Washington being what it is, the idea that politics and ideology should be set aside for a higher purpose may seem a quaint, naive sentiment. But few would argue with the statement that the ultimate test in deciding to scrap a treaty that has helped keep the peace for 30 years is whether it makes the United States more or less secure. In that light, President Bush's decision to unilaterally walk away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is a serious mistake.
No one doubts we live in a dangerous world and that our enemies are ruthless. But a "Star Wars" defense, assuming it could be made to work, would address only what the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue is the least likely threat to our national security.
One of the lessons we should have learned from the devastating attack of Sept. 11 is that terrorists determined to do this nation harm can employ a wide variety of means, and that weapons of mass destruction -- chemical, biological or even nuclear -- need not arrive on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a return address. That's why the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that an ICBM launch ranks last on the "Threat Spectrum," while terrorist attacks constitute the greatest potential threat to our national security.
The administration's obsession with missile defense -- with a price tag in excess of a quarter-trillion dollars for the layered program on the president's wish list -- is doubly troubling because of the attention and resources being diverted from critical efforts to address genuine threats. While the president says nonproliferation is a high priority, his actions speak louder. Notwithstanding promises of new efforts, the fiscal year 2002 budget that he requested would have cut more than $100 million out of programs designed to corral Russia's "loose nukes," provide help that Russia has requested to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile and prevent unemployed Russian scientists from selling their services to terrorist organizations.
Only when it comes to missile defense is the administration pushing hard. But nothing could be more damaging to global nonproliferation efforts than to go forward with Star Wars. Russia has enough offensive weapons to overwhelm any system we could devise, so the real issue is what happens in China and throughout Asia.
China currently possesses no more than two dozen ICBMs. Our own intelligence services estimate that moving forward with national missile defense could trigger a tenfold increase in China's expansion of its nuclear capability. And that doesn't take into account likely Chinese behavior if an arms race ensues, something many experts argue is inevitable when both India and Pakistan respond as expected by ratcheting up their nuclear programs.
Thus, the cost of unilaterally walking away from the ABM Treaty and forging ahead with national missile defense includes not only dangerous neglect of the real threats we face but the likelihood that we will unleash a new arms race that will create a nuclearized Asia.
Finally, Sept. 11 clarified the fact that the world is in transition from old Cold War alignments to new patterns of conflict and cooperation. Managing such a transition wisely will determine whether we take advantage of new opportunities or whether we allow ideological zealotry to control strategic doctrine.
Al Qaeda's eager search for weapons of mass destruction highlights the importance of broad nonproliferation efforts and our need to work in concert with like-minded partners. The president skillfully worked to build a coalition to fight international terrorism. That success has created an environment for a changed world with the potential for old enemies to come together. Out of the Sept. 11 tragedy we have opportunities to pivot toward promising new relationships, following up on the cooperation of the moment with a realignment of forces for decades to come.
Indeed, there is some cause for hope. The United States and Russia are making real progress to reduce strategic offensive forces. Secretary of State Colin Powell has indicated we are relatively close to a formal agreement in this regard -- presumably one that binds our countries and provides for verification and transparency.
So far, the administration's conduct of the war on terrorism has shown discipline, perseverance and an ability to forge international consensus. But the war is only three months old, and the new patterns of cooperation and support are young and fragile. We must nourish them and build on them, rather than taking unilateral foreign policy moves that will make us less secure.
Today the doors to international cooperation and American leadership are wide open. But if we slam them shut too often, we will lose the best chance in a generation to work with allies to build a more secure future.
The writer is a Democratic senator from Delaware and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.