US Withdrawal From ABM Treaty- II

(The first part of this article appeared in last week’s issue dated 30-12-2001)

CHAIRMAN of the US Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Joseph R Biden Jr forcefully argued that “the ultimate test in deciding to scrap a treaty that has helped keep the peace for 30 years is [indeed] whether it makes the United States more or less secure. In that light, president Bush’s decision to unilaterally walk away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is a serious mistake. Lessons we should have learned from the devastating attack of September 11 is that terrorists determined to do… harm can employ a wide variety of means, and that weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological or even nuclear—need not arrive on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a return address.” In fact, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a Report have stated that an ICBM launch ranks last on the “threat spectrum” in the United States, while terrorist attacks constitute the greatest potential threat to US security.


This assessment about the ABM Treaty is reinforced by widespread scepticism among scientists and defence experts regarding the utility of the NMD system itself. The latest test conducted as part of the system development has done nothing to reduce this scepticism. Of the two previous tests, one failed while the second had limited “success” but heavily clouded by the favourable conditions stage-managed for it. In the test on December 3 this year, after three postponements due to bad weather (leading to some sceptics terming it a “fair-weather test”), the kill vehicle launched from US Military Base in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific hit the Minuteman II missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The incoming missile had a warhead and a decoy which was successfully avoided by the kill missile. Conditions however were doctored once again. There was only a single decoy rather than multiple decoys expected in real situations and the warhead had a transponder emitting signals enabling accurate tracking and targeting.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), founded in 1945 by scientists who built the first atomic bomb and having on its Board more than half the current American Nobel Laureates, has not only questioned the feasibility of the NMD but also criticised the decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The FAS sponsored a letter from 50 American Nobel laureates to House and Senate leaders calling upon Congress not to fund or build missile defense systems because they will squander resources needed to defend against terrorism and urging that the ABM Treaty remain in force. “Deployment of the planned NMD system would offer the United States very little, if any, protection against limited ballistic missile attacks, while increasing the risks from other more likely and more dangerous threats to U S national security,” it said. “This so-called NMD won’t do the job,” said the Chairman, Andrew Sessler, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a former president of the American Physical Society.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) voicing similar concerns, also pointed out that, according to their reading and what the Bush administration as well as the Republican right had been arguing for long, the ABM Treaty did not really prevent research and development of land- based anti-ballistic missile systems and that Russia had appeared willing to discuss provisions within the Treaty which would make this possible. The UCS therefore argue that “if the testing rationale were the real justification behind withdrawal from the treaty, there would be no reason to withdraw from the treaty now, or in the foreseeable future. Instead, the real reason for the timing of the US withdrawal appears to be political. The Bush administration has made clear its desire to pull out of the treaty, and a near-term withdrawal appears designed to take advantage of muted domestic and international criticism in the wake of the war in Afghanistan.”

The US decision to scrap the ABM Treaty and launch a NMD system are both motivated by a common goal namely total US strategic dominance, not only vis-a-vis Russia but over the whole world. And the US is making it clear that it will brook no opposition to this goal, even if it comes from its closest allies in the EU or from Japan, nor will it allow any niceties such as international agreements to stand in the way. As an editorial in the Peoples Daily from Beijing put it in its typically stylised and pithy way, the US announcement was “full of hegemonic air”.


The Peoples Daily editorial also sneeringly spoke of Russia’s earlier strident opposition to the US position on the NMD and ABM Treaty, their negotiating position in the last year or so as well as their muted if not quiescent response to the US withdrawal announcement. The article suggested that, since Russia under president Putin had adopted a pronouncedly pro-US position further cemented by their apparent closeness in the “coalition against terrorism”, Russia had no option but to acquiesce with the US decision. While the thrust of this argument is indisputable, there are other aspects to be noted.

Presidents Bush and Putin met in Genoa in July 2001 trying to determine whether a compromise on the ABM Treaty was possible followed by official-level consultations in Washington. US negotiators reportedly complained that the Russians wanted the right to approve or disapprove every future test while the Russians maintained that they had urged allowing certain types of tests, while the United States wanted sweeping amendments to the ABM Treaty that would have effectively eliminated the Treaty in all but name.

According to some reports, during a November 8 telephone conversation, George Bush offered Vladimir Putin the chance to jointly abrogate the ABM Treaty, warning that the US would withdraw anyway. Putin, however, refused, since he did not want Russia to share any of the political responsibility for such a step which would also lower his government’s image domestically as one taken under US pressure. The same reports have it that president Putin also assured Bush that the Russian response to the withdrawal would be muted.

Various reports, including some from Russian commentators, suggest that other considerations may have come into play. The Russian military thought the US would try NMD for a few years and then give up due to its failure or high cost, at which stage the ABM treaty could be revived. Russian sources are quite frank in their assessment that the NMD will not work and will in any case not pose a threat to their nuclear capability. If worst came to the worst, and Russia had to start increasing its nuclear arsenal so as to potentially overwhelm any anti-missile shield, they could do so simply by adding extra warheads to existing missiles, for instance by building multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV) capability to their Topol-M missiles. Russia can also now go ahead with modernising their limited arsenal, hitherto prohibited by START-I, and the Russian military and leadership can now safely argue that if ABM is dead, so are all earlier arms-limitation treaties. For the moment, Russia is quite happy to accept the fait accompli stoically and occupy the moral high ground which president Putin expects would give Russia further leverage in western Europe in the coming months and years.

In the long term although the ABM Treaty is a bilateral one between the US and Russia, implications of the US withdrawal will be global and will be felt perhaps for many decades.

The US decision on the ABM Treaty falls into the same pattern as the recent US declaration at the UN that it now completely rejects the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and does not even want it included in the agenda of the UN General Assembly, something which even India, which has opposed the CTBT on grounds of its being part of a discriminatory package along with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), did not object to! The Bush administration has also refused to submit the Treaty on the International Criminal Court for consent by the US Senate, walked out of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change despite 165 countries having agreed to it, and refused to join an international agreement against Biological Weapons. Taken together, these are definitive that the United States has become a rogue superpower that considers itself above any law or international covenant.

This unilateralism had not wavered even during the “coalition-building” process that the US has led following the September 11 attacks. All countries were virtually forced to join through inducements on the one hand and some alarming threats on the other. But there was never a hint of apology for what many saw as an instinctive White House contempt for the outside world. To be sure, there are opposing voices within the US, including important ones in the Senate, but they are neither loud nor resonant especially in the present context.

But in each of the international fora where US unilateralism and arrogance was publicly on display, US isolation has become sharper and more evident. So too has the resolve of all countries, including that of the US’ closest allies, not to let themselves be bullied indefinitely and to carry on to build global systems, despite all their weaknesses, and even in the face of strident opposition and boycott by the sole superpower. Slowly but surely the US is spending the international reserves of support it has built up over the years and it is now possible to imagine that, one day, however far off, these reserves will dry up and leave the US empty-handed.