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Abrogating the ABM Treaty

Near the end of 2001 and in the beginning of 2002 the Bush administration was preparing to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty that had governed development and deployment of defenses against ICBMs since the early seventies. During the debate over the wisdom of that policy, a Mr. Louis LaFortune published a letter in the San Jose Mercury News condemning it as a violation of international law and likening it to the breaking of a mortgage or car purchase contract — an ethical violation of a sworn pledge and an affront to the rule of law.

Whatever one may think of the policy itself, withdrawing from the treaty was neither illegal nor unethical, and Mr. LaFortune’s analogy was utterly inapt. I sent the following rebuttal to his argument, which was published on 5 January 2002.

4 January 2002

Whatever one may think of the ABM treaty, or of the wisdom of abrogating it, Louis LaFortune (Letters, Jan 2) entirely misses the point when he treats doing so as a moral violation rather than as a legitimate policy choice. His analogy to breaking a mortgage or car purchase contract fails on two points:

First, the ABM treaty — and any other international treaty I can think of — includes an explicit clause governing the termination of the treaty.

Second, people happily and legally terminate mortgage contracts all the time — by paying them off early. That is how refinancing works: I “abrogate” the contract with my original bank to take advantage of a lower interest rate at a new one. My old bank does not sue me for doing so because, as with treaties, mortgages and other contracts contain termination clauses spelling out the conditions under which they may be terminated and the penalties accrued for doing so.

So it is with the ABM treaty. Abrogating it may or may not be wise policy but, Mr. LaFortune’s outrage notwithstanding, it is not a violation of international law and it is not a moral affront to the international community.

© Copyright 2002, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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