National missile defense proponents and supporters of American abrogation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty claim that Moscow is now grudgingly reconciled to both. When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov irritably countered such suggestions, the Bush administration sent Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a one-day trip to Moscow on August 13. Mr. Rumsfeld’s was not a diplomatic mission, however, but an exercise in public relations. Two days before the trip, the New York Times conveyed Washington’s view that “the outcome is preordained,” since, on missile defense, “the United States is unyielding.” After the meeting, Ivanov complained that Rumsfeld had failed to explain why he thought the treaty should be scrapped and did not say how many offensive nuclear weapons the United States was prepared to destroy in return for Russian concessions on missile defense.

Why did Mr. Rumsfeld clock 20,000 frequent-flyer miles merely to talk to his Russian counterpart about “a new relationship” between the two countries that would supposedly require them to “move beyond the Cold War institutions such as the ABM treaty”? The reason is simple: The administration wanted to cite his trip as proof of its good-faith effort to appease the Russians and make them into “strategic partners” before President Bush announces America’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty. This is likely to happen soon, paving the way for an aggressive antiballistic test schedule in the spring of 2002. In short, as one Washington source put it, “we are on automatic pilot, and there’s nothing, nothing, the Russians can do about it.”

Such neoconservative triumphalism—said to be particularly rampant in Rumsfeld’s own department, where Paul Wolfowitz serves as his right-hand man—is no substitute for coherence, and the apparent ability of the Bush administration to go ahead with “son of Star Wars” is not proof that the policy is desirable or justified. It carries hidden political and security costs that may become fully apparent only when it is too late to reverse the decision. One key consequence of the missile defense project is the continuing improvement in Russo-Chinese relations. Their current rapprochement may provide the groundwork for the emergence of a formal alliance, if Moscow and Beijing continue to feel threatened by what they perceive as American unilateralism. Foreign-affairs commentators have taken but scant notice of the fact that President Putin came to the Genoa summit with President Bush in July only two days after signing a landmark friendship treaty with China that was obviously designed to challenge American influence. He and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, were careful to emphasize that they were not creating a military alliance, but in the same breath they issued a joint statement supporting the ABM Treaty. After the signing ceremony in the Kremlin, President Jiang said that the friendship treaty “will bring Russian-Chinese friendship from generation to generation. This is a milestone in the development of Russian-Chinese relations.”

Putin and Jiang said the treaty was not aimed at other countries and had no secret military clauses, but their statement in support of the ABM Treaty shows the depth of concern in Moscow and Beijing over missile defense: “Russia and China stress the basic importance of the ABM treaty, which is a cornerstone of strategic stability and the basis for reducing offensive weapons, and speak out for maintaining the treaty in its current form.”

The two nations were not reacting only to the missile-defense program, which they fear will compel them to engage in a costly arms race they can ill afford, nor simply to the zeal with which Washington is pushing this particular plan. Their underlying concern is that the United States is seeking to strengthen and indefinitely perpetuate its global preeminence, regardless of their fundamental national interests.

The particular concern of the Chinese is President Bush’s declaration that the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend itself—which amounted to the revival of the defense treaty defunct since 1979. In the aftermath of the spy-plane affair last April, the Bush administration also announced that it would sell submarines, destroyers, missiles, and electronic equipment to Taiwan, although this decision is in violation of the Taiwan Relations Act. To Beijing, all this confirmed that China was faced with a strategic challenge that demands a long-term response. China, the oldest nation-state in the world, takes a long view of foreign affairs, and the treaty signed by Putin and Jiang illustrates the point. It seeks to settle permanently the centuries-old border disputes between Russia and China that nearly led to war in 1969, since the absence of territorial disputes is a key precondition for effective alliances. Germany’s solemn recognition of the Brenner frontier in 1934 paved the way for the Axis in 1936, and—less ominously—the Saarland referendum helped Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle launch their own historic reconciliation just over two decades later.

The State Department was quick to dismiss the treaty, stressing its lack of specific mutual guarantees and obligations, but this is an example of that historical shortsightedness that has prevailed at Foggy Bottom for far too long. The Russo-Chinese treaty is comparable to l’entente cordialle between Great Britain and France a century ago. That arrangement was not a formal alliance to start with. Nevertheless, it did have a similar underlying logic, creating a pattern of relations that was to become fully apparent in August 1914.

In the end, perhaps, the best hope of stopping “Star Wars” is not Moscow, but the dwindling budgetary surplus and the mood of policymakers in Washington. A fight is on the horizon between Rumsfeld’s “Vulcans” and the Joint Chiefs of Staff over how deeply U.S. forces have to be slashed to foot the bill for the antiballistic-missile shield—which will easily exceed $100 billion, even for a thin system. Most experts agree that military reform, including streamlining and lightening an insufficiently mobile force, is long overdue. What should come in place of carrier groups and oversized divisions of yore is a smaller, more flexible, ultra-high tech force equipped to deal with every conceivable challenge to America’s security—not an unproved and unnecessary antiballistic-missile system that is irrational and dangerous.