NATO Needs Accord on Missile Defense

Even in these post-Cold War days, there is rarely a dull moment within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Last spring the United States, with its European and Canadian allies, was fighting Serbia. In other recent times, NATO countries usually have been squabbling among themselves over issues such as banning nuclear testing, applying economic sanctions against Iran and trying to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The latest impassioned debate in the alliance concerns defense against long-range ballistic missiles. Specifically, the United States wants to build a nationwide defense against such missiles—weapons that could be armed with nuclear, biological or chemical warheads. Washington is increasingly worried that a country such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq might soon be able to pose such an intercontinental threat.

Neither the United States nor the Europeans now has any defense against long-range missiles. American officials and politicians are increasingly of the mindset that, once the technology is ready, the United States should deploy a nationwide missile defense. The current plan is to deploy a battery of defensive interceptor missiles in Alaska around 2005. Aided by numerous radars, they would collide with and destroy enemy warheads when they were still in outer space. But most Europeans, including even the United States' reliable friends in the United Kingdom, tend to believe that missile defenses could be costly and perhaps dangerous, and oppose them.

An immediate question is: What business do the NATO allies have telling the United States to leave U.S. territory undefended? Even though they are doing the lion's share of the peacekeeping work in Bosnia and Kosovo, the fact remains that the United States shoulders most of the western military burden around the world today—particularly when it comes time actually to fight, as in last year's war against Serbia and the 1991 conflict against Iraq.

That means the United States spends a greater share of its national wealth on defense than do most of its allies. It also tends to make the United States most vulnerable to retaliation from extremist states and terrorists. It is not unreasonable for Americans to want a defense against such retaliation.

That said, there are good reasons for the Europeans to worry about a U.S. missile defense. To see why, consider a real military scenario in which it might be relevant. One possibility is another war of aggression by Iraq against Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

Should such a war occur, it makes sense for the United States and its local allies to have the option of not only fighting to reverse the initial aggression, but also of overthrowing Saddam Hussein so that he cannot forever put innocent lives at risk within and outside his country. But, if Iraq had a nuclear-tipped missile and could manage to hide it from a pre-emptive attack, Saddam could threaten to use it against the United States if American troops marched on Baghdad. That could paralyze U.S. officials. If the United States had a reliable missile defense, the nation would be less vulnerable to this type of blackmail.

But, in that case, Saddam might then threaten to blow up a city such as Paris or London if the United States were considering an invasion of his country. One can see why even trusting and loyal allies would be nervous about this situation.

What to do? The only real solution begins by recognizing that the NATO allies are in this together. Defending the United States while leaving Europe (and Japan and possibly other key allies) vulnerable accomplishes little in the end.

One natural solution is for Europe to build its own missile-defense system or buy a variant of the American system. But many European countries are skeptical about the need for such systems. They also are skeptical about the technology the United States is now developing—just as many American defense experts are. Even the Pentagon's director of testing considers the current missile-defense development program to be imprudently rushed.

For another matter, even once successful on test ranges, the U.S. defense may not work well against an enemy armed with certain types of countermeasures and decoys, which could confuse defensive radars. Such decoys may not be that hard for U.S. enemies to build—and they could be quite hard to counter.

American officials need time to work these problems out. A clear conclusion is that the Clinton administration's plan to rush to a decision on deploying defenses this summer is wrongheaded. A new president should have enough time to develop the defensive technology further and to negotiate with Russia as well as major U.S. allies to find a way of deploying defenses generally tolerable for all. In the end, no other country should be able to veto the United States' right to defend itself. But U.S. allies also have a right to mull over their options for defending themselves.

Michael O'Hanlon is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University