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The Unilateral Missile Shield?

Does the West exist as a strategic entity, or is it only an abstract concept with no practical meaning?

April 10, 2007

Does the West exist as a strategic entity, or is it only an abstract concept with no practical meaning?

Irritation over U.S. behavior that takes for granted the Europeans' agreement and support peaked during the clash over the invasion of Iraq. President Bush's willfulness and unilateralist bent relegated the United States’ transatlantic partners to auxiliary roles or to barely audible off-stage voices. More recently, all the talk by senior U.S. officials about the need for a restored partnership has been met with great sighs of relief in Europe.

While this may have been an exaggerated reaction to modest changes in the Bush Administration’s overall tone, there certainly was widespread expectations that comity had returned. Therefore, the March 2007 announcement of concrete plans to build a missile defense system for Europe seemed to come out of the blue.

Many European leaders felt that they had been kept in the dark, unaware that a definitive commitment to the project was pending. That feeling of unwelcome surprise has colored the reaction.

It is the German government of Chancellor Angela Merkel that, atypically, has most forcefully expressed publicly its deep misgivings. Eager to prevent a further deterioration in relations with Russia, Merkel is forthright in questioning the Bush Administration's justification for the project, which is to protect Europe against threat from a nuclear-armed rogue Iran at some point down the road.

The latter has alarming implications. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has bluntly put it, "We don't want a new arms race in Europe." Equally troubling to Berlin is that discord among the Europeans could undercut the fragile strategic consensus so arduously reestablished after the dust-up over Iraq. That danger, in turn, raises the prospect of a multi-layered trans-Atlantic crisis.

The intensity of the negative European response to the missile shield plan has caught Washington by surprise. Although under no illusions as to the lack of enthusiasm in most Western European capitals, or the idea's even greater unpopularity among publics, the United States presumed that Europe’s desire for improved trans-Atlantic relations would ensure its complicity.

Bush Administration officials believed they had found the right approach. It is one that bypasses NATO, focuses on a set of bilateral deals with instinctively deferential leaders in the Czech Republic, Poland and Britain, and counts on the inhibited behavior of opponents until the shield becomes a fait accompli.

They still may be proven right. The readiness of the Germans to make an alliance issue of the matter, though, sows doubts — even if it will not evoke second-thoughts in a relentlessly self-assured White House.

The missile dispute revolves around three intersecting issues. The first is the question of need and utility. The second is the question of European unity and how heavily it weighs in the balance relative to the compelling objective of firming ties with the United States. Finally, there is the matter of NATO's present role and its future as the embodiment of Western concert.

For Bush officials, the missile shield is about confronting Iran credibly without being hamstrung by nervous European allies within reach of Iran's conjectured nuclear weapons. That is the essence of it.

The oft-expressed conviction that a nuclear armed Iran is intolerable does suggest strongly that this administration will take whatever action is necessary to avoid this outcome while it has the chance. Logically, that should make the missile shield a moot question.

For what is the point of building a defense against missiles that Washington never will allow to be deployed? There are two reasons for pushing ahead. One is to provide existential reassurance against any possible military threat emanating from the Greater Middle East. The other, more important consideration is to anticipate the state of affairs when another U.S. president may face either a reinvigorated Iranian nuclear challenge or a threat posed by someone else.

In effect, the Bush team aims to shift the odds in favor of a tough U.S. response to whatever might emerge at whatever future date. It downplays a competing line of thinking that postulates a Europe, secure behind its missile shield, seeing less need to take other risks in confronting would-be evil doers.

That circle can be squared only if one believes that the shield can make Europeans braver — even as they remain scared enough to judge it imperative to eliminate the source of the danger. Of course, the Bush team is practiced in exactly this kind of exercise, albeit without success.

Europeans are divided in their calculations about the missile shield because countries reach differing conclusions in balancing strategic interests. They include solidarity with the United States, maintaining good working relations with Russia, and promoting a common, coordinated European foreign policy.

Leaders in Prague, Warsaw and London attach the highest value, comparatively speaking, to the first of these interests. The Czech and Polish governments devalue the Russian factor, in part due to fears eclipsing positive expectations. Germany, among others, views the missile issue as seriously exacerbating increasingly fraught relations with Putin's newly assertive Russia.

Moreover, enhancing the European Union's will and ability counts for more at the western end of the continent than it does at the eastern end. This is especially true for a Germany that feels the heavy burden of interests and obligations that objective circumstances places on it, yet is only comfortable acting as part of a multilateral formation.

For none of the European governments is the projected Iran threat as salient as it is in Washington. Few lose sleep over it, with the possible exception of Tony Blair. In this sense, the missile shield is the occasion — and cause — of political tensions as a U.S. initiative highly valued in official Washington, but not something of great strategic importance in itself.

Where does NATO fit into the picture? The Bush Administration claims that it sought to interest the alliance as a whole in promoting the project. It cites desultory overtures and briefings in support of this contention. In truth, Washington much prefers going the bilateral route to getting bogged down in the organizational and political complications endemic to NATO.

To Washington's eternal surprise, Angela Merkel was never the pussycat the "Bushies" had hoped for her to be. Accordingly, she has challenged the U.S. position by urging that the defense system should be reviewed by the alliance acting as a collective — and that any operational steps be implemented under NATO auspices.

It is an approach that conforms to all of Germany's concerns: skepticism as to the cost/benefits of moving ahead now, the greater legitimacy that any prospective project would have were it embedded in the multilateral alliance, and seeking diplomatic cover for its own policy line that is sure to make Washington bristle.

There is a still wider dimension to the question of whether to act through NATO. Does the West exist as a strategic entity, or is it only an abstract concept with no practical meaning?

Germany, in effect, is saying something of cardinal significance that many other Europeans feel: When paramount interests are at stake, genuine and meaningful joint decision-making that is of the alliance, by the alliance and for the alliance is imperative. Otherwise, the last remnants of fraternity — the essence of any alliance — will perish from the Atlantic world.