Throughout human history, we’ve always felt safer when surrounded by a barrier of some sort. Whether that be a castle wall, security blanket or cave.
The Coldwar strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was to prevent conflict by removing the security blanket. Without protection from attack, America and the USSR both knew that they were exposed to full-scale retaliation in the event of a first strike. This exposure was extremely uncomfortable for citizens, who felt like they were living in a world beyond their control. However, this exposure was the near-guarantee that a rational actor would never strike first because their own survival was at stake. This lead to an uncomfortable, but relatively predictable and stable geopolitical balance.
The introduction of missile defense systems shifts the weights. The development of a missile defense system sounds innocuous at first – what’s more natural than to build a figurative wall to protect from outside attack? How could such a system of self-defense actually raise hostilities between nuclear adversaries?
For one, it raises the stakes by forcing a technological response by the competing nation. If America developed a missile defense system that rendered Russia’s nuclear arsenal impotent, Russia would be forced to develop missiles that could penetrate the wall. In turn, America would upgrade its missile defense system and so on, resulting in a newly invigorated and costly arms race. This is unfortunate for Russia, since it is economically handicapped compared to America. Therefore, Russia would likely continuously be one or two steps behind America’s technological advances, resulting in a permanent disadvantage.
But there’s a more terrifying reason why a missile defense system would raise hostilities between nuclear adversaries. It introduces ambiguity into the geopolitical balance. Would a nuclear power with a missile defense system be more likely to strike first? The Soviets believed Ronald Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ missile defense program was being pursued to strengthen America’s first-strike capability. The proposed Star Wars program only had the capability to shoot down a relatively small number of incoming ICBMs, suggesting that it was ineffective as a self-defense against an incoming first-strike barrage of hundreds or thousands of missiles. However, if America was to strike first – taking out a significant portion of USSR’s launch capability – the Star Wars defense system would be able to handle the limited retaliatory strike. Because of this, the Soviets believed America’s proposed defense system actually raised the probability America would strike first.
If a missile defense system were to be developed, Russia would be at a permanent disadvantage and – once the missile defense system is in place – and could be struck with impunity. However, actual nuclear attack might not be Russia’s greatest fear. Russia’s real fear would be the looming threat of nuclear attack – rather than an unannounced, unprovoked actual attack – and the potential subjugation of Russia. What would Russia become if it were under constant threat of annihilation without reciprocal consequences for its aggressor? At first, America would squeeze Russian foreign policy, but the demands would grow more burdensome with time. Would Russian natural resources be diverted? Would the Russian government be replaced with a puppet regime? The imagination doesn’t have to run too wild to envision a terrible scenario for the Russian oligarchs if mutual destruction was no longer assured. In fact, Russian institutional memory doesn’t have to go far into its history to recall that its enemies on several occasions have endeavored to enslave the Russian population.
Looking several moves ahead in the win-lose geopolitical chess game, what would Russian hardliners do if they perceived a credible threat by the planned development of an American missile defense system? Despite MAD, there would be a strong case for Russia to strike first while a strike is still effective. Call it a scorched earth policy. Perhaps more accurately, many believe it is better to die a free man than live as a slave. For this reason, even if motivated by domestic security, plans to create a missile defense system could lead to the ultimate mutual destruction of America, Russia and the rest of the world.
As you can see, global security in the 21st century may require us to re-think what security means. Perhaps now is the time to tear down walls, rather than build new ones.