Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

Book Review: The Three-Headed Cerberus of Technology, Security and Culture – Justifying Ballistic Missile Defense

by Raluca Csernatoni

Justifying Ballistic Missile Defense: Technology, Security and Cultures by Columba Peoples, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Is there a need for increased Ballistic Missile Defenses? Short and long range ballistic missiles are being acquired by countries such as North Korea and Iran and ballistic missile technology is being developed so as to carry not just conventional warheads, but also weapons of mass destruction. Over the past years there has been an increase in the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the technologies to deliver them. The United States and Europe see it as their responsibility to protect their territory and population against potential external threats and short and long range ballistic missiles.



It is gradually apparent that Ballistic Missile Defenses are utilised by countries, the United Stated included, as handy technological deterrents and solutions to perceived threats posed by external belligerent actors. The current cultural understanding of technology finds it commonsensical that more money given to the military-industrial complex means more chances to deter potential security threats. But the question remains whether the unrelenting quest for technological innovations in defense programs is the best solution to complex nuclear security problems.

The Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) is an American weapons system intended to protect against potential intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear missile attacks. During the President George W. Bush administrations and his neoconservative political supporters, missile defense gained momentum and attracted consistent support due to the potential threats posed by “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea making use of nuclear capabilities. The book project by Columba Peoples, Justifying Ballistic Missile Defense: Technology, Security and Cultures, proposes an original viewpoint on the debate about the United States’ missile military defense program and advocacy all through its history and development starting from the 1960s onwards. The emphasis resides in the unipolar nature of American military power, the virtues of preemptive military action perceived in the American culture, and the preparedness to exercise the military option as the first rather than last policy choice to solve complex international security issues. In the author’s view, finding successful technical answers to security problems is a matter of tradition and culture in the American society.

By putting forward a critical theoretical perspective to analyse the United States’ continued pursuit of missile defense technologies, the book calls into question the role of technology in achieving national security. It concentrates on the concept of “common sense” as it was coined by Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, used in the book to analyse the American “common sense” perception as regards BMD policies and their development over time. The author also draws theoretical inspiration from Frankfurt School philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and Martin Heidegger to pinpoint two contrasting perspectives on technology: one that sees technology as a progressive tool in the hands of humanity – the optimist instrumentalist perspective; and one that posits the independent logic of technology and its disruptive impact on human actions – the pessimistic substantivist perspective.

 The book makes use of both theoretical positions to show how technology has shaped the cultural perception and the practical implementation of American security policy through the lens of ballistic missile defense. The instrumental approach to technology is symptomatic of American society, technology being seen as the best tool and solution to ensure the country’s nuclear safety. However, according to the author, there is also a substantivist belief in technological determinism mainly due to the Cold War arms race, as it is considered that the right technology in the wrong hands is the main cause of nuclear insecurity. As absurd as it may sound, military technology is seen as both the cause and the solution to security problems.

 According to the author, American culture has been characterised by both perspectives on technology, arguing that instead of being in complete opposition, they have concomitantly and symbiotically operated in the American “common sense” concerning security and technology. The main argument is that an uncritical “common sense” has been used by advocates of BMD to legitimate the proliferation of missile technology and the necessity to develop further technological defensive measures. Such activists resorted to instrumental and value-based justifications drawing on public fears, popular culture, American philosophy, and the political leadership’s perceptions on technology and security. That led to an indiscriminating approach to missile defense and the pervasive belief in the American culture that more investment in defensive technologies means more security at home. The author critiques the American engineer-type strategy to resort to technological solutions for political and diplomatic conflicts. Moreover, Peoples calls for a continuous reevaluation of the American culture’s “everyday”, “common sense” perception of technology and security, as the relationship between the two concepts is not as commonsensical as expected.

 Technology is being put forwards as the solution to more complex security problems, broader cultural and populist arguments being used by proponents of missile defense so as to justify and legitimise expensive and controversial defense programs. The book calls into question the undeveloped relationship between security, technology, culture, and human action, especially when considering the potential advantages and drawbacks of weapons technologies for the Unites States security policy. The potential theoretical drawback of the book is that it posits cultural explanations and discursive framings as the sole explanatory factor of BMD’s successful advocacy and politics. An ambivalent logic runs in a vicious circle throughout the justification of BMD in American strategic culture, one that constructs a pessimistic view on technology based on fears and external threats, and another arguing for an idealistic view of technology and its positive potential to solve security problems. Peoples’ book, Justifying Ballistic Missile Defense: Technology, Security and Cultures, is a significant contribution to the field of critical security studies and a captivating read, offering an in-depth analysis of the relationship between technology, culture, and security as reflected in American cultural interpretations of BMD.

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