European Affairs

NATO Heads for a showdown Over Ballistic Missile Defense     Print Email

Senior Advisor, RAND Corporation

Throughout its history, NATO has faced the need to keep the twin poles of the Alliance - Europe and North America - in strategic harmony. That has always been achieved, but at times only after long, acrimonious, and anxiety-filled debate.

Now another such debate is beginning - once again involving ballistic missile defenses - and it is full of echoes of the past.

During the Cold War, differences about strategy between the United States and many of the European allies often focused on issues involving nuclear weapons and, with them, efforts to reassure both partners that their fates were ineluctably linked.

Two of these differences were about US plans to deploy ballistic missile defenses (BMD): the first, the Safeguard system of the 1960s and early 1970s, which was designed to reduce the effects of a Soviet nuclear strike; the second - the 1980s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - which had the added ambition, in President Ronald Reagan's words, of making nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."

The third debate about ballistic missile defenses that is now beginning centers on US proposals to build and deploy a so-called National Missile Defense (NMD). Like its predecessors, this proposal is likely to produce major misunderstandings within NATO, not least because of lack of clarity at the outset about what is intended and lack of early, comprehensive, and sustained dialogue within the Alliance. It is, thus, already too late to avoid some level of disturbance, if not a crisis, within NATO over the issue.

In theory, the NMD debate should not produce the acrimony and anxieties of the past because the system is designed for radically different purposes and is directed against a totally different challenge. There is no East-West nuclear equation that will somehow be affected, for good or ill, by US deployments; there is no Soviet nuclear threat that might be reduced by deploying missile defenses (as the armers argued in the past), nor a risk to strategic stability (as the arms controllers feared).

Whatever Moscow may now say - and it is saying a lot in opposition to the US NMD proposals - the projected US system is far too circumscribed to offset in any meaningful way Russia's ability to overwhelm it with offensive missiles if, for some bizarre and virtually unimaginable reason, there developed another nuclear confrontation.

Nor would China, with its capacity to design and field sophisticated offensive nuclear-tipped missiles, have anything on which to base realistic concerns of seeing the United States become strategically pre-eminent - if, indeed, the two countries commit the supreme historic folly of failing to avoid a political conflict and resulting nuclear confrontation.

The US objective is far more modest than trying to escape the unavoidable consequences of confrontation between two countries with advanced nuclear arsenals. It is, rather, to deal with the potential development, by hostile countries, of the capacity to mount ballistic missile attacks with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which might be nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological.

The proliferation of such missiles is well advanced in many countries. The development of WMD, with nuclear weapons as obviously the most disturbing element, is being pursued in different places, with North Korea out in front. Other countries, including some in the Middle East may follow sometime in the future. Iraq and Iran figure most often in US analyses.

Drawing on strategic theory developed during the Cold War, the United States has surveyed different possible responses. Diplomacy to eliminate political conflict is obviously best, but it is just as obviously unreliable in at least some of the cases under discussion.

Deterrence should be con-sidered, just as it became the cornerstone of preventing East-West conflict, both conventional and nuclear. But some analysts argue that so-called rogue states might not be "deterrable," that their leaders might not put much stock in preserving the lives of their people.

Other analysts argue that that is nonsense, that no leader faced with the possibility of inviting nuclear reprisal has yet shown such reckless disregard. But many of these analysts still worry that the United States, or other Western states, would be most reluctant to use nuclear weapons against a nation that had begun the chain of events with, say, a "limited" use of chemical or biological weapons.

Thus, the idea of being able actively to defend against attack by ballistic missiles, armed with any form of WMD, has emerged as at least one element of a comprehensive US strategy.

The US NMD program accordingly is of limited scope. It is designed to intercept "tens" of missiles, such as might be fielded by a relatively fledging nuclear power or that might be launched by accident. It does not affect either latent or real nuclear relationships with a major nuclear power; and Washington argues that deploying these limited defenses would certainly not "decouple" the United States from Europe.

By this reasoning, there can be no perception in Europe, as there was during the SDI debate of the 1980s, that, in seeking to reduce its vulnerability to nuclear attack, America is somehow conveying that it would not be willing to put its society at risk to protect Europe - a willingness that was a vital element of the US-European strategic relationship during the Cold War.

Indeed, Washington argues, the case is just the reverse - that deploying NMD is part of ensuring that the United States and its allies remain "coupled." This is because of the nature of the threat posed by WMD and ballistic missiles in the hands of hostile states.

Washington argues, for example, that if Iraq had had nuclear-tipped missiles in 1990, the United States and its allies might have been deterred from responding militarily to Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait, for fear that a US or European city could have been destroyed.

Thus, in order to be able to project conventional military power - in defense of its own and its allies' interests in places like the Middle East - the United States must be in a position to reduce the risks to its own population.

This is, Washington argues, a logical extension of efforts already agreed among the NATO allies to develop programs, such as the Patriot system and the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), for defending their deployed military forces from missile attack.

As a result, rather than decoupling US security from that of the allies, deploying a limited NMD system can be the instrument for helping to ensure that the United States will be willing to use its military power in the common interest.

As US Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen argued at the Munich Security Conference in February: "Will missile defenses protecting the United States weaken our defense commitments to allies? No, just the contrary. They will make it clear that even in the face of rogue long-range missiles, US defense commitments, including those to NATO, will be upheld."

Cohen continued, "We never want to be in the position of being blackmailed by anyone who will prevent us from carrying out our Article 5 obligations or from responding to any threat to our national security interests."

So far, however, this argument has not attracted substantial support in Europe, although the British government has declared its support. For one thing, not all the allies agree about the US estimate of the threat that could emanate from the Middle East.

This is an ongoing issue before the alliance, which is usually left unresolved - although that could not continue if the European allies are forced to confront fully the US case for deploying missile defenses.

Even among allies that do accept the case - including that a hostile state would rely upon ballistic missiles for delivery of WMD, rather than tramp steamers - not all believe that an NMD program is the right response or that the costs are worth paying.

One form of cost comes in terms of the Russian response. For the United States to deploy an NMD system, it is clear that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty must be modified, and Moscow has so far resisted this step. This is probably a compound of several factors, notably Russia's desire to retain, unchanged, a treaty that is a symbol of its former status as a superpower equal to the United States, plus a desire not to help the United States feel more confident about projecting conventional military power.

The Russians have also so far been unmoved by US arguments that they should share concerns about potential WMD threats from countries with which Moscow has far better relations than does Washington. Russia has also been vigorously presenting its case in Western Europe, linking it to other Western policies, such as NATO's expansion and the alliance's conduct of the war over Kosovo, and it is appealing for Western forbearance in doing things that purportedly weaken Russian democrats.

Russia may, in time, change its position, especially if it can trade small changes to the ABM treaty for long-range constraints on the US NMD program. But in judgments made by the European allies, another cost relates to the possible extension of a US NMD system to protect Europe, as well.

The United States foresees such a development, in particular by citing that "rogue state" missiles could target Europe as well as America. Indeed, European cities would be in range from missiles based in the Middle East before US cities. But if the allies do accept the US viewpoint, what will it cost to create even a limited Allied Missile Defense that is more than just today's projected theater missile defense programs designed to protect deployed forces?

Given US pressure for allies to increase spending on conventional defenses and the European desire to create a European Security and Defense Policy, the prospect of adding a further, expensive military project is daunting.

Nor is it yet clear that the United States will trust its allies with the necessary US technologies, an issue that is already causing deep stresses within the Alliance in the context of NATO's current Defense Capabilities Initiative.

None of these questions has yet been widely discussed in NATO, much less resolved, and the clock is ticking toward a US decision to deploy the first phase of an NMD system. Legislation requires President Clinton to make such a determination this summer, provided that building a missile defense system proves technically feasible.

Mr. Clinton has also said he will be guided by the nature of the threat, the costs of the program, and by other factors - "the strategic issues and considerations that involve our European allies and Russia itself," in Mr. Cohen's words in Munich.

These caveats may lead a decision to be postponed, although, if the issue becomes part of the US presidential campaign, that may prove to be politically inopportune, even if the state of the NMD program's development argues for delay.

In any event, the issue is now joined within the NATO alliance. This is none too soon in terms of the wide range of complex political, military, and diplomatic issues that are involved, the history of miscommunication and misunderstanding across the Atlantic on missile defense matters, the uncertain course of the parallel public debate that has only just begun in the United States, and the potential consequences for the Alliance - both political and military - if the allies, collectively, do not get this right.

It will require great amounts of leadership, common sense, and cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic, if NATO is to avoid a crisis of major proportions.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.

  • Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive?

    By Michael Mosettig

    To the union leaders who occupy offices inside, the big white building just north of Lafayette Square in Washington is known as The House of Labor. Encased on marble, with a view of the White House, it exudes the power that once belonged to leaders of American labor unions to help pick and elect Democratic Party presidents and push their agendas through Congress.

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course