Despite early stumbles, George W. Bush has the potential to be an effective foreign policy president. But his willingness to back off from the “Star Wars” missile defense, which has been soundly rebuked by our allies, will be the test of his ability to lead.
Although poorly prepared for his world leadership role by a woeful absence of foreign policy experience or even the benefit of tourist travel, Bush is an affable and curious fellow who’s capable of cramming on the essentials. On last week’s trip abroad, he proved open to acknowledging that even the world’s greatest power must go along to get along when it comes to dealing with other powerful nations, a number of which also possess weapons of mass destruction.
That much is clear from Bush’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir V. Putin, after which Bush pronounced the former KGB leader as “a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”
It was a bold and honest recognition of the humanity and skill of an adversary, akin to Ronald Reagan’s appraisal of then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev after their first meeting at Reykjavik. Recall that moment when Reagan came out into the hall to report to his shocked, hawkish aides that he and Gorby had just agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, aides to both men cooled their leaders’ enthusiasm for that sensible project, but their wisdom launched the dismantling of the cold war and at least led to the last serious spate of nuclear arms reduction.
Today, with the continued existence of massive nuclear weapons arsenals and the deterioration of control over the spread of weapons technology and material, the world is in many ways an even more dangerous place.
Despite the end of the cold war, the US and Russia still stand poised to destroy all life on Earth. Russian control of its nuclear weapons industry is fitful at best; the risk of accidental launch is real, and the recruitment of unpaid former Soviet weapons scientists and the selling of nuclear weapons-grade material to even less stable regimes is alarming. So-called rogue nations such as North Korea and Iraq are said to be developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, and the historic tension between India and Pakistan has spurred a nuclear arms race that threatens the survival of humans as a species.
As a result, it’s possible to be pessimistic about controlling and then eliminating nuclear weapons–the aim of arms control–and in desperation consider a go-it-alone effort at building a “shield” against nuclear weapons.
That such a shield will never work, however, has been well known since the failure of the nuclear pumped X-ray laser developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1980s, which promised what lab scientists referred to as Buck Rogers space fighting machines. Before the bad news came in that the X-ray laser was a bust, nuclear physicist Edward Teller had managed to convince President Reagan that a magical security solution was at hand. But the X-ray laser project has been abandoned, and antimissile defense is back to relying on hitting a bullet with a bullet, a game in which the offense, with its maneuverability and decoys, will always prove the winner.