Sept 18, 2009
US President Barack Obama’s decision to shelve plans to base a missile-defence system in Eastern Europe is a welcome sign of his departure from the war-mongering policies of his predecessor. The decision has already prompted sharp criticism from Obama’s Republican rivals, who claim that the new US president is compromising America’s national security. But the truth is that Obama’s move will probably go a long way toward making the United States – and the world – safer.
Supporters of George W. Bush’s costly defence plan argued that it was necessary in order to ward off threats from Iran. But even after tens of billions of dollars were spent developing the advanced missile-interceptor system, the Pentagon could offer no guarantees that it would actually work in realistic conditions.
Obama said on Thursday that his administration had reassessed the threat of Iran’s missiles and had concluded that it could be countered with cheaper defence weapons that have a proven track record of working. The Obama administration’s conclusion is an important one because it touches on an issue of major concern: the tendency of world leaders to exaggerate threats.
Whether it’s a question of missiles or nuclear arms, we often forget that the men and women who may one day press the buttons that set off weapons operate within hierarchies and state institutions that behave rationally under normal circumstances. Nobody is as trigger happy as alarmist leaders would like us to believe.
Yes, the mere existence of these weapons constitutes a danger, but the greater threat is the crisis of confidence within the international system. The weapons themselves don’t cause war: It’s the leaders who decide to use them that do. And the likelihood of war increases whenever we face a communication breakdown and get caught in a cycle in which leaders step up their nation’s defences because they perceive other states as acting in a belligerent manner.
If we really want to rid the world of the threat of dangerous weapons, we would devote less time and money to building high-tech “defence” systems and more energy and resources to rebuilding confidence and empowering international institutions. We would also shun unilateral initiatives and seek out strategic partnerships that guarantee security to all states.
Obama’s decision to scrap Bush’s missile-defence plan goes a long way toward restoring the world’s confidence in the idea that the United States is not a war-mongering nation. His communication of America’s good intentions helps restore the faith of states like Russia that they are not being threatened
The move also lays the groundwork for greater multilateral cooperation on security issues, including here in the Middle East. And it’s cooperation, not confrontation, that will make us all safer.