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Consensus is emerging in the US in favour of national missile defence (NMD). George W. Bush and John McCain, the leading Republican candidates for the presidency, want it. Al Gore, the Democratic front- runner, has reluctantly moved towards supporting such a system, while President Bill Clinton, a late
convert, is expected to decide in favour of NMD deployment next summer.
In Europe, though, US plans for a limited defence – designed to protect against a missile attack from a rogue state or an accidental launch – have caused a furore among our closest allies.
Le Monde talks of the “spectre of a new cold war”. A leading member of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union warns in the weekly Die Zeit of another dangerous outbreak of US unilateralism. The British, too, harbour serious reservations. “Nothing has so frightened Washington’s friends since Mr Reagan first played Star Wars in the early 1980s,” concludes columnist Philip Stephens writing in these pages.
If the US and its European partners do not bridge their differences, missile defence will strain the alliance. Wolfgang Schmitt, a former Green Party representative in the Bundestag, and a foreign policy expert, says that for starters, Americans and Europeans “don’t share the same threat assessment”.
Many US observers were equally sceptical until a bipartisan commission, led by Donald Rumsfeld, a former US secretary of defence, released its sobering report on ballistic missile threats in July 1998.
The commission concluded that a number of nations were working to acquire “ballistic missiles with biological or nuclear payloads”. Rogue nations could acquire the capability to strike the US with a ballistic missile in as little as five years (before a US system is likely to be available). After the report, US concern about the threat grew. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), representing the combined judgment of all US intelligence agencies, stated: “The proliferation of medium-range ballistic missiles – driven primarily by North Korean No Dong (missile) sales – has created an immediate, serious, and growing threat to US forces, interests, and allies, and has significantly altered the strategic balances in the Middle East and Asia.”
Many Europeans apparently believe this threat is only hypothetical. Le Monde recently observed: “The French believe that these threats do not exist.”
Therein lies a central problem.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, argued during a recent Washington visit that US missile defence would lead to “split security standards within the Nato alliance”. If European cities became more vulnerable, Mr Fischer argued, the US would be less inclined to come to the aid of the Europeans. Just the opposite is true. The US would be more likely to defend the Europeans if they had secured their own cities from ballistic missile attack.
But since Mr Fischer’s worry hints at a similar threat assessment, why not promote Nato co-operation on missile defence just as the allies have co-operated on so much else over the last 50 years?
The US would surely welcome European co-operation on a new system that protected the US and its allies. In October, naval officers from the US, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands met to discuss how a co-operative naval defence effort might proceed. The US has held similar talks with Israel and with allies in the Pacific including Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. These efforts should continue and be broadened to include more nations.
Europeans worry that if the US goes ahead with NMD, it will trigger an arms race around the world. This concern should be taken seriously. It is true that Russia and China object to US plans. It is also true, though, that the US continues to pursue co-operative policies towards both. Washington wants China in the World Trade Organisation; it also maintains a dialogue with Moscow, despite the Russian war in Chechnya. The US also still foots 90 per cent of the bill for securing the safety of Russia’s weapons and nuclear materials. There is little reason to believe that either country is ready to forsake its relationship with the US solely because of a missile defence system designed to confine a threat from rogue states.
There is no reason why the security structures of the cold war should not be brought up to date to reflect today’s strategic realities. And there is no evidence to suggest that sensible arms control and non-proliferation policies are incompatible with prudent steps towards missile defence.
No, the real danger is not a new arms race. It is that the US will be left to worry about new strategic realities, while Europeans defend against yesterday’s threats with cold war tools.
A new defence for the US and its allies is at hand. It is time to work towards a transatlantic consensus.
Jeffrey Gedmin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Senator Jon Kyl (Republican, Arizona) is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
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