t sounds like something from a previous era. But if you thought talks on nuclear missiles were a relic from the Cold War, think again. Last week officials from the US State Department returned from Moscow after failing to get their counterparts there to agree to rewrite the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. It was not a happy end to the encounter.
The Americans were hoping to persuade the Russians to change the terms of the treaty to allow the US to deploy a nationwide anti- missile defence system - allegedly to protect them against attacks from so-called "rogue states" such as Iraq, North Korea or even Iran. This follows a much-disputed CIA warning that the US could face an intercontinental ballistic missile attack involving nuclear, chemical or biological warheads within the next 15 years. The proposal is essentially a return to President Reagan's Star Wars project.
The Russians refused point blank. One of their military leaders last week threatened "retaliatory steps" if the US goes ahead with plans to build a "Son of Star Wars" anti- ballistic missile system. General Anatoly Kvashnin, the chief of the Russian General Staff, insists that "rogue states" are not the real targets. "The selection of the deployment areas makes the objective of the national system clear," he said. "It is to intercept ballistic missiles launched from Russia and China."
The Russians have said no. So have the Chinese. So have the French. But what of the British? Usually Tony Blair has been eager to support Mr Clinton in his military activities: sometimes, as with the bombing of an aspirin factory near Khartoum, too eager, as he himself must surely realise. But this time the stakes are much higher - as high as they could possibly be.
It is important that Mr Blair should understand why so many nations are firmly opposed to the US proposal. For it could re-open the sluice gates that at present hold back not only the old-style arms race but also new ones. There has been a revolution in military affairs since the treaty was signed. Ever more sophisticated techniques for hacking into and disrupting hi-tech computer systems could lead to a devastating new style of "information warfare".
Anti-ballistic missiles may at first glance appear to be purely defensive: a shield, as Ronald Reagan thought of his Star Wars project, to protect you from attack. But in fact their role in nuclear deterrence strategy is not simply, or principally, defensive: they also provide their owner with protection against an enemy's second-strike retaliation to his own first-strike attack. Thus they undermine the mutual fear of retaliation which is the essence of "stable deterrence".
Margaret Thatcher understood this. She also knew that a substantial Russian system would neutralise the British independent nuclear deterrent - which is why she visited President Reagan in December 1984 and secured from him a commitment not to endanger the ABM Treaty or indeed deterrence itself with Star Wars. He agreed to confine Star Wars to "research" and accepted that anything beyond that should be "a matter of negotiation". These commitments bound him only, and have long since lapsed. The research has already swallowed $100bn.
At present (and possibly Mr Blair does not appreciate this) Britain is preparing to take part at least as landlords in the American National Missile Defense System. At what is misleadingly called "RAF" Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, the US is already installing the ground parts of the new space-based infra-red system that would form the listening post for the "Son of Star Wars" which President Clinton …