The Significance of Joint Missile Surveillance

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At a summit meeting in Moscow in September of 1998, the presidents of the United States and Russia signed an agreement to share information on the launch of ballistic missiles. The announcement was not received as a major accomplishment. There had been a minimum amount of bureaucratic preparation within the two governments and only cursory negotiation between them. The essential details were yet to be worked out and would obviously be troublesome. Moreover, at the time of the meeting neither of the individuals involved commanded the personal political authority normally considered necessary to sponsor a meaningful venture. The visiting President Clinton was entangled in the blooming phases of an impeachment proceeding. The hosting President Yeltsin was widely believed to be in the waning stages of personal health and political stature.
Despite the burdens of the moment, however, the agreement was intrinsically significant. It addressed an underlying problem grave enough to compel attention regardless of the circumstances. There were reasons to take the core idea seriously whatever immediate sentiment might be.
The problem was then and still remains a legacy of the cold war. Although not proclaiming themselves to be strategic opponents, Russia and the United States nonetheless continuously maintain thousands of nuclear weapons in an operational state poised to initiate a massive attack within a few minutes. As a result of that practice, each country constantly presents to the other the greatest physical threat that it encounters from any source. The force configurations are justified as protective deterrent threats, whose overwhelming destructiveness are meant to assure that no such attack will ever occur. But as an unavoidable corollary of that logic, each side must also convey credible reassurance that no error of judgment would ever be made. Both countries for their own safety mustbe absolutely certain that the forces of the other side are not susceptible to false alarm. The two societies entangled in this active deterrent relationship are forced to trust each other on that latter point.
John Steinbruner is the Director of the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.


Occasional Paper of the Committee on International Security Studies, American Academy of Arts and Sciences