Waltz on Nuclear Defenses

"The best one can say about missile defenses is that they won't work. (If they did, an offense-defense race would result, with all too familiar consequences). Missile defenses are easily thwarted. In the nuclear business, offensive weapons are much cheaper than defensive ones. Other states can multiply their warheads; they can confound defenses by deploying decoys and spreading chaff; they can outflank defenses by delivering warheads in any of many different ways - by plane, by ships, by cruise missiles, by missiles fired on depressed trajectories. Missile defenses would be the most complicated system ever mounted, and the system would have to work with near perfection in meeting its first realistic test - the test of enemy fire. Some warheads may get through, and both the attacked and the attacker will know that. No president will rely on such a system but instead will avoid actions that might provoke an attack. With or without defenses, the restraints on American policy are the same."1

So what could the point of the current missile defense shield in Europe be, including Obama's new plans for a primarily sea-based one? My guess is that it is purely a political gamble:
  • Domestically: voters in the US like the idea of being "protected" from incoming nukes.
  • Internationally: Bush and Obama might hope that Iran will scrap its nuclear ambitions if they can be made to believe that their weapons would be ineffective.
 This second idea seems unlikely. After all, Iran has nuclear ambitions because it feels insecure, not because it necessarily hopes to use the bomb. Anyway, it would be more likely to use its nukes against another Middle Eastern country (probably even excluding Israel!) than against the United States or Europe.

Conclusion? The "defense shield" is domestic political pandering for electoral gain. "But Bush couldn't get re-elected again after 2004, but continued to push the shield" you say? No problem, the shield was an aid to his party, and can still be used as evidence the republicans are tougher protectors of American safety than democrats (regardless of the fact that Obama's plans would eventually be more costly, but also more effective, than the land-based Bush plan).

Say "no" to "missile defense!" Say "yes" to arms control!

1. Waltz, Kenneth. "The Continuity of International Politics." In Realism and International Politics, 246-250. New York: Routledge, 2008.


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