For nearly three decades, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has been the cornerstone of international arms control. The logic of deterrence created a situation where nuclear powers held their adversaries’ populations hostage; an antiballistic missile system eroded the certainty of mutually assured destruction. U.S. President George W. Bush now says that he will push through with plans to build a missile defense program. But an arms race would only undermine the promise of national defense under an ABM shield. Such a race is not inevitable, but heading it off will require coordination that the Bush team has shown little inclination to pursue.

During the campaign, then-candidate Bush promised to deploy an antimissile system that would detect and shoot down a limited number of ballistic missiles — either those launched accidentally or by a “rogue nation,” such as North Korea or Iraq. Mr. Bush and other missile defense supporters are undaunted by the estimated cost of the system, its impact on strategic stability and even doubts about its efficacy. They remain steadfast in their commitment to deployment and certain about the security such a system will reportedly yield.

The drumbeat has grown in recent weeks. Unnamed administration officials have been preparing the ground for a presidential declaration. Last week, Mr. Lucas Fischer, deputy assistant secretary of state for strategic affairs, told the Danish Parliament that the U.S. “will deploy defenses as soon as possible; therefore, we believe that the ABM treaty will have to be replaced, eliminated or changed in a fundamental way.”

This week, Mr. Bush made it official. In a speech at the National Defense University, Bush called the ABM Treaty a relic of the past. He said the U.S. will explore all defense options and will work with its allies to deploy a missile defense program. To sweeten the pie, Mr. Bush endorsed unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal that go beyond commitments of the START III arms reduction talks — which may well be dead, given Russian opposition to the missile defense program.

If protection could be guaranteed, the refusal to deploy such a system would be a dereliction of duty. No American politician could forgo protection of the U.S. population, or its armed forces deployed overseas, without committing political suicide. That begs the question.

Missile defense’s potential for destabilizing the strategic balance means that there needs to be complete confidence in the system to justify deployment. Tests to date do not give much ground for confidence. Thus far, they have been conspicuous by their failures. That must be balanced against the near certainty that adversaries will increase their arsenals or adopt countermeasures to negate the defense system. Stability is likely to be the first casualty of this arms race.

Any responsible policy will proceed through continuing consultation with U.S. allies and dialogue with potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, who fear that missile defense will serve as a shield for aggressive U.S. unilateralism. While U.S. policy should not be held hostage to decisions in Beijing or Moscow, there must be an attempt to find common ground. The program’s evolution from national missile defense to missile defense, without the qualifier, speaks well of the administration’s efforts to do just that. That change is designed to quell fears in Asia and Europe of a decoupling of U.S. security from that of its allies.

To its credit, the Bush administration seems to have learned from recent missteps. Before his speech, Mr. Bush made calls to European leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, to begin the consultation process. “Consultation teams” will head to Asia and Europe next week to make the promise of coordination more than mere rhetoric. Officials have vowed that they will not present allies with a fait accompli.

That is good news, but reports that the administration is pushing to deploy a system before Mr. Bush’s term expires raise doubts about the value of talks. Those questions have to be answered. Japan has participated in research for theater missile defense; as a U.S. ally and host to U.S. forces overseas, we must be intimately involved in future discussions.

Japan will be directly affected by U.S. plans to develop and deploy missile defense. Not only will any TMD project be closely tied to Japanese territory, but any countermeasures, whether by China, Russia or North Korea, will also have consequences for Japan’s security. In one sense, the project has already paid dividends: Governments in Tokyo and Beijing have intensified their discussions over the potential impact of missile defense. The lesson is clear: Caution and consultation are essential to peace and stability in the region.

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