European Affairs

With the ABM Treaty Gone, Europe Warms to Missile Defense     Print Email

Deputy Director, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, The Heritage Foundation

Once upon a time, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (ABM) was widely considered in Europe to be the "cornerstone of arms control" and U.S. plans for national missile defense (NMD) to be an example of America's worst isolationist instincts. In fact, that time was less than a year ago.

Today, however, the ABM is no more, the United States having withdrawn from the treaty on June 13 in preparation for the development and testing of a national missile shield.

Yet, amazingly little international outcry has ensued. The Russian government decided to drop its opposition in return forfurther massive nuclear arms reductions and a formal partnership with NATO. The public line from European leaders today is that how the United States chooses to protect its own homeland is nobody else's business. Arguing against defense of the U.S. homeland has become even more difficult since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A few European leaders, mainly conservatives, have openly endorsed U.S. plans for NMD. Czech President Vaclav Havel voiced his unqualified support early in the second Bush administration. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has done the same, and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said he is willing to cooperate with Washington on the use of U.S. radar installations located on Danish soil in Greenland.

Meanwhile, the British government under Tony Blair, America's most important European ally, is inching in the same direction, egged on by a very pro-NMD Tory party led by Ian Duncan Smith, yet sniped at by its own Labour left wing.

In February, Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told an audience at King's College Cambridge that "the world has changed" since Soviet times, and spoke in support of American missile defense plans. He reminded his audience that London was "the first city to suffer the sheer terror of missile attack" by the Nazi V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Indeed, some European governments have quietly accepted that working with the United States, rather than against it, could be in their best interests, considering potential missile threats to Europe from countries such as Libya, Iran and Iraq. Planners at the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency are now crafting proposals for international cooperation on missile defense, particularly with the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy.

Dating back to 1972, the ABM limited the number of defensive weapons that could be deployed by the United States and the Soviet Union, its only two signatories, thereby supposedly guaranteeing that both countries would be devastated in a nuclear war by incoming missiles. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), as the underlying concept of deterrence was known, was meant to make nuclear war unimaginable and therefore impossible.

While the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed this strategic situation, European support for the ABM persisted, as did European opposition to missile defense. Starting with President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, derided as "Star Wars" by its critics, opposition in Europe was based both on the negative effects missile defense might have on arms control and on perceived threats to European national interests. Many feared that the American plans could ignite an arms race with Russia and China.

Throughout most of the 1990s the issue was dormant, as the Clinton administration basically agreed with European reservations. So, Europeans were dismayed to discover that the Clinton administration, pressured by a Republican Congress, in its final years turned back to missile defense. A report of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in February 2000 noted that its members were surprised by the new U.S. seriousness on NMD.

"European negative reactions have been greater than need necessarily have been the case, because the Clinton administration's efforts to explain NMD to Europeans have been both belated and half-hearted," wrote W. Bruce Weinrod, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy in the first Bush administration, in his paper "U.S. Missile Defenses and Europe" two years ago.

Typical of European sentiment were statements by French officials, who are not known for pulling their punches. In March 2000, French President Jacques Chirac stated, "We must avoid any questioning of the ABM Treaty that could lead to a disruption of strategic equilibrium and a new nuclear-arms race." The following month, he had this to say: "Germany and France have the same analysis of the terrible consequences an NMD system could have on the ABM Treaty."

In early 2001, one of the first acts of President George W. Bush, whose platform included withdrawal from the ABM, was to dispatch his top Pentagon officials, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, to Europe for briefings and discussions of missile defense. Their message to the Europeans was: The United States will go ahead with national missile defense, but we are willing to share it with U.S. allies.

The idea of sharing missile defense technology with allies - and even enemies - goes back to the 1980s. President Reagan proposed to share SDI with the Soviets at the 1987 Reykjavik summit, an offer that was declined by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead, Mr. Gorbachev had hoped to dissuade Reagan from pursuing research into space-based defenses with the offer of cutting nuclear arsenals in half.

Mr. Reagan rejected this deal, saying that if anything nuclear weapons should be abolished altogether. As Mr. Gorbachev later admitted, Mr. Reagan's insistence on developing missile defense hastened the Soviet Union's collapse by demonstrating to the Kremlin the indisputable superiority of American technology.

The first Bush administration promised to share its planned missile defense system, Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) also known as "brilliant pebbles" with other countries. Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried to take the United States up on Mr. Reagan's earlier offer in 1992 when he proposed, "defense for the world community." He tried further to pursue the subject with newly elected President Bill Clinton at the Vancouver summit in 1993, but was turned down by Mr. Clinton, who abandoned the plans of the Bush administration.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin, during visits to Spain and Germany in the spring of 2000, proposed a common missile defense for Russia and the United States, or for Russia and Europe, he was in fact both reacting to threats perceived to be very real by the Russians from bordering Islamic countries and drawing on ideas of previous Russian and American leaders.

His statements were duly noted among Europeans. As NATO Secretary General George Robertson said in June 2000, Mr. Putin's suggestion, "appears to endorse the threat assessment made by the Americans that there is a danger. If there was no perceived risk, then it would not make much sense for Mr. Putin to put forth such an idea."

A concrete example of cooperation between the United States and an ally on NMD is the Israeli Arrow air defense system. A small country with ballistic missile technology blossoming all around it, in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, Israel makes an obvious candidate for missile defense.

The fact is that Europeans, too, are concerned about the missile threat, though they may prefer not to talk much about it. German intelligence is worried about the threat from the Middle East. The French understand the need to protect their forces from missile attacks.

The Italians, for their part, appreciate the appeal of homeland defense, having concrete threats in rather close proximity, primarily from Libya, which is acquiring North Korean intermediate-range No Dong missiles. Turkey is working with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, spurred by aspiring missile powers Iran, Iraq and Syria.

In Europe, Theater Missile Defense (TMD) against shorterrange missiles has been perceived as much less controversial than NMD. Europeans might well find TMD more attractive, at least as an initial project for cooperation with the United States.

As noted at a conference organized by the Heritage Foundation and the McCormick Tribune Foundation in July, NATO is currently conducting two independent industrial studies of the options for theater missile defenses, SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) of the United States being one competitor, Thales SA of France the other.

The two teams are funded to the tune of $13.5 million and are meant to report at the end of January 2003. Among the questions they will have to answer are: Do proliferating missiles pose a real or likely threat to NATO? Are missile defenses needed to respond to that threat? Are they feasible? What are the technological, political, and fiscal problems to be overcome? Is there government and public support for such an expensive program - particularly in the light of shrinking European defense budgets?

Given the smaller European landmass, TMD systems - like the land-based Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) system or the U.S. Navy's Area Lower Tier System placed on Aegis cruisers - could cover most of the area. Cooperation has also focused on the multinational Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS) program, which is being jointly developed by the United States, Germany and Italy.

MEADS, however, a battlefield-range system with a radius of eight to ten kilometers, does not address the most important growing threat, medium-range missiles. Nonetheless, the cooperation can be used as a model for sharing other American anti-missile systems, including theater and ultimately ballistic missile defenses.

Inviting friends and allies to participate in the development and deployment of missile defense does involve sensitive issues. Transfer of advanced U.S. technology is one; the role of domestic European military industries is another.

There is the need to use radar installations in certain European countries, such as Fylingdales in Britain and the Thule radar station in Greenland, and the role of NATO has to be sorted out. None of these issues are showstoppers, but they will need U.S. public diplomacy to overcome lingering political and popular opposition.

As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal on June 14, after the demise of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, "As a result, we are now free to develop, test and deploy effective defenses against missile attacks from states like North Korea and Iran - states that are aggressively seeking weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles."

The Americans are now ready to move ahead. Faced with that fact, despite all the harsh rhetoric that has gone before, it seems likely that the Europeans will follow.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.

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