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The Reagan Doctrine

You might have missed it, but it was boomed in January.

By From the March 1985 issue

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(From the March, 1985 issue of The American Spectator.)

Nuclear weapons kill people. They should be limited and, ideally, completely dismantled. Satellites and other systems that defend people against those weapons should not be limited. Indeed, they should be encouraged: It will be easier to limit offensive arms if such defenses are allowed.

This, in a nutshell, is the U.S. arms control position that emerged from the furious parlaying at and around Geneva. In the face of Soviet attempts to use negotiations to kill our "Star Wars" defense program, Ronald Reagan and his spokesmen -- Caspar Weinberger, Robert McFarlane, George Shultz, and Kenneth Adelman -- made it clear before, during, and after the talks that Star Wars is no mere bargaining chip. Rather, strategic defenses are the foundation of a whole new structure for arms control talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

This new Reagan Doctrine was conveyed time and again in the weeks surrounding Geneva. In a major speech on Star Wars before Christmas, Caspar Weinberger stated emphatically that Star Wars will not be traded away. He also gave several reasons why the American left and the Soviets should welcome a gradual build-up of defenses and a gradual build-down of offenses as a step toward disarmament. Asked about Weinberger's speech, Reagan reiterated that he does not intend to trade Star Wars away. Pressed by reporters to explain if this would eliminate any "linkage" at Geneva, Reagan publicly announced his instruction to Shultz that he should inform the Russians we will not trade away Star Wars to get an agreement on offensive arms. Rather, he said, we will talk about limiting or eliminating almost any offensive system, but only under an umbrella of defensive protection. Shultz effectively did this in refusing Gromyko's demand that the U.S. freeze its Star Wars program while talks on offensive weapons continue.

All the signs that this was the official U.S. position were somehow missed in what must have been a million words of sometimes perceptive, often inane commentary by Western journalists. The press insisted on jumping for joy when the U.S. and Soviets agreed to talk about space weapons. Some even praised Reagan for cleverly using Star Wars as a ploy to get the Soviets back to the table. Yet at a press conference the evening after the talks closed, President Reagan emphasized, as he had for Margaret Thatcher just before Geneva, that our aim at the talks would be to explain that the encouragement of defenses will promote progress on eliminating nuclear weapons, not hinder it.

Ironically, by treating the mere opening of talks on Star Wars as a major victory for arms control, the press unwittingly implied that the legitimacy of such weapons is no longer in doubt. Where does that leave the 1972 treaty on anti-ballistic missiles, which outlawed strategic defenses? As Morton Kondracke astutely pointed out, the real meaning of Geneva is that the ABM treaty, in effect, will have to be renegotiated. This will have no bearing on whether Star Wars will proceed, but rather on the larger issue of whether the limits on defenses established twelve years ago will ever apply again. How could so many commentators and pundits miss such a radical change of arms control course? Part of the answer lies in simple fatuity. Television and even newspaper journalists were so busy reading entrails -- Did the inflection in Shultz's voice change from the first meeting? Was Gromyko smiling, or didn't he like the shrimp cocktail? -- that they had no time to listen to what Reagan and his deputies were saying.

What is fortunately beginning to sink in is that Star Wars is not some hopeless boondoggle. If it were, we would not be seeing such a panicky determination on the part of the Soviets to kill it. Indeed, the Soviet Union's frenzied effort to stop Star Wars has convinced many conventional wisdomers -- Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Charles Krauthammer -- that it may be useful in providing the Soviets with a great incentive to bargain, constituting a "chip" in the old arms control sense.

But the bargaining chip argument ends the moment the chip is traded away. And if Star Wars really is so effective, why squander it? This is the essence of the Reagan Doctrine, which sees that defenses are one thing that should not be traded for "progress" on other fronts. Rather, both sides should vigorously pursue Star Wars and other related ideas because the protection of defense-oriented systems will make it easier to negotiate both arms control and, ultimately, disarmament.

THIS PROPOSITION SOUNDS radical only to those mesmerized by the countervailing logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, on which the ABM treaty was based. The idea of "defense protected build-down" was in fact first stated by the Soviet Union. In a long-since forgotten speech to the U.N. General Assembly in 1962, Andrei Gromyko set forth the case for what is now the Reagan Doctrine:

Policy-making officials in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries can be heard saying that the best guarantee against a new war is the "balance of fear." Means of destruction and annihilation have become so powerful, argue the proponents of this view, that no state will run the risk of starting a nuclear war since it will inevitably sustain a retaliatory nuclear blow . . . . But to base the policy of states on a feeling of universal fear would be tantamount to keeping the world in a permanent state of feverish tension and eve-of-war hysteria.

Instead, Gromyko and the Soviets argued for a swift program of nuclear disarmament. In case the West should suspect the Soviets of cheating on such an agreement, Gromyko proposed that both sides be allowed to build defenses against nuclear weapons, providing "a cover" against such trickery. Now, in 1962, the Soviets had rather more to gain than the U.S. from nuclear disarmament. The U.S. enjoyed a substantial strategic advantage, as the Soviets would soon learn during the Cuban missile crisis. We relied on nuclear weapons to back up the conventional defense of Europe. Nevertheless, John F. Kennedy was intrigued by Gromyko's draft disarmament treaty, and rightly so. Kennedy was also receiving reports on a "Star Wars" program of his own -- Project Defender, a proposed space-based defense against Soviet missiles under study since the Eisenhower Administration. Kennedy saw that Gromyko's disarmament offer when combined with a Project Defender program might enable his administration to free the world from the nuclear threat, at the cost only of a slightly larger budget for the United States and Europe.

But JFK's interest in strategic defense, and the Gromyko treaty, never had a chance to come to fruition. First the Cuban missile crisis, and then Lee Harvey Oswald, deferred any serious discussion of these ideas. In the aftermath of JFK's death, Robert McNamara emerged as the chief creator of strategic doctrine in the Johnson Administration. And McNamara was seized by the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction, believing that in a few years, when the Soviets achieved offensive parity, the futility of MAD would make disarmament inevitable.

The Soviets, for their part, went along reluctantly. By the late 1960s, however, they became aware of how the MAD strategy was eroding America's will. Suddenly, it seemed possible that the Americans really would not pursue strategic defense. It was even possible for the Soviets to envision and plan for a first strike of their own. With the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972, the Soviets codified the MAD doctrine that has made their buildup of nuclear weapons so effective.

The Reagan Doctrine enjoys even better technologies for defense than President Kennedy had in 1962. But it is based on principles similar to those outlined by Gromyko at the U.N.

In the first place, strategic defenses constitute a kind of "automatic arms control," as Reagan science adviser George Keyworth put it. An 80-percent effective defense constitutes a reduction of an opponent's destructive capacity just as surely as an arms control treaty requiring an opponent to dismantle 80 percent of his force. Of course, that still leaves each side with thousands of warheads. But then, so did the Salt II treaty. According to MAD proponents, defenses must be "perfect" to have any utility, whereas pieces of paper need only represent a "first step" in the right direction. The Reagan Doctrine, as expounded by Keyworth and Weinberger, simply undoes that old double standard, and says that defenses should he evaluated on the same scale as treaties: In other words, are they moving us in the right direction?

Even more important, however, is the incentive effect set up by such defenses, no matter how imperfect they may be. The presence of U.S. Star Wars systems greatly argues for smaller Soviet expenditures on strategic missiles. Just as an 80 percent tax on widgets will tend to channel investment capital into products other than widgets, so too an 80 percent "tax" on Soviet missiles will lead the Soviets away from the massive buildup of missiles that they have undertaken since the 1960s.

Naturally the Soviets will do what they can to thwart such a system with various countermeasures, a number of which have been suggested by domestic critics of Star Wars. On the other hand, the United States will try to thwart those countermeasures and, over time, can expect to improve its defenses to catch more and more offensive weapons. And there are no cheap counters to the multilayer defense envisioned by Star Wars proponents. Overall, the rationale for building offensive weapons cannot be as strong in a world where defense is allowed, and this holds true whether the defenses under discussion are 1 percent effective, 50 percent effective, or 99.999 percent effective.

Furthermore, strategic defense can greatly ease what might be called the greatest sticking point of arms control today: verification. In the first place, a U.S. (Soviet) strategic defense reduces the advantages to the Soviets (the U.S.) from cheating. Facing an 80-percent effective defense, the Soviets might add 1,000 new warheads to their offensive force, but they would gain only 200 deliverable warheads for their effort.

Knowing this, moreover, the United States would have less to fear from Soviet cheating. Once our defenses are in place, the cost of responding to a Soviet offensive buildup is not building more offenses of our own, or even building a whole new defense. Rather, we would only need to add a few interceptors on the margin to an already existing defense. Thus, if the Soviets add 1,000 (very expensive) nuclear missiles, we need only add 1,000 or 2,000 (very inexpensive) non-nuclear interceptors in space or on the ground.

What good are all these incentives, however, if the world is still left armed to the teeth with offensive weapons, against which there is no final and perfect defense? The Brookings Institution provides the answer, saying that while leak-proof defense may not be feasible,

other missions, for less-than-perfect defenses, are technically achievable and might be very useful. And missile-delivered nuclear weapons might indeed be rendered "impotent and obsolete," to use President Reagan's phrase in his speech March 1983 in the following sense: defenses might someday be possible for which each missile warhead added by the offense could be offset by defensive improvements of comparable or lesser cost. This would make marginal increases in missile forces unattractive to the offense, and ballistic missiles would be "obsolete"...

Indeed, unlike the SALT treaties, such dynamics do not at all depend on U.S.-Soviet cooperation to limit arms. Defense-protected build-down thus not only would enhance the prospects for signed, formal treaties, but would function as a kind of "arms control without agreements," as Kenneth Adelman has argued in Foreign Affairs.

By contrast, it is hard to imagine any arms control treaty without defense achieving anything useful. Gary Hart, writing in the bulletin of the Arms Control Association last year, suggested that nothing short of "demand-style, on-site inspection" would suffice. But the Soviets will not agree to that.

If they did, even "on-site" inspection would not cover the very kinds of weapons that both superpowers are now concentrating on building. As Geraldine Ferraro admitted this fall on "Nightline," a "comprehensive, verifiable nuclear freeze" is an oxymoron, since the better part of U.S. and Soviet forces are sufficiently small and mobile -- sub-launched and bomber-launched cruise missiles, small intercontinental and theater missiles, and the like -- as to be undetectable. One general illustrated the problem well not long ago when he took a group of journalists into his office and walked into a closet -- emerging with several true-to-scale cruise missiles. "How do you verify these?" he asked the reporters. Silence.

ONE OF THE MORE persuasive arguments against Mr. Reagan's Star Wars plan and its concomitant arms control strategy is that a U.S. defense would deal a severe blow to the East-West balance of power. Star Wars truly would cancel out years of Soviet investment in ICBMs, about 90 percent of the Soviet force. And combined with better air defenses against Soviet bombers and better anti-sub techniques and civil defense, U.S. defenses could arguably leave Moscow vulnerable to a first strike. In a world in which the Soviets still have substantial forces, such "destabilization" is not a negligible consideration.

But this merely illustrates a final advantage of the Reagan Doctrine, one that should be particularly compelling for those on the left. Precisely because Star Wars would greatly enhance U.S. power, it would leave the U.S. in a position to make unilateral gestures toward the Soviets. After all, one thousand survivable missiles are of much greater deterrent value than five thousand vulnerable ones. Suppose the United States deploys an 80-percent effective defense that the Soviets cannot match, either with a defense of their own or with an equivalent offensive buildup. As that system is completed, the United States could unilaterally tear up half, or more, of its offensive missile force -- and still be in a much more secure position vis-a-vis the Soviets.

It would be even better, however, if the Soviets moved to deploy similar systems. In that case, each side would have greatly "built down" the destructive capacity of the other. Deterrence, far from being undermined, would still exist. But it would exist at a much lower level of destruction, and with much greater uncertainties about the success of any attack.

For some reason, the left never makes this argument. No liberal of note has argued in favor of Mr. Reagan's Star Wars program provided it be accompanied by offensive reductions. More typical has been the response of such leading Democrats as John Glenn who have spoken out against Star Wars while voting in favor of the MX. Those who do support the President's program in some way, such as Messrs. Krauthammer and Brzezinski, do so only to the extent that strategic defense is viewed not as a way of protecting people, but only as a defense of offensive missile silos.

Why only a silo defense? Even imperfect defenses might save millions of lives in the event of war. They might prevent an all-out war in the event of an accidental launch, or a strike by a small nuclear power. Imperfect defenses also form a bridge to more perfect technologies in the future, even as cavemen found uses for the wheel several thousand years before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Does not an 80-percent effective defense constitute 80 percent of a 100-percent effective defense?

As both William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol have observed, one of the more interesting facets of the Star Wars debate is the virulent, monolithic determination of the American left to believe that there is no chance of defending America. What most surprises, according to Buckley, is that so many prefer not even to hope for such a development.

AS I SEE IT, the problem with the arms control movement is just that: It is an arms control movement, not a disarmament movement. The two, after all, are not the same. Indeed, such groups as the Harvard Nuclear Study Project have been at great pains to argue that disarmament is an unrealistic objective, that the world must "learn to live with nuclear weapons." To do this, the Harvard group argues, we must discard the pipe dreams of defense and of disarmament, and seek as our objective a world in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agree to freeze their strategic arsenal at some agreed-on, stable level. In other words, we must have as our goal perpetual nuclear stalemate. By this thinking, MAD is not a stopgap policy or a second-best means of keeping the peace until defense or disarmament is possible. It is an end in itself.

Such nonsense led Jonathan Schell, in his second book, The Abolition, to break ranks with the mainstream arms control movement. After all, Schell asked, can we expect to "live" with such arsenals forever without eventually using them? The hope that that situation will never produce a war is no hope at all. For making this common-sense point, Schell's major thesis was roundly rejected by Paul Warnke, Jimmy Carter's arms negotiator and probably the dean of the MAD-is-good school. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Warnke called the idea of total disarmament "incompatible" with arms control, indeed "alarming."

Most rank-and-file freeze supporters would side with Mr. Schell. So, too, do a growing number of politicians on the left and right. Both hardliner Rep. Jim Courter and dovish Rep. Les Aspin have expressed an interest in proceeding with Star Wars while paring offensive systems that Star Wars would make unnecessary. And so, ironically, does Mr. Reagan, who persistently points to complete nuclear disarmament and not mere "arms control" as the goal of negotiations. Why, then, do Warnke, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and the rest of the arms control establishment so doggedly insist that MAD is the supreme objective?

In one sense, they cling to MAD because it keeps them in business. Just as the poverty worker has a kind of interest in the continuation of poverty, the arms negotiator has an interest in the continuation of MAD. If the world is somehow made substantially safer from nuclear weapons, Warnke and McNamara suddenly become much less important people. This is not to say that these men oppose such ambitious solutions as defense and disarmament out of a sinister desire to maintain their own standing. But it is only natural to regard what you've been doing the last twenty years of your life as important.

But if we clearly state that the goal of arms talks and weapons deployments is to make nuclear weapons "obsolete," then it becomes clear that most of what has been exalted as "arms control" since the 1960s has been essentially a vain set of squabbles over relatively secondary objectives. This is so not because men such as Paul Warnke and Henry Kissinger are dupes, but because they have been laboring under a framework that cannot produce success. We might even say that arms control, by repeatedly focusing on short-term gimmicks and objectives and debates, has actually distracted the world from the only real solutions to the nuclear threat. We have argued and niggled over this many nuclear missiles or that many ABM interceptors, seeking after limits on systems that cannot be verified or can be verified but are not worth limiting -- all without getting any closer to the real objective. We haggle over the next step without even asking whether it is a step in the right direction.

One party has a compelling interest in all this: the Soviet Union. After all, the supreme argument of arms controllers is that the Soviets and the United States have a mutual interest in limiting nuclear arms. But do they? In a chilling column in the New York Times, Harvard's Nick Eberstadt challenged that assertion, asking readers to "imagine what the world would be like" if the U.S. and the Soviets were suddenly able to abolish nuclear weapons. Would the Soviets remain a serious international power? Would Moscow be able to compel Poland, East Germany, and Hungary to remain in the empire? Would Americans or most Europeans much care what the Soviet position was on any issue? Would the Chinese be content to engage in mere border skirmishes, or would they advance on the historically successful conqueror’s road to Moscow from the East? In short, would the Soviets be anything but a second-rate power?

In a vague, inchoate way the American left understands this, which more than anything else accounts for its deep psychological resistance to anything other than the prospect of continual arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons, Phil Nicolaides once observed, are like a bright light, to which the West reacts like a frightened animal in the dark -- frozen with fear, unable to move while the Soviet Union points the paralyzing lamp in its face. The connection is so deeply imbedded it no longer even has to be stated: The New York Times doesn't say we can't aid the freedom fighters in Nicaragua because it might lead to a nuclear war; it simply calls the policy "dangerous" and "provocative," and our imagination supplies the rest.

Of course the one thing worse for the Soviets than a world in which both superpowers are free of the threat of nuclear annihilation is a world in which only the United States is. That is why Moscow will, eventually, be willing to go along with a U.S. Star Wars program as the basis for genuine arms control. It has no choice. With Star Wars, Mr. Reagan, like Bernhard Goetz, can now take the law into his own hands.

FOR WHAT STAR WARS promises is to inch us, ever so tenuously, toward a world without nuclear weapons, and that is why the Soviets, who have no interest in such a world, will fight it more bitterly than they have fought any American defense program in history. And yet, provided it is clearly and persistently explained, the Reagan Doctrine is well armed to resist any attack that can be launched against it.

The scientific argument against Star Wars will be repeated ad nauseam. But it will prove increasingly impotent, in part because such Star Wars advocates as George Keyworth, Daniel O. Graham, and Robert Jastrow have done a good job of swatting down the arguments of Carl Sagan, Ashton Carter, and other MAD enthusiasts, which have little to do with strategic defense. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, begins its 100-page plus attack on Star Wars with the straightforward statement that it seeks to evaluate only a "total" ballistic missile defense. It goes on to assert that to be leak-proof, such a defense must catch all missiles in the "boost phase," i.e., within minutes of firing. A criterion of this sort makes it easy to argue that strategic defense is unworkable. Indeed, the scientific critique of Star Wars is just another variant of the MAD argument that defenses must be "perfect" to have utility.

A more serious stumbling block to Star Wars has to do with the long lead time envisioned by the Administration. Even with its dramatically improved explanation of the program in recent months, the Reagan team plans to spend $25-to-$50 billion on research and development alone, stretching the first deployment until well in the 1990s. Will Star Wars still be popular eight years from now, when the American people find they have spent $50 billion and are not an inch closer to actual defense?

Robert Jastrow argues the program can survive even such momentous delays; Daniel Graham thinks not. History, and common sense, alas, are with Graham's assessment that the present mega-year program will not survive the yearly budget assault of Congress. If a fifteen-year, business-as-usual procurement cycle governs Star Wars as it has the MX and B-1 bomber, the program could be doomed, and perhaps rightly so: By the time the Pentagon (with the usual kibitzing from Congress) has over-designed and overbuilt today's emerging defensive technologies, the systems that result may well not be worth building.

Happily, the Administration has of late been inching towards the Graham model, though without giving its feisty author any credit. In recent congressional testimony, Fred Ikle, a top Weinberger aide, argued that "interim" Star Wars systems could be deployed much sooner on the road to future, more hi-tech layers. Even George Shultz said in January that the Administration might consider a deployment scheme to begin "by 1989."

The final threat to the Reagan arms control doctrine, of course, is arms control itself. Patrick Buchanan framed the problem with characteristic concision in a recent telephone conversation: "What if the Soviets offer to trade away 2,000 missile warheads if we don't build Star Wars? Can Reagan resist an offer like that?"

The correct answer to such an offer is not hard to discern. Mr. Reagan simply tells the Soviets, "Thank you for the offer, but we're not giving up Star Wars. Tell you what: We'll go ahead with that program, and we'll tear up the 2,000 warheads." It is not clear, however, whether Mr. Reagan would be prepared to give this answer. Yet, there are good reasons to think that when push comes to shove, he will stick with strategic defense.

The chief reason is Mr. Reagan himself. He knows history will not much value him for signing yet another meaningless treaty with the Evil Empire. But the President who defended America, who ushered in the beginning of the end of the nuclear age -- such a President would rank with Churchill, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln. That is the company Mr. Reagan is shooting for, if he can steer his Star Wars program through the coming months of fury.


Gregory A. Fossedal, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, is co-author (with Daniel O. Graham) of A Defense that Defends (published by Devin-Adair of Greenwich, Connecticut, which also has available reprints of this and other articles on Star Wars by Mr. Fossedal).

(From the March, 1985 issue of The American Spectator.)


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