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Nobel laureate: The Last Thing We Need Is Missile Defence

14.1.2008 - John Polanyi, The Globe and Mail
The Canadian government, having held back from President George W. Bush's rush to war in Iraq, appears likely to join his rush to missile defence.

And it is quite evidently a rush. The Pentagon's top evaluator of weapons programs, Thomas Christie, said in a report in February that the anti-missile system to be deployed next year "has yet to demonstrate significant operational capability."

Nonetheless, it represents the first component of the Bush administration's projected $1-trillion national missile defence (NMD) system planned as a shield against long-range missiles.

If Canada agrees to participate, it will be for political reasons. Having angered the Americans over Iraq, we must now placate them over missile defence. Neither Prime Minister Jean Chrétien nor his cabinet have troubled to convince Canadians of NMD's worth.

Instead, in recent days, Liberal cabinet ministers have lined up to give laconic endorsements. Only Heritage Minister Sheila Copps seems to remember that her party has traditionally opposed Star Wars as a dangerous fantasy. Why this studied calm? Are her colleagues counting on the new Star Wars to go the way of its predecessors?

First there was Nike-Zeus in 1960, and then, when this was cancelled, the Sentinel system. After that, there was Safeguard and, most recently, Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative of 1983. Each was the white hope of its time, and each ended up on the scrap heap. Quite likely, this will be NMD's ultimate fate. But are we to take that as a recommendation? Why has missile defence proved again and again to be a costly and hazardous irrelevance?

First, there is the fact that the defended nation would be foolish to depend on NMD to be more than a half to three-quarters effective. It is, after all, a missile trying to hit another missile, a bullet aimed at a bullet. The ground-based missile defence now being prepared for deployment has yet to prove even that effective.

And this is in recent tests against target missiles of known characteristics, fired from a known place at a known time. The nuclear-armed missile coming from a rogue state (North Korea and Iran being the rather far-fetched candidates) will not be so obliging. Still less, in the distant future, would be a long-range missile were it to be fired by terrorists.

The purpose of this limited defence is stated by the Bush administration to domestic audiences as being the provision of "options" to the President, and to foreign audiences as a "deterrent" against attack. It is neither. Senator Joe Biden, then chair of the U.S. foreign relations committee, said sarcastically in conversation, "How splendid that NMD would give our leaders the option of only losing San Francisco and Chicago."

Nonetheless, NMD will have consequences. China already sees it as a device for reducing the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent and will correspondingly increase its nuclear weapons arsenal. So, then, will Pakistan and India. Other nations will feel entitled, indeed obligated, to follow the NMD path. The U.S., of course, will welcome the opportunity to sell obsolescent NMD components.

It is evident that NMD points the world down the wrong path; it is the path of fortress-building, which, in the 21st century, is hopelessly anachronistic. Unchecked, weapons and counterweapons lead only to the development of further weapons.

In the course of NMD, outer space will be weaponized. Satellites, now the vital eyes and ears of the world, will then become targets.
The pursuit of security through unbridled armament will have led to a pandemic of insecurity.

Mr. Bush was closer to the truth when he declared all-out war on weapons of mass destruction, particularly those in irresponsible hands. Rightly pursued, this is a proper quest, leading, as it must, to restrictions on all such weapons, in whatever hands.

The international control of armaments offers the only protection for the weak, as for the mighty. But dare we tell the emperor that he has no clothes? It would be an act of friendship were we to do so.

Nobel laureate John Polanyi is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto and a member of Pugwash movement.

Source (Canadian): POLANYI, John. The Last Thing We Need Is Missile Defence. The Globe and Mail, 7.5.2003

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