Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 210

The long and already acrimonious war of words between Russia and the United States over the ABM treaty and ballistic missile defense has heated up even further over the past week, as positions on both sides appear to have hardened. The latest round of exchanges follows an address by U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Walter Slocombe on November 5. It appeared to signal a shift in the Clinton administration’s efforts to win Russian–and broader international–approval for U.S. hopes of amending the 1972 ABM treaty as a way to proceed with the deployment of a limited national missile defense system.

Slocombe’s speech, delivered to an international audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was noteworthy in two respects. First, it laid out with greater precision and persuasiveness the U.S. case that modifications to the ABM treaty–and U.S. plans to proceed with missile defense–threaten neither Russia nor China, and would in no way undermine international security. Second, however, Slocombe appeared also to make clear the threat that the United States reserves the right to withdraw from the ABM accord if negotiations with Russia come to naught. Many missile defense enthusiasts in the United States have called for the United States to dispense with the ABM treaty, but the Clinton administration had previously emphasized its hope of finding a way to stay in compliance with the accord.

“There is no substantive reason why we should find ourselves in a position of having to choose between the capability to defend our people against rogue state ballistic missile attack on the one hand and jeopardizing our common interest in strategic stability, a sound relationship between Russia and the United States and further reduction in strategic defensive arms on the other hand,” Slocombe was quoted as saying. He also suggested that the “real threat to the viability of the ABM treaty in contemporary conditions comes not from efforts to modify it to reflect current reality (that is, the growing threat from rogue missiles)… rather, the threat would come from a fixed refusal to modify it” (AP, Reuters, November 5).

Slocombe’s last point was to some extent echoed and elaborated on in prepared remarks which U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered yesterday before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Albright attempted to portray the Clinton administration’s position on the ABM treaty and missile defense as the reasonable middle ground between those who want to dispense with the treaty altogether–the position taken by many Congressional republicans–and those who oppose any and all modifications to the treaty–the position thus far taken by Moscow. Albright also belittled recent assertions by top-ranking Russian defense officials of Moscow’s ability to overwhelm any potential ballistic missile defense system deployed by the United States. She said that that is precisely the point–that the U.S. system would be designed to thwart a missile attack by a rogue state and would in no way be capable of defending a larger scale retaliatory strategic attack by Moscow (AP, November 10).