delivery
systems that raise the real specter of a failure of deterrence. My
conservative friends are fond of saying that arms control is dangerous
because it distracts us from real threats to our security. I would
say, rather, that national missile defense will distract us from those
real threats.

I noted at the beginning that the objective of statecraft is to
maximize our overall national security. I doubt that deploying the
Pentagon's national missile defense will do that. I am certain that
abrogating the ABM Treaty will not do that.

Must we give up forever the idea of national missile defense? No. I
said that I can understand why such a capability might be desired, and
I do. The problem with a national missile defense, however, aside from
the fact that it's never as easy to achieve as its supporters claim,
is how to deploy it without sacrificing other interests that we value

One answer, I think, is that the political transformation must precede
the strategic one. The end of the Cold War was the beginning of that
political transformation, but not the end of it. We must achieve
greater comity among the world's nuclear powers before we will be in a
position to move safely to strategic missile defense. A premature
effort to force strategic defense upon an unwilling world will only
sacrifice the halting, but real, transformation that is still under

Another answer is that the type of national missile defense is as
important as the timing of it. It will be much easier to get other
powers to accept joint missile defenses aimed at agreed threats than a
U.S. defense that is designed to combat all threats. That is part of
the logic behind Dick Garwin's proposal of a land- or sea-based system
using boost-phase interceptors.

Russia's recent proposals are also for boost-phase interceptors. Those
proposals may not be workable. They would be less useful for us as
than for Russia or Western Europe, which are vulnerable to threats
from shorter-range missiles than those that we would face. But the
Russian proposals are a base upon which we might build a different
approach to national missile defense.

We should pursue Russia's proposals very seriously. A cooperative
missile defense could knit Russia into a Western defense framework.
Indeed, some Russian generals have called for that, despite their
distrust of us. This would transform Russia's role in the world. It
might just pave the way for a world-wide shift from pure deterrence to
an agreed mix of offense and defense.

What we should not do is proceed with deployment of the Pentagon's
proposed national missile defense. Even if next month's test should
succeed, we all know that too much will remain untested. Even if the
system should achieve its projected capabilities, we all know that it
will not stop a missile with biological weapon sub-munitions or with
sophisticated countermeasures. Even if Russia were finally to make its
peace with such a system, the likely price would be a return to
Russian MIRVed ICBM's and the risk of an Asian nuclear arms race that
would pose further risks of nuclear proliferation.

In recent weeks, supporters of national missile defense and skeptics
like me have found ourselves in agreement on the bottom line, although
hardly on our reasons for it. Perhaps this symposium should formalize
that agreement. If the Council for a Livable World, the Cato
Institute, and the National Defense University Foundation were to join
in recommending that a deployment decision be postponed, that would be
noticed -- just as people noticed last week's debate in which Jim
Woolsey and Richard Perle had nothing good to say about the Pentagon's

For the short run, we can agree on the doctor's approach of "do no
harm." That is the message we must send -- not just to the President,
but also to those conservative Republicans who would accuse the
President and the Vice President of being "soft on missile defense."
If we really want the President to "do no harm" and to defer a
deployment decision, then we must also agree not to use that decision
for partisan advantage. That is a real challenge now, but I think we
can do it.

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