Today's date:
Summer 2000

Missile Defense Will Split NATO

Shirley Williams is the Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
London—A year ago, it seemed quite a sensible and modest proposal: a limited national missile defense of the United States, just sufficient to deal with a small number of long-range ballistic missiles that might be lobbed at the US by "rogue states" intent on blackmail. The system would not be big enough to upset the balance of deterrence on which peace between the nuclear powers has been maintained for nearly 40 years. It could not protect the US if, for instance, Russia were to launch a full-scale attack on it. But it did seem to offer a way to deal with a new and unpredictable threat.

Even then, there were some doubts. A limited national missile defense (NMD) system would require amending the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty—the 1972 American-Soviet treaty that had ended a potentially disastrous arms race. Russia, already uneasy about Nato expansion and bitter about the Kosovo war, was adamantly opposed to any such amendment. The US’s European allies were concerned about a strictly national missile defense, for fear that the US might become "decoupled" from Nato. An NMD system would be controlled by the US, not by NATO, and the allies would have no voice in its deployment.

Moreover, even this first stage of NMD requires upgrading the existing early-warning radar systems both inside and outside the US. The two EU countries which are part of the system are Denmark and Britain. The difference between the systems in these two countries and their equivalents in the US is that the former will carry with them no additional protection, despite the attractive target they will present.

From the beginning, the NMD proposal has had a much greater potential than its modest first stage. In the original proposal, NMD had three phases. The frst was for 20 ground-based interceptor missiles based in Alaska; the second for 100, a fgure to be achieved by 2007; and the third for a much more ambitious missile defense capable of dealing with a substantial number of warheads, involving some 125 missiles on two sites, in Alaska and North Dakota. Beyond the third stage (c3), to be achieved by 2015, lay the possibility of further development, toward something that might resemble Ronald Reagan’s dream of a Star Wars defense. According to the white paper on NMD just published by the US-based Lawyers Alliance for World Security, "the NMD system is designed to be compatible with future upgrades and extensions beyond the c3 level. Most importantly, the NMD system will put into place a full sensor infrastructure capable of supporting a much larger system." An upgraded early-warning system at Fylingdales in Yorkshire, and the infrared installation at Men with Hill, would be key elements in that infrastructure.

The British government has been trying to avoid talking about NMD, recognizing that it has the potential to become a stormy issue—like the arms issues that split the Labor Party for 25 years. In answer to parliamentary questions, ministers have sought refuge in the bland reply that no offcial request to upgrade Fylingdales has yet been made by Washington. They may well be praying that the next test of the NMD system is a failure.

A NEW LEVEL | Now, however, the whole issue has moved to a different level. It has been caught up in the partisan debate in the US Senate, and it has become an election issue. Few people in Washington are talking now about a strictly limited shield to deal with rogue states. What is now under discussion is, on the one hand, a radical recasting of defense to embrace a Star Wars scenario, or, on the other, an ambitious package agreed between Russia and the US, linking sweeping strategic nuclear arms reductions within the framework of Start II and III (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) to an amended ABM treaty.

Escalation of the NMD issue began with a breathtakingly bold move by the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He persuaded the Duma, which has sat on it for years, to ratify the Start II treaty and to start negotiations on Start III. Start II means nearly halving the number of strategic nuclear warheads on both sides, from 6,000 to between 3,000 and 3,500 by 2007; Start III would mean halving them again, to only 1,500 on both sides. Given Russia’s declining capacity to maintain and protect nuclear weapons, such reductions would enhance western as much as Russian security. But the Duma attached a condition: that there should be a satisfactory outcome to the discussion about amending the ABM treaty. Russia is not prepared to see the treaty gutted—as it would have to be—if more than a very narrow NMD system was planned.

JESSE AT THE HELM | Yet a gutted and worthless treaty is exactly what the chairman of the US Senate’s committee on foreign relations, Senator Jesse Helms, wants. He has always opposed the ABM treaty. He does not accept the limitations it imposes on US defence capacity; and he has the support of 20 or more Republican senators. Furthermore, although he has not spelled out the details, presidential hopeful George W. Bush is sympathetic toward some kind of Star Wars defense.

Helms has already let it be known that any agreement reached between Clinton and Putin would not be approved by the Senate. He has another card up his sleeve: the 1997 amendment the Senate made to the ABM treaty reserved the right of the Senate to determine whether or not Russia was the legal successor state to the old Soviet Union-and therefore whether the ABM treaty was still valid. It is becoming clear that a faction of the Republican party not only wants to deny any triumphant swansong to a detested president; it distrusts international arms control treaties as such. The Senate’s refusal last year to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty may have been a straw in the wind.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, is trying to sound and act as if everything is proceeding normally. It is discussing with Russia the changes to the ABM treaty needed for a limited NMD. On April 30th, in his Boston foreign policy speech, Al Gore identifed himself with the president’s view that the treaty could be retained.
The political implications of NMD are immense, however, and cannot be hidden. For Russia, entirely dependent for its strategic defense on nuclear weapons, any NMD system beyond a limited frst or at most second stage undermines mutually assured deterrence. Having its own NMD system is beyond the bounds of its resources. So the temptation would be to multiply the number of warheads, together with decoys and other counter-measures on each intercontinental ballistic missile to ensure that some get through. Putin is sensibly offering massive mutual nuclear disarmament instead—at least for now.

For China, which has only about 20 warheads, NMD is even more threatening. Relations across the Taiwan Strait are more tense than for several years, but the situation has been contained by some helpful decisions by Bill Clinton and by Taiwanese President-elect Chen. Clinton recently vetoed the sale of four Aegis class destroyers to Taiwan, and Chen wisely asked the US Senate not to proceed with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which will increase the numbers of weapons that the US could send to Taiwan. But a US commitment to NMD would almost certainly compel China to review its current levels of nuclear warheads. It has even indicated that it might attack surveillance space satellites if NMD goes ahead. To quote the white paper again: "Even an NMD program intended to counter a threat of 20 to 50 (presently nonexistent) North Korean warheads is likely to provoke a Chinese deployment of several hundred long-range strategic warheads...NMD, whose ostensible purpose is to protect the nation from the threat of nuclear attack, will have occasioned a substantial net decrease in US security."

EUROPEAN RISK | As for Europe, Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security policy spokesman, has cautioned the US that any system must not "strain transatlantic links," nor provoke a crisis with Russia. The words are restrained, but the concern felt by EU governments runs deep, and it is straining fragile coalitions such as Germany’s. How can political leaders justify to their people cooperating in a defensive system which defends only one of them, the US? What will happen to mutually assured deterrence, the foundation stone of peace in the nuclear age? What advantage is there for Europeans in smashing the ABM treaty, which has successfully limited the nuclear arms race? And why risk dismissing the best opportunity for substantial nuclear disarmament in years, following the Duma’s indication of willingness to ratify Start II and III?

Republican opinion in Washington is determined that if Americans can be protected against rogue missiles they will be. Europeans, less used to technological solutions to political problems, note that William Perry’s visit to North Korea, and the opening of talks with South Korea, are gradually bringing North Korea in from the cold. And a cautious reintroduction of a once-isolated rogue state into the international community is bearing fruit (despite setbacks) in Iran. The EU approach is to bring troublesome neighbors within the scope of the rule of law, by insisting on basic human rights, democratic institutions and the market economy as prerequisites for trade and aid.

Of course, it can be argued that the EU should produce its own NMD. A fellow of the Brookings Institution, Ivo Daalder, recently advocated this course. But a world of isolated superpowers, each protecting itself against the other at colossal expense, and giving up on international institution-building, is not what Europeans want and is not in the interests of peace. The issues at stake are at least as important as those which led to the ABM treaty itself, in 1972. There is little time left for the Europeans to make their voices heard—but they must. Britain, the closest US ally and the base for the essential early-warning system, carries a very special responsibility.
©Prospect, June 2000

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