Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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International Herald Tribune
December 1, 2001
A Russian Partnership Is More Important Than a Missile Shield
Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times

WASHINGTON I really enjoyed those pictures of President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia back-slapping and barbecuing down at the Bush ranch in Crawford the other day. It was heart-warming. You don't see that very often. But you know what else you don't see very often? Such a personal, important summit meeting that doesn't reach any agreement.

Now that's unusual. But because the Taliban were falling at the time, no one paid attention. We should.

Houston, we have a problem here. And the problem can best be framed as: How much of Mr. Bush's pre-Sept.-11 foreign policy agenda is he ready to abandon in order to advance his post-Sept.-11 agenda?

The Bush team came to office obsessed with building a ballistic missile shield. In order to test missiles for such a shield the Bushies insist they must remove the restrictions set by the 1972 ABM Treaty with Russia. Many experts argue that the United States could do all the testing it needs now within the ABM Treaty, but the Bush hardliners don't care. What they really want is to get rid of the ABM Treaty, and all nuclear arms control, so they can pursue Ronald Reagan's fantasy of a total Star Wars missile shield.

The Russians initially resisted changing ABM. The ABM Treaty is critical to Russia as confirmation of its superpower status, and for maintaining nuclear predictability. By keeping ABM, the Russians feel they have a legal barrier that would prevent the U.S. from developing something more than just the "limited" shield the Bush team claims to want. What the Russians fear is a total Star Wars umbrella that might make the U.S. invulnerable to missile attack and thus able to strike Russia without fear of retaliation. Now for a brief aside: While the Bush administration was pushing missile defense as its priority before Sept. 11, some of us were arguing otherwise. We began by asking what are the real threats to U.S. security? The answers were: nuclear proliferation, missile proliferation, terrorism, mafias, rogue states and financial contagion. Then we asked: Is there any way the U.S. could effectively deal with any of these threats without a cooperative relationship with Russia? Since the answer was no, we argued that missile defense should be subordinated to forging a strategic relationship with Moscow. Nothing has vindicated that view more than the events since Sept. 11, when Russia's support has been essential for fighting the Taliban. The good news is that since Sept. 11, Mr. Bush has developed a greater appreciation of Russia's importance for U.S. foreign policy. So Mr. Bush offered Mr. Putin two choices in Crawford: We can keep the ABM Treaty for a limited period, but you have to allow us an unprecedented degree of missile testing and assured deployment later; or we can rip up ABM now, and reach a handshake agreement on how to reduce nuclear weapons and manage testing. Mr. Putin said no to both. He could not sell his generals on the amount of testing the U.S. envisaged, and the idea of arms control by handshake seemed totally wacky to the Russians.

"The idea that we would get rid of the ABM Treaty and replace it with a handshake between Bush and Putin is ludicrous," said Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert. "Would any member of the Bush team buy a house that way - with a handshake and no contract?"

The Bush team is about to make a big mistake. Mr. Putin has made the decision to "go west." But he's way out ahead of his generals and his public. He needs the continued cover of the ABM Treaty to keep them moving west, too. But he's willing to concede limited testing under ABM. Give him what he wants. Let's have more Putin and less testing.

Because more testing buys us nothing, but less Putin really hurts us. If we had had a complete Star Wars missile shield on Sept. 11, it would not have saved a single American life. But if we put our priorities right, and begin by forging a strategic partnership with Russia, we can still test anti-missile systems and have real Russian cooperation to meet the threats of Sept. 12 and beyond - which is so much more important.

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