The U.S. drive to build a missile defense against “rogue” enemies is coming under friendly fire from the nation’s closest military allies.
European political and defense officials are expressing increasingly vocal doubts about the prospect of the proposed U.S. National Missile Defense (NMD) system and its effects on trans-Atlantic ties, relations with Russia and the stability of international arms control pacts.
With President Clinton facing a self-imposed deadline later this year on whether to proceed with the missile defense shield, even experts sympathetic to the idea say the failure to include NATO’s European partners earlier in the process has greatly complicated the diplomatic sales job.
“There should have been a lot more private conversations with our allies much, much earlier in the game,” said Jeffrey Gedmin, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and executive director of the New Atlantic Alliance.
The alliance is a group formed to promote better relations between Western Europe and the United States.
“In Europe, they think we’re crazy to even be considering the idea,” said Stephen Young, deputy director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers and a deep skeptic of the NMD concept. “They don’t see the threat, they don’t think it will work, and they don’t see why we have to upset the Russians over this.”
The rising allied doubts come as U.S. defense officials sound confident they will clear the technological hurdles and successfully intercept a missile in a crucial June test. U.S. defense planners and many in Congress argue the system is needed to protect against a potential missile launch by countries such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran.
Many in Europe worry that a U.S. missile shield will frighten Russia and undermine the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Equally worrisome is the prospect that a successful NMD could leave the United States invulnerable to ballistic missile attack and thus far less reliant on its defense ties to Europe through NATO.
“It’s fair to say there are a mixture of views among our NATO allies,” a senior State Department official said at a briefing Thursday on U.S. strategic arms policy.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said European leaders are “broadly hopeful” that U.S. and Russian negotiators can strike a deal on NMD that preserves the ABM treaty.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer walked a fine diplomatic line during a brief Washington visit that concluded earlier this week.
Mr. Fischer was careful to say the United States had to make its own decisions on its defensive needs. But he made clear the reservations remain deep on the other side of the Atlantic.
“It’s a very difficult discussion, and for us a key element is whether this will lead to a confrontation between the United States and Russia in the question of arms reduction,” he said at the State Department Monday.
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, appearing with Mr. Fischer, contended the administration has kept its allies informed in the NMD debate. She pointedly noted that, while no decision has been made on NMD, the United States had to put its own strategic issues first.
“Obviously, talking with our allies is very important … but I also think it is very important for the president of the United States, as is true of any leader, to do what is responsible as far as protecting one’s people,” she said.
European leaders are reluctant to publicly oppose unconditionally a missile defense system with which the United States could proceed unilaterally.
French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who discussed the NMD idea with Mrs. Albright Thursday at the State Department, diplomatically sidestepped any direct criticism of the U.S. plans.
But he told French reporters in Paris on the eve of his trip that France doesn’t share U.S. concerns about the dangers posed by rogue nations.
“Is the U.S. really threatened by two or three little states?” he asked. “We’re a bit puzzled by this threat.”