De Hoop Scheffer made his comments in Prague as the keynote speaker at an international conference on missile defense, as the Czech and U.S. governments look forward to signing a deal soon to station a related U.S. radar base on Czech soil.
Participants at the conference discussed how a U.S.-proposed missile-defense shield based in the Czech Republic and Poland can meet what Washington calls a rising danger to the West from missile-armed “rogue” states.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting, de Hoop Scheffer called missile shields a key part of safeguarding NATO states in the future.
"We discussed the very important subject of missile defense, a very important topic, I would say, for the security of all of the citizens," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Let's start this discussion now on the angle of the citizens, of our people in all the NATO allies."
'This Is Real'
The NATO secretary-general called the threat of missile attacks against the alliance a real one.
"We have seen nations testing these missiles," he said. "Let's not beat around the bush here. It is not something virtual. This is not a computer game. This is real."
Washington says states like Iran and North Korea, which both have missile programs, pose an increasingly long-range threat as their programs progress. U.S. officials also cite a risk of terrorist groups getting their hands on ballistic missiles.
But Washington’s proposed shield in Eastern Europe has run into opposition from parts of the public in several NATO member countries, including in the Czech Republic itself. De Hoop Scheffer said the alliance must do more to explain the strategic importance of the missile-defense shield to Europeans.
"It is very important in this whole discussion and debate about the protection against ballistic missiles [that] there is a very active public diplomacy," he said. "So, yes, NATO has to be proactive. The same goes -- I repeat what I said this morning -- for the nations concerned. It should be a combination of efforts."
There had been much speculation ahead of the conference that U.S. and Czech officials would use the occasion to sign a bilateral accord regarding the placing of a U.S. radar base on Czech soil. The radar base is a key part of the planned missile shield. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who would normally sign for Washington and who had been expected at the conference, did not attend. She was represented instead by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Rood.
That is in line with signals from Prague that the signing could be delayed. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said last month the signing might not take place until the beginning of June. At the time, he cited the busy schedule of Rice, who is currently in the Mideast.
Status Of U.S. Forces Unclear
Washington and Prague agreed in April at the NATO summit in Bucharest to build the radar base. The base is to be located some 90 kilometers southwest of Prague and is expected to be completed by 2011 or 2012.
But it is unclear whether they have yet reached an agreement over the status of the U.S. forces who will staff the base. They are the first U.S. soldiers who will be stationed in the Czech Republic and their status – including whether they will be subject to U.S. or Czech laws – would need to be resolved as part of the final deal.
Once signed, the accord must still be approved by the Czech parliament. Public opposition to the base has been high, and several political parties have vowed to fight it in the legislature.
However, the proposed missile-defense system got a boost when NATO member states endorsed a communique in Bucharest calling it “a substantial contribution to the protection of the allies.” The communique also called for taking steps to deploy a parallel NATO system to defend any countries not covered by the U.S. plan.
The missile-defense system is strongly opposed by Moscow, which calls it a destabilizing factor for Europe and a threat to Russia’s own national security. Washington has proposed confidence-building measures to Russia, including allowing Moscow to monitor the U.S. missile-defense bases.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed a confidence process but remains opposed to the shield. Speaking after a summit with U.S. President George W. Bush in Sochi in April, Putin said, “the problem is not about the formulation, the diplomatic construction of sentences, but about the essence of the problem.”
Polish Aid Request
The radar base in the Czech Republic is to be an early-warning system that works in tandem with 10 interceptor missiles that Washington hopes to base in Poland. However, U.S. talks with Warsaw have been slowed by a change of government in Poland late last year and by Polish demands for U.S. military aid to offset any additional security risk Poland will run by housing the missiles.
Warsaw has said it is not worried about attacks from rogue states so much as a deterioration of relations with Moscow. It says it wants help upgrading its aging air-defense capabilities with missiles facing Belarus and Russia. The requested military aid is reported to be worth several billion dollars.
Washington says it agrees "in principle" to help Poland modernize its forces. But the head of U.S. missile defense, Henry Obering, has also said that the United States is interested in building the radar on Czech soil whether or not Poland houses the interceptor missiles. He did not detail where else the missiles might be placed in such an eventuality.
AN RFE/RL VIDEO PRESENTATION: The Czech Republic responds to the U.S. missile-defense proposal.