LONDON — Could the Cold War be about to begin all over again? That is the gloomy question being asked by a number of defense analysts and gurus as they contemplate a possible decision this summer by outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton to give the go-ahead for a new National Missile Defense system for the United States.

The pessimists, especially in Russia, argue that this will destabilize everything. At a stroke, they contend, the nuclear balance will be overturned and the entire philosophy on which both the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and the current program of mutual missile disarmament between Russia and the U.S. are based will be invalidated.

Why? Because, goes the argument, an effective antimissile umbrella over the whole North American continent will make the present generation of Russian missiles useless. Mutual deterrence will be at an end. The Russians, it is asserted, will then somehow have to go ahead with a new round of missile building that can defeat NMD and remain a threat.

Worse still, it is claimed, the Chinese will react in the same way, rushing to expand and modernize their rocketry rather than be made defenseless and unable to retaliate at the nuclear level. If the Americans also expand their antimissile strategy to cover the Pacific Rim nations, including Japan and Taiwan, as is being suggested, this will alarm both Russia and China even more. The two former communist giants will be driven into each others’ embrace again and a new arms race will begin. All current disarmament talks, the so-called START II and START III programs, would be wrecked.

Meanwhile, for good measure, the Europeans, noting that the U.S. has its own protective umbrella, will conclude that they are being abandoned by the U.S. and that the famous NATO nuclear shield is no more.

So that is the doomsday scenario, but is it right? There seem to be a number of flaws in the logic.

First, the U.S. policy shift is aimed not at Russia, or the START disarmament talks, or at China or at upsetting any “balance of terror” that may still be relevant. It does not, therefore, repudiate the ABM Treaty or any other Russian-American disarmament programs.

As U.S. experts have tried patiently to explain, a U.S. shield of protective interceptors against incoming missiles, if it can be made to work at all (which is far from certain), would be designed to protect against rogue attacks by rogue states, notably North Korea, but also possibly some crazed dictatorship elsewhere, or even some private James Bond-like private power source, which had its hands on increasingly accessible nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Some Americans are going so far as to say that if the Russians or the Chinese are so worried, then the U.S. will share with them the secrets of its new missile defense and help them toward the same systems, thus evening up the balance again. In fact, interceptor bases and controls could even be based on Russian soil, just to show that the umbrella is really a global one and in everyone’s global interests. The same message is being purveyed to worried West Europeans. If they feel left out, well, let them join in — although there is a small matter of who is going to pay for all this.

A more cynical, but possibly realistic, view is that all the Russian huffing and puffing amounts to an empty threat. The Russians could not finance a new round of bigger missiles even if their military forces wanted it. Anyway, what is their quarrel nowadays with the U.S.? Why does the concept of mutual deterrence have any relevance at all between nations that are supposed to be allies and friends?

The Russians, say this school of thought, claimed it would be the end of the world and an act of provocation if NATO extended its membership to former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Yet NATO went ahead and nothing happened. The people who argued that Russia must be appeased ended up looking silly. Might they do so again?

The answer is that they could. Russia in reality has nothing to fear. There is no hidden U.S. plan to assert world hegemony. Washington merely intends to meet domestic demands (which one also hears in Europe) for proper protection from hideous weapons of mass destruction if they fall into mad and irrational hands. It ought to be perfectly possible for the U.S. technological experts to share with their Russian counterparts each step in the development of antimissile umbrellas, thus ushering in a genuinely nuclear-free age, since all aggressive rockets would be destroyed before they ever reached their targets, and would thus become useless and pointless.

So the Russians, and the Chinese, should try and remember that the Cold War really is over and that the U.S. is not their real enemy, nor are they U.S.’ And the grumbling Europeans who think they are being deserted should accept the same point. A Russian nuclear attack on Europe is not the main danger.

The real enemy in the cyber-age lies elsewhere — and this is where the true problem of NMD technology also lies. Swarms of interceptors may now be able to detect and destroy invading rockets — after all that is crudely what the Patriot antimissile systems did for the Israelis against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles nine years ago in the Persian Gulf War. So the technology for a more comprehensive and efficient antimissile system should now be in reach.

But what about more subtle and terrifying attacks on a society’s computer networks? Or miniaturized bombs of imaginable strength left in suitcases at Grand Central Station? Or biological poisons in the drinking water? Or smaller but no less deadly missiles launched locally and flying well below any aerial detection network?

Modern societies are increasingly vulnerable on these fronts. It has been estimated that a well-designed assault on London’s electronic systems could paralyze the whole of civil society instantly, cutting off food, water, light, heat, traffic control, all transport and so on. More damage could be done in one hour than three years of German bombing of London achieved in World War II.

These are surely the areas where expert minds should be turning and where civil populations are demanding that official efforts should be focused.

Russian-American arguments are about yesterday’s Cold War, which was ended not just by Western determination but by the onrush of technology itself. The same may now apply to National Missile Defense. The threats it addresses may also now be going out of date and replaced by entirely new ones. Like generals of old, it seems that the defense gurus and foreign-policy experts on all sides are fighting the last war and are obsessed by the dangers of the past. If they leave the civil populations of the world unprotected against the threats and dangers of tomorrow, they will not be forgiven.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.