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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 48, July 2000

Profiting from Fear

What had been billed as a crucial test of the proposed US national missile defence (NMD) technology on July 7 was another dud. Did that mean President Clinton would confront the Pentagon and its backers and challenge them to 'put up or shut up'? It appears not. As a decider, the test was strictly one way. If it had succeeded, the clamour from Republicans and some Democrats for Clinton to announce the NMD go-ahead would likely have been intolerable. But its failure has not greatly dented the enthusiasm of NMD advocates, who seem to believe that throwing another few billion dollars of taxpayers' money will fix the technical embarrassments.

Meanwhile, sunshine has begun to thaw the paranoid corners of North Korea's political isolation. Iran, Syria and Libya are no longer such iconic demons to Americans. Saddam Hussein is a bloody tyrant, but he hardly threatens the United States. It is the unfortunate Iraqi people, being bombed, sanctioned and starved into mediaeval squalour, who suffer for his megalomania.

The threat assumptions underlying NMD were never convincing, and are looking increasingly ridiculous. Will that affect the decision to proceed? Probably not. The issue is far more psychological than rational - protecting the American heartlands, throwing a containment field around America's children, grasping the Grail of unilaterally assured safety. Science fiction has a lot to answer for. Miraculous force-fields and perfect containment bubbles were always very popular against unknown and invisible threats, but as anyone who grew up with Star Trek knows, the worst enemies are always lurking on the inside.

Although the US debate over NMD has opened up since Washington insiders told us it was a done deal six months ago, support in Congress remains high. The question, still, is not whether to deploy some form of NMD, but how. Where politics has become presentation, the illusion of an impermeable missile shield is much more important than its actual ability to perform.

The UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee report, issued on August 2, showed a healthy degree of scepticism about NMD. Press reports quoted an unnamed government minister raising the spectre of a Greenham Common style protest if the government allows the United States to upgrade the facilities at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, in line with NMD phase one plans. Helpful no doubt, but much more will be needed.

Although the threat assessments on which NMD is based are largely nonsense, ballistic missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction do constitute a growing threat, and the international community needs to do more to combat and control the danger. Russia has proposed a 'Global Missile and Missile Technology Non-Proliferation Control System (GCS)'. The plan may in part be a public relations exercise intended to undermine the US position. Nevertheless, there is growing interest in addressing missile proliferation, and Russia's proposals are surely worth a second look.

The political impact of the prevailing stalemate at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) also needs a closer look. An ineffective CD plays into the hands of advocates of US unilateralism, providing them with a weapon to discredit multilateral and collective security efforts. Therefore, it is in the interests of those wishing to counteract the US search for unilateral advantage to make every effort to get the CD up and negotiating again.

Nor should the profit motive - so deeply interwoven with the psychology of American well-being - be neglected. US defence industries have played an influential role driving both NATO expansion and NMD. Some of the studies that hyped the 'rogue state' threat, for example, received financial assistance from arms manufacturers and related industries. The end of the Cold War was an uncomfortable time for the weapons industries. The development of new threats requiring expensive new technological responses can be seen in part as a commercial strategy to combat the early post-Cold War moves towards arms reductions and control.

Fear of falling profits must be prevented from driving the world into greater insecurity and a refuelled arms race. Two approaches come to mind: to demonstrate the loss of commercial opportunities if outer space becomes further militarised through missile defence and its support systems; and to help industries retool and retrain for the huge task of dismantling weapons and verifying disarmament agreements. If the pork barrel underpins politics, then show the pork in arms control.


© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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