APS News

Inside the Beltway

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Whether the Antiballistic Missile Defense Treaty is a relic of the Cold War, as its critics charge, or a pillar of international security, as its defenders claim, President Bush, with one stroke of his pen, has ensured that it will be nothing more than an artifact of history when the United States unilaterally withdraws from the pact this spring.

To date, the debate over the Bush decision has focused heavily on the consequences for nuclear non-proliferation and arms races throughout the world. That may be appropriate for the near term, but in the long term the greater impact could well be on economic and geopolitical realignment. And that could have a profound effect on international science.

Early into the Bush Administration, White House decisions on biological weapons, the Kyoto protocols, International Monetary Fund policies, and a host of less visible foreign affairs and defense stances had most of the world convinced that the US was on an isolationist binge.

The September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon temporarily altered both the perception and the reality. But suspicion of American policies remains strong, in Europe and Russia, as well as in the Islamic world.

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet Vladimir Pozner, a Moscow TV news celebrity well known for his live people-to-people talk shows with Phil Donahue during the Gorbachev era . His views on how the September 11 attacks have reshaped Russian attitudes are worth considering.

For most of its history, Pozner argues, Russia straddled the Euro-Asian divide, striking a staunchly independent course, one that was neither European nor Asian in outlook . Russian cultural and political unilateralism reached its height during the hegemony of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of Communism and the disintegration of the USSR jolted the Russian psyche and led to a reexamination of Russia's geographic identity. The 1990's, Pozner says, produced a strong Western tilt. But Western, he cautions, does not mean American.

Russia, according to Pozner, was well primed to come to the aid of the US in combatting Islamic terrorism, having spent much of the last decade fighting in Chechnya . But Russians, he says, continue to see themselves far more closely aligned with Europeans in their social values and political economy. The US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty has dramatically accentuated that leaning. And that poses significant risks for American interests.

If Russia becomes a full European partner - and Pozner says that such a reality is only a matter of time - it will free the Continent from dependence on Middle Eastern oil . From an American policy perspective, there are two obvious consequences. First, Europe will be far less tolerant of US political control over the Persian Gulf. And second, with its energy supplies more secure and the costs more predictable, Europe will challenge the US for economic world leadership.

Competition, according to free-marketeers, is what capitalism is all about. And Americans will surely rise to the challenge. But what consequences will that hold for science, where competition has meant vying for the glory of discovery, not the domination of geopolitics?

During the last decade, policy-makers have increasingly equated economic growth with investments in science and technology. And with good reason. Economists of almost every stripe now agree that since the end of World War II, technology and its scientific underpinning have propelled more than half the growth in the US Gross Domestic Product, largely through gains in productivity.

Throughout this period, the US has dominated world markets, fighting off only one challenge - by Japan in the 1980's . And with American primacy seemingly assured in the international arena, federal officials have generally championed scientific cooperation.

Congressional or White House opposition to international collaboration, when it did occur, stemmed from budgetary or military security concerns, not from threats to American economic primacy . But that could change if Europe succeeds in achieving economic megapower status.

If the Euro delivers the trade and monetary benefits that its advocates believe it will and if Russian oil and natural gas become Europe's stable and affordable home-grown energy supply, the US might find international economic domination a closed chapter in its history.

An economically empowered and politically stable European Union will almost surely shift the terms of debate on science at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in the years to come. Proponents of greater investment in American science for American use may gain substantial political traction, while supporters of international scientific cooperation may find their cause a more difficult sell.

The sooner the American scientific community begins to grapple with the challenges posed by the European evolution, the better able it will be to help policy- makers develop strategies that will secure America's economic future and, at the same time, advance global scientific knowledge.

Russian integration into the European community is not going to happen instantly. And Europe's economic challenge to the US is not a sure bet. But we should not fritter away the luxury we now have by ignoring this possibility. The time to begin the discussion is now.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette