chapter  3
24 Pages

Bill Clinton and the end of the Star Wars era (1993–1997)

Bill Clinton took office in January 1993 determined to reduce the defence budget, concentrate on domestic priorities and recalibrate US defence policy to a newly emerging, and what he perceived to be a less threatening world order. The new president was also known to view the ABM Treaty as integral to USRussian nuclear arms cuts, as a key means to reinforce the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, and as a central plank of international stability. With Democrats still in control of Congress, the Cold War stand-off with Russia now just a memory and with the United States emerging as the world’s pre-eminent power, there appeared little need to pursue extensive BMD programmes. As a result, it was assumed that Clinton would reduce spending on ballistic missile defence and put an end to the SDI. The evolution of US ballistic missile defence policy between 1993 and 1997 provides a fascinating example of how a president’s initial plans can change. In early 1993, in line with his pre-election pledges, Clinton announced his determination to completely reorient the SDI and replace it with a plan that would emphasise theatre and battlefield missile defences and research on systems that would not contravene the ABM Treaty. In 1994 and 1995 Clinton went even further, by explicitly reiterating his administration’s commitment to the ABM Treaty as the basis of relations with Russia, and making it clear that he did not intend to pursue any BMD policies that might undermine relations with Moscow. However, despite this, in 1996 Clinton announced that the US would be embarking upon a national missile defence development and deployment plan. What makes this change in the debate particularly interesting is that, unlike during the Bush Administration, very little had actually changed in the international system between 1993 and 1997: no immediate new threat had emerged, Russia was subdued and China was only just beginning its drive to modernity. Neither did there appear to be any great push from technology. Despite this, Clinton’s initial BMD policy agenda would be almost entirely reversed by 1996, which meant that missile defence would become an even greater part of his policy agenda during his second term in office. This period produces several interesting questions. First, why did Clinton unveil a national missile defence deployment plan in 1996, despite attempting to ‘kill’ the programme in 1993, and focus on battlefield and theatre defences?