When the United States deploys missiles in Europe, big things tend to happen. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter decided to install American Pershing II and cruise missiles on the continent to counter a Soviet missile known as the SS-20. Carried out four years later under Ronald Reagan, the deployment of these "Euromissiles" sparked a huge peace movement along with a wave of anti-Americanism. Several governments either fell or came close to falling over the issue, but NATO held firm, and the missiles turned out to be a key factor inducing the strategic rethink in Moscow and paving the way for the peaceful end of the cold war.
Fast forward to the spring of 2007. With Washington consumed with Iraq and the 2008 presidential election, a lame-duck American president once again proposes to deploy new missiles in Europe to counter a growing threat. This time it is Iranian and not Soviet missiles that are the problem, and the plan is to install a small number of interceptors in Poland and at a radar site in the Czech Republic as part of an American missile defense shield.
As before, the debate is not only about the Iranian missile program, let alone the technical merits and flaws of the Bush defense shield that is supposed to counter it. Instead, it is primarily about the nature of the U.S.-European relationship. Iraq fractured the transatlantic partnership, and Bush's missile defense plan has sent shivers down the spines of even some of our closest allies. Blood pressures in chancelleries across the continent have been rising, as growing controversy surrounding the plan has generated the first tremors of what could become another political earthquake. European leaders are unsure about this plan and mad at the way Washington is pursuing it. Some politicians, especially but not only in Berlin, have started to calculate whether and how they may exploit anti-Bush feelings one more time for political gain before this president steps down. But, instead of the divisive issue it became in the 1980s, missile defense could--if handled correctly--actually prove to be part of the salvation of the transatlantic alliance.
There is actually a strong case for why the United States and Europe should want a common missile defense shield. We are witnessing the erosion of the nonproliferation regime and may be at the edge of a new era of nuclearization, especially and most dangerously in the Middle East. North Korea's nuclear program has been capped but not reversed by recent talks. The odds of the West convincing Tehran to halt its nuclear program are uncertain, and an Iranian bomb would likely accelerate similar efforts by other countries in the region. Further nuclearization of the Middle East--just past the borders of an enlarged Europe--is very possible.
This is not about being "aggressive" as some critics already allege. Missile defense should be especially attractive to those Europeans who worry about any future military action to try to halt (or slow) programs like the Iranian one. Building such a program could actually enhance diplomacy's chance--led by the European Union--to convince Tehran that building the bomb is not worth it. And, if Iran does go nuclear, we will move into a new era of containment, and missile defense will become even more important.
In addition to these strategic questions, missile defense is important for another reason. French President Jacques Chirac bids adieu to the international stage this spring. Shortly thereafter, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will follow. Bush's departure in 2009 will open a window to repair the transatlantic relationship. Handled properly, missile defense could become part of the effort to bring both sides closer as opposed to just another issue that deepens the divide.
But Bush's current plan is not exactly the salve the alliance needs. There are several problems with it. First, Washington is selling a system designed primarily to protect the United States and over which the United States will have sole control at a time when America's standing is at a historical low and this president's even more so--even in traditionally pro-American Central and Eastern Europe, which feel their past loyalty is being taken for granted now.
Second, the proposed missile shield would cover most but not all of Europe. Southeastern Europe would be excluded, and allies would have no say in its use, even though their security would be directly affected by it. This contravenes the most sacred of NATO principles--the indivisibility of transatlantic security. That is why even NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and German Chancelor Angela Merkel--two of our best friends on the continent--are among those ringing the alarm bells. At a time when Europe is trying to further pool its foreign and defense policies, Bush's plan--launched with little warning or consultation--threatens to undercut that effort. The fact that the two proposed sites are in "new" Europe arouses old suspicions among some that the ghost of Donald Rumsfeld still stalks the corridors of the Pentagon.
Finally, there is Russia. Europeans worry that American actions on their continent (over which they have little say) will exacerbate already tense relations with Moscow. True to form, Moscow has reacted to the proposed shield by hyping the dangers of a program that, at first blush, has little to do with it. One does not need a Ph.D. in physics to understand that a system currently involving a handful of interceptors aimed in a different direction will not threaten Moscow's strategic capabilities. Anyway, Russian claims that the shield violates past agreements with the United States and NATO are disingenuous. In private, some Russians concede that Moscow just couldn't resist the temptation to play on transatlantic differences and that its real role is to prevent any further integration of countries like Poland and the Czech Republic into Western defense--and that if the sites were in, say, the United Kingdom and Turkey, Moscow would perhaps live with it.
So how does one prevent a potentially positive missile defense initiative from producing another political earthquake? First, the Bush administration needs to step back and create a better foundation for it. At home, the plan requires clear bipartisan support--including from the 2008 presidential candidates. President Bush may be too unpopular to win this debate by himself, and no European government is going to give a green light to it without assurances that the next U.S. president will continue it. That means talking to Democrats. Many Democrats initially opposed missile defense when it was first proposed back in 2000. But they should now consider supporting it in light of North Korea's bomb, improving technology, and the growing Iranian threat.
But they should do so with certain conditions. One is to link the program to NATO. This isn't easy. The Pentagon opposes it, and the Bush team says it has tried but failed to convince allies. But it does not seem to have tried very hard, and the concern about too many European fingers on the button is one that we solved during the cold war when we worried about a Soviet attack with little warning. Solving such issues are what diplomats are for.
Shunning NATO for a narrow coalition of Central European allies, as the Bush administration has done, may very well fail. And it could produce a diplomatic fallout that could hurt the United States and make it even harder for the next president to mend ties with Europe. At the moment, Washington's approach is making European leaders call for debating the issue not within NATO, but within the EU, where the United States is not at the table. That is the last place we want this issue decided.
Finally, this issue needs to be part of a dialogue with Moscow on future global stability and arms control. The fact that this missile defense plan is not directed against Moscow does not mean it will not aggravate it in ways that may affect both European and global security. (Even if Moscow's umbrage is in bad faith, it still matters.) We should, therefore, anticipate those issues and construct a policy that addresses and defuses them, since Bush's doesn't. It is time to slow down and get this right. Otherwise, instead of helping to instigate the end of the cold war, this Euromissile saga may end up producing a transatlantic failure.
By Ronald D. Asmus