My father often tells the story of sitting in the Bailleu Library at Melbourne University during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a radio under the desk, wondering whether there was any point ordering in a book when a nuclear apocalypse looked on the cards later that afternoon.
At the time, he was studying voting patterns in the Riverina during the Federation referendum of 1898, so we sometimes joke that if anyone was hoping for it all to end, it was him. Eventually, news emerged that sanity had prevailed. The ships carrying the missiles to Cuba turned around and wandering hands were kept away from the Cold War thermostat. Dad, for his part, lived to tell the tale, as well as some considerably less interesting ones about the founding fathers and Wagga.
Mutually assured destruction (MAD), an inspiring human achievement if ever there was one, saved the day in 1962 and has been an important part of nuclear deterrence ever since. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, whereby the USA and the Soviet Union promised not to build missile defence systems, had mutually assured destruction at its core. It was agreed that so long as neither superpower was capable of returning the other’s serve, nobody would risk stepping onto the court.
Then Ronald Reagan had the Star Wars missile defence system drawn for him on a paper napkin in the early 1980s. The napkin doesn’t survive (it no doubt featured lasers, spaceships and perhaps the odd mustard stain) but it changed the balance of power in the Cold War. No longer was the result of a nuclear war going to be one, huge global downer. If the USA could just make sure that it had one more missile interceptor than the Soviet Union had missiles, there could be a winner. And importantly for America, that winner would be it.
It was a crazy US$60 billion policy designed to deliberately accelerate the arms race. This happened, and exacted an economic toll on the Soviet Union that contributed to its domestic unraveling – a result that may have been part of the grand American plan. If it was, it was a spectacularly irresponsible gamble that the Iron Curtain would fall before the first missile did. Indeed, the Americans were probably helped in this gamble by their own technological failures. Had the defence system actually worked and the mutual deterrence logic of the ABM Treaty been dismantled (that is, had test missile interceptors intercepted test missiles, rather than air just behind test missiles) we may have had a day of global concern to more than match that one in 1962.
Not that Star Wars madness has been relegated to history. President elect George W Bush this week appointed Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary, restoring him to the job he held in the mid 1970s. According to a panel Rumsfeld chaired in 1998, what America now has to fear is an attack by a ‘rogue state’ like Iran or North Korea, and that such an attack is ‘not a distant threat’. The new administration therefore promises to erect a $60 billion nuclear umbrella over all 50 States as well as America’s NATO allies, just in case Baghdad or Pyongyang (or some other city with an irresistible urge to become flatter) takes an indiscrete view of the current ballistic missile scoreboard.
Needless to say, the European Union, containing many of the NATO countries America promises to protect, is currently opposed to the idea.
The price the world pays for American neuroses about rogue states is nuclear proliferation. Russia and China rightly ask the question, ‘what if this is not about rogue states? What if this is about altering the nuclear balance in relation to us?’ Chinese officials have already said that approval of the National Missile Defence scheme will result in them increasing their own nuclear capabilities. Rogue states, meanwhile, if they’re as roghish as Mr Rumsfeld would have us believe, will continue plotting to import terrorist devices into America by land or sea. It’s a little more anonymous than arriving by intercontinental ballistic missile.
I’m not a foreign affairs specialist, just a writer sitting in a library, worrying. Of course, it may be that things will be okay. After all, Bush and Rumsfeld could scarcely be more provocative than Reagan, and disaster was averted then. Nor is the current international climate as tense as it was in 1962. Nevertheless, the stakes are high, the rhetoric is worrying, and the president elect isn’t a foreign affairs specialist either.
If you blow us up Mr Bush, you can forget about that second term.