“Unnecessary, unwarranted and unwise.” That’s how Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, described it when President Bush announced that the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The arms-control crowd seemed certain that our “go-it-alone” attitude would only antagonize Russia, China and all of Europe, leaving us without a friend in the world.
Today, 10 years after our withdrawal became official, we can see that these dire predictions were wildly overblown. In fact, the ABM Treaty was making the world arguably less safe by enshrining the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD, aptly enough). The idea was that neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union would launch a missile attack if it knew it would suffer a devastating retaliatory strike.
Only by the most generous definition of the term could such a stalemate be considered “peace.” With both sides officially prohibited from building a missile defense, an arms race was the natural result. The only way in that situation to keep the other guy from firing first: maintain missile superiority -- and that meant building more and more of them. You don’t shoot first if you think you’ll be immediately wiped out in return.
But what about the possibility of accidents? What about the cost of building and maintaining larger and larger arsenals of long-range weapons? Clearly, the ABM Treaty was not cultivating peace, but maintaining an uneasy status quo: a Cold War that could turn hot at the press of a button.
Barely a decade after the pact was signed in 1972, President Reagan realized that this situation was untenable -- and that the MAD doctrine that inspired it was blocking the road to the more reliable peace that could flow from weapons reduction and missile defense. He became the first U.S. president to decry its faults and declare that America needed out of it.
So the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was born. President Reagan’s determination to build a missile shield that the Soviet Union knew it couldn’t afford to match or counteract was one of the key reasons the Cold War ended as it did. Why settle for standoffs such as the Cuban Missile Crisis when you can achieve an actual victory?
As the Independent Working Group, which included a wide range of missile experts, concluded in a 2009 report: “The enduring lesson of the ABM Treaty era is that the absence of defenses, rather than their presence, empowers the development of offensive technologies that can threaten American security and the lives of American citizens.”