Nuclear Realism*: The Red Herring of “Missile Shields”

Before I’m called to account by someone else with political training, I mean realism, as in, life lived in a reality-based world, not realism, the school of foreign policy. There.

Now. If you’ve read Sarah Palin’s position on the New START treaty, such as it is, you’re probably wondering, huh? The half-term governor manages to obscure her argument so well, that one wonders whether her utter disconnect from the facts of the treaty owes more to mendacity, or simple incompetence. As it turns out, first the latter, then the former.

Current Republican opposition to New START stems from a position first articulated, in its most cogent form, by John Yoo, the architect of America’s abusive detention policies, who famously justified torture by misquoting a passage from Medicare law; and John Bolton, the diplomat who views diplomacy as something approximating an inconvenience. Why we should trust such persons to resolve matters of state is beyond me, but here we are. In an op-ed in last month’s New York Times, the two Johns build their case against the treaty by emphasizing the danger of ineffectual precatory language, and blasting President Obama’s attempt to mitigate the nonexistent danger through, well, nonexistent precatory language.

Stated more clearly, the conservative case against New START points to language in the preamble acknowledging a simple reality, that deterrence depends upon both missiles, and missile shields:

New Start also reflects the Obama administration’s lack of seriousness about national missile defense. Its preamble accepts an unspecified “interrelationship” between nuclear weapons and defensive systems. Politically, even if not in treaty language, the Russians get what they want: no significant United States efforts on missile defense.

Of course, it is the “black letter law” of national defense policy that missile defense shields undermine nuclear policy, by upsetting the current paradigm of mutual deterrence. Bolton & Yoo correctly indicate that acknowledging this relationship could be construed as a concession to Russia, whose leadership hopes that America will remember this point, and abstain from building a missile shield accordingly. But it is a pointless concession. Preambulatory language places America under no legal obligation to do or not do anything. You might as well argue that legislative “findings” about the “sanctity of life” somehow ban the death penalty. This is not how laws or treaties work, and the Johns know it. God help us if they don’t.

But more to the point, if the treaty did prevent construction of a missile shield… so what? Nota bene to the Republican base, but “missile shields” don’t work, and there is no “missile shield” to “reinstate.” America has never had an active, functional, effective missile defense program. The technology actually does not exist. One might as well “reinstate” Starfleet. It’d be nice if we had a missile defense program, but it would also be nice if we had a fleet of faster-than-light starships. As it stands, the two are equally plausible.

Even modest missile defense schema have proven spectacular, and recent, failures, whose existence proves only that, despite the program’s hitherto quixotic nature, the President actually has no intent of abandoning missile defense plans, as the Johns assume without evidence. In fact, Obama’s focus on boost-phase interception has taken missile defense the closest to reality that it has ever been, with no end in sight. Should this fear keep you up at night, rest assured: contrary to the suggestions of a war criminal and an ideologue, this President will not abandon America’s commitment to ineffective, ludicrously expensive missile defense technology, and has not pledged to do so.

Missile treaties are serious matters that may be met with serious criticism. A treaty that took America’s probable second-strike capability below 300 megatons — the tonnage required to, under conservative estimates, wipe Russia’s population from the planet after a first-strike — would seriously compromise our deterrent capability. No-one has alleged that New START would so cripple our defense, because they cannot. This is the irreducible bottom line of nuclear missile reduction. All other figures are beside the point. The failure of conservative politicians to engage on this simple issue tells you all you need to know about New START. Ignore distractions; pass the damn treaty.



  1. Two small things:

    Firstly, John Bolton is not a diplomat, he’s a politician and lobbyist who on occasion has masqueraded as one. But possibly apart from the Proliferation Security Initiative, I can’t recall anything he’s accomplished diplomatically. He’s messed a whole lot up, but anyone can do that. He’s like a doctor who’s never actually cured a patient.

    Secondly, a missile defence is perhaps slightly more plausible than FTL starships at the moment. Difficult, to be sure, but at least it doesn’t violate any physical laws as we know them.

    That said, I’d wholeheartedly support any initiative to reinstate Starfleet, and deficits and Outer Space Treaty be damned.

    1. That said, I’d wholeheartedly support any initiative to reinstate Starfleet

      We choose to go to Vulcan. We choose to go to Vulcan in this century and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

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