Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Nineteenth Century Confronts Science Fiction

While National Public Radio seems to think that the most important news from the NATO security conference in Munich is the presence of Vice President Joe Biden, Reuters reporters David Brunnstrom and Noah Barkin have chosen, instead, to focus on the dispute between Russia and the rest of Europe over the American plan for a missile defense shield. NATO seems to have pretty much bought into this plan with few, if any, reservations, probably because the United States has such a strong controlling influence over NATO. It is thus disconcerting that the Dutch Secretary General of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, should apply his own rhetorical twist to American ideology, characterizing Russian objections to the shield as "a 19th century 'Great Game' idea of sphere of influence."

If Russia is, indeed, still playing the "Great Game" of the nineteenth century (whose board and pieces had supposedly been obliterated by the First World War), then the problem with the ideology behind the missile shield is that it has yet to mature beyond the realm of science fiction. One has to wonder to what extent the delegates in Munich are familiar with any of the background material, even in a form as rudimentary as the "Anti-ballistic missile" entry in Wikipedia. As one interested in both technological and literary analysis, I have always been struck by the extent to which the language applied to such ABM systems has always exceeded their performance in most test situations. Thus, in the early days it was all about "hitting a bullet with a bullet;" and, back when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I was told by one of the "pioneers of computer science" that the ENIAC had been designed to compute where a missile would land before it got there (based on initial sample data acquired through radar). By the time Ronald Reagan was President and developing a taste for Kool-Aid served up by Edward Teller, the language had shifted to talk of "Star Wars," as if the future of defense would play out along the lines of the narratives envisioned by George Lucas. Now we are still in the wake of the neoconservative ideology that flourished under George W. Bush, invoking the more defensive metaphor of a shield (far less glamorous than the one that "Peleus' son Achilleus" carried to avenge the abduction of Helen). However, the metaphor is a bit inaccurate, since the technology is still one of hitting a bullet with a bullet; and, on the basis of the test results that manage to find their way into the public media, the marksmanship score for the current technology still leaves a lot to be desired.

One might go so far as to say that NATO is basing this part of its defense strategy on speculative thinking that is not that different from the sort of speculative thinking that was so prevalent on Wall Street before harsh reality revealed how little substance was behind the speculations. Lest we forget what Hillary Clinton said when testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the suitability of her appointment as Secretary of State, we should not let such ill-founded speculations interfere with our efforts to "build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries." We need to take this goal as seriously in our dealings with Russia as in any efforts we make in the Middle East, although, as I continue to observe, in both settings we should still live by Mr. Dooley's fundamental precept:

Trust everybody, but cut the cards.

NATO is as bemired in the same "Great Game" thinking that Scheffer attributed to Russia; and this just means that it is time for a new game. The trick will be to get everyone to agree on a fair one.

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