To the Editor:

Michael O'Hanlon's supposedly dispassionate assessment of ballistic missile defenses at home and abroad conceals a not so moderate and nuanced advocacy for the latest version of Star Wars ("Star Wars Strikes Back," November/December 1999). Although some opposing arguments are assessed, at least three vital considerations are completely omitted.

First, O'Hanlon discusses at length how to help Russia swallow the bitter pill of ballistic missile defenses but provides almost no analysis of the strategic implications for U.S. relations with China. Second, he never explains why deterrence, which has been for decades the basis of American defenses against strategic missile attacks, would not work against so-called rogue states or terrorists. Finally, he fails to assess the likelihood that a unilateral U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defenses would create new security dilemmas with both Russia and China.

In contrast to the beliefs of some American analysts of the Chinese military threat, it is actually the small size of China's nuclear weapons capability that would make U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defenses such a serious problem for China. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) notes that China's strategic capability is composed of fewer than 200 nuclear warheads, of which perhaps only 20-30 would be operational at any time. Russia can still overwhelm any conceivable anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system, but for China, national missile defense (NMD) would threaten its basic nuclear deterrent. The IISS concludes that if the United States chooses NMD, a head-on collision with China will be difficult to avoid.

After North Korea's test of the Taepo Dong 1 missile fired through Japanese airspace in August 1998, Tokyo agreed to conduct joint research with Washington on a theater missile defense (TMD) system that could, in the future, include South Korea and Taiwan as well. Chinese analysts have characterized Japanese fears of a North Korean missile attack as an excuse for participating in a TMD arrangement obviously aimed at China. Seen from Beijing, an East Asian TMD program looks like a new multilateral security alliance against China. If this TMD system were to include Taiwan, that would make things even worse.

The real strategic threat from rogue states or terrorists comes not from ballistic missiles but from weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which are very difficult to trace. The logical alternative to missiles for a state or terrorist organization wanting to attack the United States with WMD is the "suitcase bomb," which could be brought into the country covertly, assembled, and detonated in such a way that its origins would be disguised -- minimizing the likelihood of retaliation. With the exception of the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici amendment in 1996 -- a vital first step in Washington's effort to address the problem of terrorist WMD attacks -- it is surprising that the federal government has done so little while committing billions of dollars to research NMD.

In the decade of post-Cold War politics, we have so far avoided a new security confrontation between the major powers. For example, despite the many problems in the U.S. relationship with China, Beijing has not sought to ally with other major powers (like Russia, India, or Japan) against the United States or provoke the United States into an arms race.

All agree that the deployment of NMD would violate the 1972 ABM treaty, long thought to be a cornerstone of the global nuclear arms-control regime. The Clinton administration has already approached Moscow about revising the ABM treaty, but the Russians are adamantly opposed. And on November 5, 1999, Russia won support from many U.S. allies when the First Committee of the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to preserve the ABM treaty.

European allies are concerned that if the United States deploys missile defenses, Russia and China will be forced to build weapons sufficient to overcome these defenses to maintain their basic nuclear deterrent. Moreover, if the system actually works, they fear that NATO will become divided into two parts: a United States with missile defenses and a Europe without. As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has argued, this could split the alliance.

In a globalized world, there are already established patterns of cooperation and well-used channels of communication, especially among the major powers. Governments have become accustomed to focusing on the absolute benefits of cooperation for all participants rather than on the relative benefits that realists insist must be the focus of strategic relations. A unilateral deployment of ballistic missile defenses by the United States could lead to regional and even global arms races, polarizing the world anew and making enemies of countries that are now only competitors. America would lose the priceless opportunity provided by globalization and the collapse of the Soviet Union to build new security arrangements with potential adversaries rather than against them. And our future would be the security dilemma of earlier times, a condition in which everyone's security -- including America's -- would be diminished.

Peter Van Ness

Visiting Fellow, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University