Allies fear US jilting them for missiles
Nato leaders suspect a new 'star wars' plan gives priority to America and Asia, downgrading the defence of Europe
By Richard Norton-Taylor
US plans for a national shield against nuclear missiles are threatening to plunge the Nato alliance into its most serious crisis since the end of the cold war. Washington's European partners - Britain included - are deeply opposed to a project which, they say, could see Europe's security eroded and unleash a new arms race.
Washington's proposal for "theatre missile defence" - a kind of son of the futuristic star wars defence scheme first proposed in the 80s during Ronald Reagan's presidency - is in breach of the US-Russian anti-ballistic missile treaty signed in 1972.
Tampering with this cornerstone, Moscow says, could destabilise the global strategic balance.
Western Europe's worry is that the missile shield would give a form of protection exclusive to the US, allowing Washington to downgrade the transatlantic alliance. "There is no doubt that this would lead to split security standards within the Nato alliance," Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, said during a trip to Washington last week.
A French official was reported as saying last week: "President Chirac has told President Clinton that it could open a Pandora's box that is in none of the allies' interests."
A senior defence official in the Clinton administration privately admitted recently that the issue threatened to become an "alliance breaker".
The British government is as concerned as the others but believes quiet lobbying is the way to talk Washington round. Britain's stance is important - it is America's closest ally and, sources say, the early warning tracking station at Fylingdales in north Yorkshire would be upgraded to play a key role in America's new anti-ballistic missile system.
The ABM treaty restricts Russia and the US to one ABM site apiece. Around Moscow, Russia deploys 100 anti-ballistic missiles; US missiles are concentrated at a large silo site in North Dakota. The treaty aims to ensure that each superpower is vulnerable to missile attack.
But under the plan likely to be approved by President Clinton next year, a new anti-ballistic system would be located in Alaska. Washington insists this would be limited to protecting the US, and American troops stationed abroad, against long-range missiles launched by "rogue states". It says Moscow knows this and is more relaxed than its public comments suggest.
The Europeans are not so confident, fearing that Russia - though broke - may feel bound to expand its missile systems. Senior Russian military officials warned last month that Moscow could adapt its Soviet-era Topol missiles to penetrate anti-ballistic defences.
Mixed signals emerged from Moscow yesterday. The foreign ministry spokesman, Vladimir Rakhmanin, said talks were going on about further cuts to take the two states' strategic weaponry near to parity under a Start 3 treaty. But he said Moscow was adamant about the ABM treaty: "Our position is quite precise, that ABM should stay as it is."
But more broadly, the suspicion in European capitals is that the US strategic focus is shifting away from Europe to Asia as the key area of concern for the future. If this is the case, the proposed new missile system could be intended eventually to counter not only missiles from "rogue states" such as North Korea or Iran - as Washington is claiming - but also any perceived threats from bigger Asian states including China.
Or, as one well placed western diplomat put it yesterday: "Is the US proposal for theatre missile defence genuinely limited?"
A new US missile system based in Alaska would have serious implications for China - which at present has far fewer long-range missiles than Russia - and could set off a Far East arms race involving Taiwan and Japan. China's concern about the US missile defence project led to Beijing applying pressure on North Korea to abandon a widely anticipated long-range missile test this summer.
This suggests that the US project has already proved to be a deterrent, say more sanguine analysts. One of them is Terry Taylor, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "The Russians know exactly what the US is up to," he says. "Treaties have to relate to strategic realities."
Other independent observers take a different view. "The US regards itself as the top dog and if the ABM treaty goes out of the window, it says, 'so what?'," says Paul Rogers, professor of conflict studies at Bradford university's school of peace studies.
He says the existing American plan for a land-based anti-missile system could be a prelude to other space-based laser systems - for which the US would use its secret space surveillance base at Feltwell on the Suffolk-Norfolk border.
In a study published yesterday, Steve Pollinger of the independent think-tank ISIS, warned: "There appears to be a growing constituency in the US that rejects the collective approach to international security... in favour of a unilateralist approach."
Of immediate concern to Europe's governments is the growing consensus in the US congress for the missile screen and for amending the ABM treaty - which Jesse Helms, chairman of the senate foreign relations committee, said earlier this year belonged "in the dustbin of history".
European officials bemoan the lack of "Atlanticists" in Washington and what they refer to as the "surprisingly isolationist" advisers attached to the likely Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush. They are alarmed that Richard Perle, defence adviser under President Reagan and a keen advocate of star wars, is being embraced by the Bush camp.
European worries about the direction the US is taking prompted Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder to make an unprecedented joint appeal to the US senate in the New York Times last month to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty. But - with China, India and Pakistan among a number of nuclear nations also refusing to ratify the document - the senate voted against.
Washington is also making it clear that it expects the Europeans to pay more for their defence and, after Kosovo, will not be prepared to pay the lion's share for European crises. President Chirac last week criticised the US congress for giving in to isolationism and urged Europeans to develop a more independent defence and foreign policy.
Sceptics, like Terry Taylor, suggest that the prospect of having to pay more for defence is why European governments so oppose the US missile shield plan and any change to the ABM treaty.
Whatever the motives on either side of the Atlantic, European governments say a debate that could redefine transatlantic relations is only just taking off.