- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2001

With Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush has assembled a dream team for implementing the missile defense program he promised during the campaign. But, despite the many arguments that have been aired in favor of deployment, missile defense remains a puzzle to Europeans. To us, it seems at best a strategic concept remaining to be implemented, at worst a political alibi for a newly elected president.

One of the reasons why the whole world is preoccupied with national missile defense (NMD) is that nobody knows precisely what the United States is talking about. The slightest information, real or rumored, about the new administration's intentions sets off uncontrolled reactions among U.S. allies and adversaries alike. In many ways, NMD is like the financial markets, where the slightest amount of uncertainty trigger self-realizing behaviors. The NMD project has not really begun; no system is to be deployed in the short term yet everybody is getting ready for the worst.

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If the administration has hopes of convincing Europeans of the need for such a system, it will have to be very clear as to the kind of shield it intends to deploy. Europeans do not reject the concept of missile defense as a whole. Rather, they draw a clear line between those projects that convey a genuine strategic interest for all and those that seem aimed merely at satiating America's seemingly insatiable obsession with invulnerability.

A policy of protecting U.S. territory against so-called rogue states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea would find very little support in Europe, even in the United Kingdom. For a major difference between the two sides of the Atlantic lies in the perception of the threat. Washington's official position is that the acquisition by a certain number of countries of weapons of mass destruction presents a sufficient threat to justify deployment, while European observers argue that possession must be accompanied by a clear intention to use these weapons against Western countries something that has not been proven to date. (These differences in threat assessment tell a lot about both the lack of intelligence sharing within the transatlantic community and differences in how we perceive risk). At this stage, Europeans are not ready to take the risk of a severe deterioration in diplomatic relations with Russia or an arms race with China for a missile defense program to counter a threat that is not obvious to all.

Other kinds of missile defense programs, beyond the territorial defense of the United States, might meet with less European resistance. For example, Europeans might welcome cooperative proposals on theater missile defense. France, the United Kingdom and many others fought alongside the United States during Desert Storm, and remember well the risk chemical attacks posed to their troops.

Here again, European interest in theater missile defense will hinge upon the administration's ability to clarify what its policy is. TMD, as referred to today, covers a range of systems, from tactical-level shields to the defense of other countries. This verbal confusion undermines the prospects for transatlantic agreement. While the protection of troops could provide a basis for common interest, the deployment of a so-called TMD in defense of Taiwan or Israel would be much more difficult to sell. It would have far greater strategic consequences and be far more deleterious to arms control efforts. It should more accurately be referred to as NMD for others. Without efforts to clarify the objectives, terms and modalities of missile defense, the chances for a transatlantic agreement on this crucial issue are dim at best. Obviously, this would require the Bush administration to develop a clear view of what it wishes to achieve. Merely saying that missile defense is a moral issue will not be enough to convince skeptical Europeans.

Jacques Beltran, a researcher at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales in Paris, is presently a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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