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NATO Ministers Skeptical of U.S. NMD Plans
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THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION formally briefed NATO defense and foreign affairs ministers for the first time on the proposed architecture for a limited U.S. national missile defense (NMD) system at the alliance's annual December ministerial meetings. Led by France and Germany, many European allies expressed concerns that the proposed NMD would damage relations with Russia, endanger arms control and decouple U.S. and European security. U.S. officials reassured the allies that no deployment decision has yet been made and that allied views, among other factors, would be taken into account prior to such a decision.

With President Clinton scheduled to decide on the proposed system's location and the awarding of an initial site construction contract in July 2000, many European allies were upset to be officially consulted so late in the process. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen, however, assured his colleagues at the NATO defense ministers meeting, held December 2-3 in Brussels, that intra-alliance discussions on U.S. missile defenses would continue. President Clinton, for his part, has repeatedly said his July decision will be based on four criteria: technological readiness, the maturity of the "rogue nation" ICBM threat, cost factors and arms control considerations.

Washington delayed formal allied consultations because of incomplete U.S. plans and a desire to first hold strategic discussions with Russia, which has strongly opposed U.S. NMD efforts. Moscow emphasizes that the proposed system would violate the 1972 ABM Treaty, which prohibits a nationwide defense or the base for such a defense and which places specific restrictions on the architecture of any missile defense, including the location of intercept launchers and radars. U.S. officials have acknowledged that the planned system would require treaty modifications. Though the United States and Russia have been holding discussions exploring possible amendment of the treaty since mid-August at the Clinton administration's insistence, Moscow has repeatedly said it will not agree to treaty changes necessary to permit the proposed NMD.

Much of the opposition to the U.S. plans stems from the fact that Russia and many of the NATO allies do not share the U.S. assessment of the need to defend against the so-called rogue nation threat, which Cohen described as "real" and likely to "intensify in the coming years as countries continue to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear capabilities." To sway allied opinion, the U.S. provided a threat briefing at the start of the defense ministers meeting based on the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that warned the United States—and implicitly Europe—would likely face ICBM threats from "North Korea, probably Iran and possibly from Iraq" in the next 15 years. (See ACT, September/October 1999.)

North Korea is cited most frequently by U.S. officials as a growing threat despite a September 1999 pledge by Pyongyang to suspend ballistic missile flight tests while holding negotiations with the United States to improve relations. Though currently abiding by the pledge, North Korea is "continuing other aspects of the [ballistic missile] program," a senior American defense official said at a December 2 press conference.

Secretary Cohen, who reportedly was very frank about the role of U.S. domestic politics in pushing NMD, also sought to dispel impressions that the system is targeted at Russia. He stressed that the system, which would initially field 100 interceptor missiles, would be limited and said that "it would not undercut the Russian strategic deterrent." When questioned on whether Russia would possibly halt the strategic reduction process in response to a deployed U.S. NMD, the senior American defense official claimed that "there is nothing incompatible between our concern with the growing rogue state ballistic missile threat and continued strategic stability and the arms control process."

Some European allies, however, remained unconvinced and raised the same concerns again with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott at the NATO foreign ministers meeting December 15-16. (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stayed in Washington to work on the Middle East peace process.) Fears that the planned NMD would possibly spark new arms races with Russia, China or others while leaving Europe unprotected continued to top European worries.

While French President Jacques Chirac has been outspoken in his criticism of U.S. NMD plans, NATO would prefer to keep alliance differences to a public minimum. When asked to assess allied views about the proposed system after the December meetings, however, one U.S. government official admitted that "no one is enthusiastic, but no one is absolutely critical, with the exception of France."

Following the foreign ministers meeting, NATO Secretary General George Robertson noted the United States "assured the allies that it will only take decisions on a national missile defense after full consultations within NATO." Cohen stressed at the defense ministers meeting that "only one person can make the recommendation" to go forward with NMD deployment and that it would be "very much premature to speculate what will happen next year."

Posted: December 1, 1999