The American campaign to develop a protective shield against ballistic nuclear missiles is provoking serious alarm among the European allies, who fear that it could weaken the political and military links between the United States and Europe and trigger a dangerous arms race with Russia and China.
Faced with growing support in the Republican-controlled Congress and the Clinton administration for a revival of plans to build a national missile defense, European governments have stepped up their warnings that such a system could destroy the concept of shared risk that for decades has been the foundation of NATO security doctrine.
The sharpening debate over missile defenses follows the almost universal condemnation of the Senate's rejection of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. It has fortified a perception among foreign governments that the United States is exploiting its global military and economic clout to lock in strategic superiority that would make it immune to future challenges from the rest of the world.
The symbolism behind U.S. intentions to change the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so that it may build a missile shield has not been lost on foreign leaders, who have seized on the issue to warn the United States about the dangers of retreating into a fortress mentality.
"There is no doubt that this would lead to split security standards within the NATO alliance," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer during a trip to Washington this week. "I see lots of problems developing in this respect, which we must discuss calmly and reasonably with our American friends."
Fischer said Germany's commitment to be nonnuclear "was always based on our trust that the United States would protect our interests, that the United States, as the leading nuclear power, would guarantee some sort of order." A drive by the United States to build its own missile defense, he said, would erode that confidence by effectively putting European cities at greater risk of nuclear missile attack than those in America.
Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is probably Clinton's closest ally among world leaders, is said to harbor serious reservations about U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense. Britain's support would be critical because of the need for the United States to upgrade its tracking stations there in order to to shoot down missiles before they strike North America.
On other international issues as well, Europeans are dismayed by what they see as a U.S. penchant for unilateralism. At a conference in Bonn this week to discuss the global warming crisis, where the United States and Europe differed over how to meet limits on greenhouse gas emissions, U.S. delegation chief Frank Loy said a persistent theme concerned the refusal by the United States to play by the same rules as other nations.
"You could feel a lot of the resentment among the other delegations," Loy said. "There was no direct connection between the nuclear test ban vote and the global warming issue, but there was plenty of anger about what others see as the arrogance of a superpower that cannot or will not be held to account for its behavior."
In a sharp attack on American foreign policies, French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday lamented "isolationist tendencies" in Congress that prompted the "perplexing decision" to vote down the nuclear test ban treaty. He and other foreign leaders have repeatedly deplored the U.S. refusal to pay nearly $2 billion in past dues to the United Nations and to assume greater environmental responsibility, as the world's biggest polluter, for the global warming crisis.
There is some sympathy abroad for the fact that the Clinton administration shared the views of allied governments on those issues but found its wishes thwarted by a Republican-led Congress. On the matter of ballistic missile defense, however, the European allies are profoundly troubled by the support it has found among Democrats as well as Republicans.
Walter Slocombe, the undersecretary of defense, said today that President Clinton would decide "next summer at the earliest" whether to order the deployment of a limited national missile defense. By then, Clinton hopes to persuade Moscow to modify the ABM treaty, but the Russians have firmly rejected that request and insist any unilateral abrogation by the United States will provoke a new arms race.
Slocombe said that while the administration would prefer to preserve the ABM treaty, it will not let Russian objections stand in the way of a missile defense system, if the United States determines it is in its national security interest to build one. "If they persist absolutely in that position, then the United States . . . will have to face a very difficult question, which is whether to withdraw from the treaty," Slocombe said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Besides the risk of further antagonizing the Russians, European governments are worried about the United States and China heading for a new confrontation over ballistic missile defenses in Asia. During a recent state visit to France, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Chirac discussed their worries about a sea-based American missile defense system that would protect Taiwan and Japan.
The United States has sought to reassure its allies that a missile defense system will not be deployed unless it can meet four criteria: the technology must be proven to work effectively; the costs must be reasonable; the threat must be significant; and the system must demonstrably improve security. But so far, the European allies have not been impressed with those arguments and remain fearful that the United States may not be thinking through the consequences for the rest of the world.
"This issue could end up driving a stake through the heart of the alliance," said a senior European diplomat at NATO headquarters in Brussels. "First there is the danger that it will cause the Russians and the Chinese to ratchet up the arms race by finding ways to beat missile defenses. But there is also the fear that if the system works, American and European security interests will no longer be bound by exposure to the same threats."
During the days of the Soviet Union, the alliance's strategic doctrine held that the United States would be willing to share the same exposure to nuclear attacks by placing its own cities at risk in the defense of the European allies. But if the United States develops a missile shield on its own, it would no longer be subject to the same constraints. In the view of the allies, such a dramatic change in the U.S. strategic environment would soon lead Washington to abandon its commitments under NATO's nuclear doctrine.
The allies also fear that, once endowed with a missile shield, the United States would be tempted to protect its superior posture by launching preemptive nuclear strikes against any perceived challenge, from "rogue states" such as North Korea or Iran, or from terrorist groups, for example--with or without the consent of the allies.
"We already went through this debate during the 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the idea of a 'Star Wars' anti-missile system," said a senior NATO official. "We learned how dangerous and divisive it can be when you tamper with the ABM treaty, and that is one thing that has not changed since the end of the Cold War."