LONDON — Appearing before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary William Cohen has confirmed that he and his colleagues see the threat to the United States of long-range missile attack as growing. The intention to develop a national missile defense system against is therefore still firmly in place, despite a recent test failure.

Considering that NMD if successful, alters the entire structure of ground rules on which international security has been based for several decades past, it is strange that policymakers and opinion-formers around the globe have not been more stirred by this project and by the U.S. announcement.

At the recent Okinawa summit, commentators hardly gave the summit leaders’ deliberations on nuclear weapons and the missile debate a paragraph, preferring to concentrate on the issue of debt relief for poorer countries — and why it is going ahead so slowly — and such earth-shaking issues as the total cost of the Okinawa event — a figure that Japan’s Foreign Ministry spin doctors would have been wiser to keep under wraps, or at least disaggregate, before feeding to the world’s press.

One reason for the disinterest may be that world public opinion, and therefore the politicians who live by it, no longer believes any kind of nuclear threat exists. With Russian missiles rusting in their silos, and allegedly no longer targeting Western capitals, the talk among the military, in their customarily impenetrable jargon, all seems increasingly remote from everyday life and from the information age, with its globalized intimacy between nations and peoples.

Many European leaders just cannot see the point of upsetting the Russians and Chinese and interfering with the delicate status quo on nuclear arms control, all for the sake of meeting vague and unspecified threats of stray missiles from mad dictators. Nor, argue the skeptics, will any umbrella of missile protection be reliable, or work at all. Rogue rockets will always get through, and is not a bomb in a suitcase on the New York subway a far greater threat than a long range North Korean or Iraqi missile?

Such thinking completely ignores the way in which Americans of all shades see the situation. Indeed, the NMD debate illustrates vividly once again the enormous gulf which exists between American and non-American perceptions of the world.

Seen from Washington the global security situation looks increasingly ugly and unstable, despite Russian weakness and progress with disarmament negotiations.

North Korea may have accepted a temporary moratorium on missile test flights and the two Koreas may at last be talking to each other. But the Taepo-Dong 11 missile, with a range to reach the U.S. West Coast, is now ready, while the Iranians are testing the Shahab-3, the Libyans have access to horrific chemical weapons and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could be right back in the missile game the moment sanctions are lifted or weakened to ineffective levels.

The Americans argue that making their country safe against these limited but erratic threats strengthens rather than weakens arms control and does little or nothing to undermine the existing Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Only minor amendment to that treaty, they insist, will be required.

The Russians, they go on to point out, already have an antimissile system of sorts deployed around Moscow. If only the Russians and Chinese would calm down and discuss with the Americans the new technology in depth, all kinds of new areas of cooperation in arms control could develop, making the world a much safer place for all countries against rogue government, crazed and suicidal tyrants and terrorist fanatics.

The Americans are surely right about this, even though their powers of communicating their thinking with the rest of the world are, as usual, sadly deficient. As notable world figures such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to name but two, have pointed out, a confident and more protected U.S. is a plus for the whole world order, putting that great continental entity in a far better position to share its huge technological lead in weaponry with other nations.

It seems extraordinary that the European leaders cannot see this, and cannot accept that they, too, can benefit in the longer term from the new umbrella technology, eventually rendering all longer-range missile attacks, anywhere in the world, both futile and fatal to those who attempt them.

The assumption must be that the extremely clever strategists in Moscow and Beijing can see this perfectly clearly, but that its suits them to raise the stakes and threaten a new arms race to see what they can extract by way of bargaining from the Americans and the West. The argument of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, that NMD will upset the balance of nuclear terror between Russia and the U.S. is basically absurd in an age when neither country is a threat to the other and the two nations are anyway now supposed to be allies.

This is thinking in a time warp, into which Putin has cleverly enticed gullible European leaders as well. It ignores, as usual, the enormous and extremely rapid advances that both electronic and other technologies are making — advances that put the whole lumbering concept of strategic nuclear deterrence in the dinosaur age and that redistribute the power to make war and destroy whole societies away from governments and officialdom into irresponsible, and maybe even unidentifiable, hands.

New threats need new responses, not the tired and repetitive language of Cold War warriors and minds closed to the colossal potential of the electronic age.

Just as, thanks to information technology, it is now possible to think seriously of eliminating world poverty, despite the awesome size of the problem, so it is possible to think realistically of a world in which nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are simply made useless and are therefore discarded.

But for that concept to make headway it is necessary for the Americans and the rest of the world to understand each other, and understand the new technological landscape and its dangers, very much better than at present.

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