The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1210es on Missile Defense

August 3, 1998

August 3, 1998 | Executive Summary on Missile Defense

BG1210:  The Clinton Administration's Dangerous ABM Agreements

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union has hampered the ability of the U.S. to defend itself against ballistic missile attack ever since its ratification. Under the terms of international law, the ABM Treaty expired when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Clinton Administration, however, continues to observe the requirements of the Treaty as a matter of policy. More disturbing, it is seeking to breathe life into it through a series of sweeping new agreements.

A delegation from the United States, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, signed three agreements related to the ABM Treaty on September 26, 1997, at the United Nations in New York. These agreements could threaten U.S. national security interests by re-imposing the restrictions found in the now-defunct ABM Treaty and perpetuating the policy of vulnerability.

Further, they apply the restrictions found in the ABM Treaty--originally a bilateral treaty--in a new multilateral setting. This imbalance could force the U.S. to face being outvoted by four treaty partners during the implementation process. Finally, the agreements broaden the scope and increase the reach of the restrictions on the development and deployment of missile defenses found in the original ABM Treaty.

That the Clinton Administration would agree to these arms control agreements and leave the American people undefended against missile attack at a time when the missile threat is growing is shocking. It is up to the Senate, therefore, to examine them with great care, using the security of the United States as its primary criterion. The agreements must be approved by the Senate before ratification and implementation, but the Administration has yet to submit them.

Problems with the New ABM Treaty

One of the agreements reached in New York is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that effectively revives the ABM Treaty by establishing a new treaty with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, four of the 15 independent states born out of the former Soviet Union. The MOU, however, contains several flaws. For example, it:

  • Applies ABM Treaty-style restrictions to just four of the 15 states now occupying the territory of the former Soviet Union. The remaining 11 countries would be free to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems; the United States would not.

  • Leaves the U.S. open to being outvoted by the other four treaty partners during the process of interpretation and implementation.

  • Sends a message to Russian leaders that they have a free hand to establish hegemony over the neighboring countries that they call the "near abroad."

Problems with the Agreements on Theater Defenses

The two other agreements reached in New York are called "demarcation agreements" because they seek to establish the division between those missile defense systems that are subject to restrictions under the MOU and those that are not. Both agreements are seriously flawed.

The agreement on lower-velocity theater defense systems (those with a maximum speed of 3 kilometers per second):

  • Imposes restrictions, unknown in the original ABM Treaty, on theater defense systems and thereby denies U.S. forces a potentially powerful defense against missiles like the Scuds launched by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.

  • Ignores the intent of Congress, established in U.S. law, that these restrictions not extend to theater defense systems.

The agreement on higher-velocity theater defense systems (those with a speed greater than 3 kilometers per second), moreover:

  • Imposes restrictions that will make these systems less capable.

  • Imposes restrictions that will make these systems more expensive.


In a world where missile technology is proliferating and the risk of missile attack is increasing, the United States should be eliminating, not perpetuating, restrictions on the development and deployment of a missile defense system. The Clinton Administration, however, not only refuses to eliminate the restrictions imposed on U.S. missile defense programs, but actually seeks to expand them.

The three agreements signed in New York last September are vehicles for sustaining the policy of vulnerability. This policy--and these agreements--are very dangerous.

--Baker Spring is a Senior Policy Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Baker Spring F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Missile Defense