A century ago, on Feb. 6th, 1911, Ronald Reagan was born. Much has been written about his presidential leadership, including his uncanny ability to communicate, a skill shared by our current president. But more meaningful than the ability to communicate is the content of what is communicated, and that is Reagan’s legacy.

The New START Treaty whose effect began yesterday, according to official Russian policy, will only remain in place as long as the U.S. does not build its missile defenses in quality and quantity (contrary to U.S. policy), a striking reminder of the work required of this generation and the next to build on his legacy.

The late William F. Buckley said, with Ronald Reagan as president, the policymakers of "the Soviet Union [knew] that the ambiguists with whom [they] so dearly love[d] to deal [were] not in power" during the Cold War. President Reagan’s unambiguous commitment to American security flowed naturally from his belief in American Exceptionalism-- that the U.S. was morally superior to the Communist regime challenging its survival. This is why he called on the scientific community that “gave us nuclear weapons” to turn their great talents “to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”

In his famous 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) speech, Reagan listed many of the Soviet Union’s unclassified military programs, and noted that their capabilities, once rudimentary and unimpressive, were now modern and as sophisticated as our own. He found foolish the theory that the Soviets would ease up on their military and nuclear build-up if the U.S. did it first. On the contrary, he said he would agree to a nuclear freeze “if only we could freeze the Soviets' global desires.”

He realized that as long as nuclear weapons gave a state the ability to blackmail by threatening to unleash horrible catastrophe on another’s population, states would seek them. This was the reason, he believed, it was the moral responsibility of the U.S. government to build a defensive system that would one day render nuclear weapons useless. No arms control agreement could achieve this ultimate goal, which is why he would not relent to the Soviets on the development of U.S. missile defense.

Nearly three decades after giving his SDI speech, there have been two dramatic changes. One, the U.S. went from having zero ability to shield Americans from incoming nuclear missiles, to having a limited but real, credible, and impressive missile defense capability that can intercept short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles. Many assailed Reagan’s vision and accused it of being cost-prohibitive and even physically impossible. Spectacular and affordable advances in missile defense capability have proven the skeptics wrong.

The second change is the global threat landscape. If Reagan were to deliver his SDI speech now, rather than illustrating the dangers of one state which could threaten the U.S. with nuclear weapons, he would likely list Iran, North Korea, and China among others. And more than 30 countries now have ballistic missile technology including Pakistan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

Our current BMDS is able to defend the homeland against limited attacks from Iran and North Korea, but it is indefensible against attacks launched from ships off our coasts and the sophisticated missiles that could be launched from China or Russia. Indeed, U.S. official policy is to build a BMDS capable of defending the U.S. from a “limited ballistic missile attack.” But a limited defense is not the fruition of Reagan’s dream. Reagan envisioned a comprehensive defensive system that was capable of intercepting missiles headed towards Americans or our friends regardless of their level of sophistication or by whom and where they were launched. We can progress toward this aim, but there are obstacles. The real cause of the obstacles is not technological or even financial in nature—it is political.

For instance, Russia is stuck in the Cold War era with its view of missile defense and its impact on a “strategic balance”. In addition to the conditions it placed on the New START Treaty, it vehemently objected to U.S. missile defense in Europe and deployed tactical nuclear weapons near Poland after the U.S. deployed short range missile defenses there in 2009.

But Russia isn’t the only one making threats in response to U.S. defense of itself and its allies. In February of 1996, during a confrontation between China and our ally Taiwan, Lt. Gen. Xiong Guang Kai, a senior Chinese official, threatened the U.S. not to interfere because Americans "care more about Los Angeles than they do Taipei." Could our foes say the same thing about Seoul, Tokyo, Warsaw, or Jerusalem?

China, once a country whose military capabilities (like the early Soviet days) paled in comparison to that of the U.S., has demonstrated an insatiable quest for military strength and global competitiveness—again, similarities to our Cold War foe abound. It has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program world-wide. Moreover, it is working hard to upgrade its missiles to counter modern missile defenses, and is developing the ability to attack space assets. Chinese military analysis of U.S. and Coalition military operations state that “destroying or capturing satellites and other sensors … will deprive opponents of initiatives on the battlefield and [make it difficult] for them to bring their precision guided weapons into full play.”

Most recently, Beijing unveiled its new anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, a capability whose development the U.S. has known about for years. In September 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said China’s, “investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific.” Upgrading and deploying missile defense systems, like any major defense platform, takes years, and we should not wait until a conflict arises before we begin preparing to protect the American people and our allies from the unthinkable—especially when it is in our power to begin now.

The question has always been and remains, however, whether the U.S. has the will to do it. The “will to do it” will be proven out in two ways: First, in the actions of policy-makers regarding agreements that may directly affect U.S. current or future missile defense deployments. For instance, Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher is leading discussions with the Russian Federation on a missile defense agreement, and the State Department will consider the deceptively innocuous-seeming European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. 

In a multi-polar world, limiting future administration’s missile defense options—even when others commit to the same limitations, does nothing to restrict the actions of the rest of the world, and are therefore not in the national security interest of the United States of America.

The second way to prove the steel of policy-makers will show up in this year’s budget for the Department of Defense. The American people made it quite clear in the midterm elections that they want government to rein in spending, but surely they don’t want national security to be a casualty in dramatic budget cuts. As President Reagan said in view of the ominous threat environment, “The solution is well within our grasp but to reach it there is simply no alternative but to … provide the resources we need to preserve the peace and guarantee our freedom.”

Let the 100th birthday of the Great Communicator remind us of history’s great lessons, of the responsibility required as a result of American Exceptionalism, and let us recommit ourselves to building on the advances we have made in missile defense—for if there is indeed a day in our country’s future where the value of nuclear weapons will be diminished, this is the path that will take us there.

Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering III (USAF, ret.) is the former director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Rebeccah Heinrichs is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a fellow at the Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a range of security issues and specializes in missile defense and nuclear deterrence. She is also contributing editor at Providence Magazine. Follow her on Twitter, @RLHeinrichs.