In a debate that could affect the future of global security, a
movement is growing to rethink some of the most basic principles
guiding US arms control.
For nearly half a century, nonproliferation efforts have focused
on bilateral arms reductions and the principle of "mutually assured
destruction" - that in the event of a final atomic confrontation,
each side would be destroyed.
Those tenets, however, are being nudged aside by a general desire
to look for new answers in a world that has changed dramatically
since the Soviet Union broke up and the cold war ended. Anchoring
the movement is a steady tip in the scales of arms-control thinking
away from offensive weapons and toward defensive weapons, such as
national missile defense, a shield against incoming attacks that is
under consideration for deployment.
"We have a number of years to go in this direction," says retired
Maj. Gen. William Burns, a former director of the US Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency. "But I think it's inevitable."
The shifting emphasis was evident in a "statement of principles"
agreed to Sunday by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President
Clinton on missile defense. While the two sides remain far apart on
the issue, Moscow formally acknowledged that ballistic missile
threats posed by "rogue" nations need to be addressed.
As further evidence of a shift, the Russian leader suggested over
the weekend that Washington and Moscow collaborate on new ways to
shoot down enemy missiles.
The Russian plan, however, is intended to be a substitute for the
nationwide defense shield under consideration by the Clinton
administration to protect the United States from incoming warheads.
Instead, Moscow envisions a more limited, ground-based system to
protect against the nuclear threat posed by "rogue" states.
In the US, the debate over shifting to a more defense-oriented
strategy has crossed partisan lines and has spurred at least two
authoritative arms-control groups into beginning new studies on the
It was brought to life by the Republican presidential hopeful,
Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who has put forth a not-yet-detailed
proposal for the US to unilaterally slash the number of offensive
nuclear weapons, while at the same time building an extensive
defense system - at home and abroad - to guard against missile
He and his advisers argue that the US is still handling arms
control in the context of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and
the US amassed huge arsenals of deterrent nuclear weapons. He argues
that the US should, however, begin paying more strategic attention
to potential attacks from so-called rogue states like North Korea
and Iran, which could be capable of a long-range attack in as few as
"When it comes to nuclear weapons, the world has changed faster
than US policy," Mr. Bush said in a recent press conference.
Bush's plan - both tantalizing and ambitious - has usurped the
Clinton administration, and Mr. Gore, who has yet to articulate a
direct response. It has also surprised some of his fellow
Republicans, who do not necessarily favor unilateral arms
"It really exposes the weakness of the Clinton administration,
which is arms control," says Joseph Cirincione, of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They haven't
delivered very much with controlling nuclear weapons. …