U.S. launch of missile defense could destroy NATO

June 09, 2000|By William Pfaff

CERNOBBIO, Italy -- This year's workshop of the Council for the United States and Italy, held annually at this resort on Lake Como, provided further evidence of what has become a remarkably rapid deterioration in European-American agreement on security.

Three weeks ago, at a meeting of security specialists in Paris that included senior U.S. and European officials, the usual transatlantic courtesies could not mask considerable acrimony created by the European Union's decision to create an independent international military force accountable to Brussels.

The composition of this week's meeting in Cernobbio was different. While the U.S. delegation included eminent former government officials and members of the academic policy community, most participants were senior business and financial executives committed to close transatlantic relations and Italian-American understanding and cooperation.

One issue divided the Italians from most of the Americans: the U.S. project to build a national missile defense. The Europeans expressed, at best, bafflement at Washington's determination to go ahead with this program, whose technical feasibility and actual tactical utility have yet to be demonstrated, and which risks destroying existing arms control arrangements and launching a new race for countermeasures.

The casual and largely unquestioning acceptance by U.S. government officials, and by a large part of the policy community, of the "rogue nation" rationale for this project is, to outside observers, all but incomprehensible.

The deterrent logic of the past 50 years is being abandoned with what seems complete lack of concern for the negative consequences of the NMD program. Americans seem to foreign observers to be sleepwalking toward the edge of a cliff.

Transatlantic understanding has strikingly changed in little more than a year. Washington in 1998-1999 was warning that European trade policy and military procurement risked creating a "fortress Europe" and a strategic "decoupling" from the United States.

A year later, it is the Europeans who are concerned that the United States is about to "decouple" itself from its allies and, through NMD, attempt to wall itself into an isolated strategic fortress (if, of course, NMD works; but the symbolic significance of the effort strikes everyone).

A little more than a year ago the United States and the NATO allies were jointly at war to stop Serbian oppression in Kosovo. Kosovo's demonstration of Europe's military dependence on the United States shocked both sides. Afterward, Washington told the Europeans that they had to increase defense budgets and buy high-tech weapons so as to integrate with U.S. forces.

Congress reacted badly to the evidence that Europe carried so little of the military burden, and demanded that it bear a large share of the costs of Kosovo reconstruction. There have been recent initiatives in the U.S. Senate to mandate withdrawal of American forces from Kosovo, citing continued dissatisfaction with Europe's contribution to the common effort.

European officials and military commanders were mortified by their military inadequacies. They also resented the sometimes overbearing way in which Americans ran the war, conducting operations directly from the United States without consultation.

The eventual European reaction was nonetheless unexpected: The decision, on the British government's initiative, to launch a program to give the European Union a military capacity of some 60,000 men with air and naval support, capable of independent action under European Union command.

Washington's reaction to Europe's new military ambition has been guarded but critical, arguing that it is a potential source of division in the alliance (which it is, as NATO presently is conceived and organized).

The Europeans say their new force is meant only to do politically innocuous peacekeeping or peacemaking tasks. Washington, however, is justified in seeing that it has the potential for a great deal more than that. Armies are agents of sovereignty.

Washington similarly argues that an NMD would never be allowed to harm alliance relations or threaten the existing nuclear deterrents possessed by Russia and China (and Britain and France).

Yet everyone sees that if American technology really produces a missile defense that reliably defends against a small missile threat, it can eventually build a defense against threats of any size -- and would be under great political pressure to do so.

This is why the NMD program has enormously important implications. It is capable of undoing the existing world nuclear balance, relaunching arms races -- and, if that were not enough, of destroying the Western alliance. The best of friends thus fail to understand what America is doing.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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