An international conference on European security in Munich over the weekend was dominated by plans of the new U.S. administration to move forward on developing a national missile defense system. Russia made its opposition clear, while Germany and other European countries said they need more information about the project. The U.S. and Canada also expressed reservations about Europe's plans to create its own defense identity, including a rapid reaction military force.
Munich, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was having his first meeting with the NATO allies since his appointment, left no doubt the administration of President George W. Bush will go ahead with development of a national missile defense (NMD) system -- in spite of Russian protests and European doubts.
Rumsfeld told the conference the system was not a threat to other countries but was intended to defend the American people and its forces against a limited ballistic missile attack. He said the U.S. was ready to assist allies threatened by a possible missile attack to deploy the same defenses.
"The United States intends to develop and deploy a missile defense designed to defend our people and forces against a limited ballistic missile attack, and it is prepared to assist friends and allies threatened by missile attack to deploy such defenses. These systems will be a threat to no one. That is a fact. They should be of concern to no one, save those who would threaten others."
Rumsfeld acknowledged doubts expressed by some NATO allies and said the U.S. will consult with them. But he stressed the United States would go ahead with the NMD system. He said no U.S. president could leave the American people undefended against threats which were known to exist.
The Russian reaction was negative. The secretary of the Kremlin's security council, Sergei Ivanov, who was also attending the conference, said the U.S. move could lead to a new arms race, including an arms race in outer space.
Ivanov argued that deployment of the U.S. missile defense system would mean an end to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, known as ABM, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He said this would result in what he called the annihilation of the structure of strategic stability.
"These plans, first of all, undermine the fundamentals of global strategic stability. Deployment of the Anti-Missile Defense [system], by definition, would make the ABM treaty senseless. And destruction of the ABM Treaty -- and we are quite positive about it -- will result in annihilation of the whole structure of strategic stability and create prerequisites for a new arms race, including the one in outer space."
Ivanov said that if Washington dropped its plans and the ABM treaty was salvaged, Russia was ready for a joint program with the United States to make radical cuts in the number of strategic offensive weapons. He suggested they could fall to as low as 1,500 units and perhaps even less. He said Russia was also ready to begin immediate talks with the U.S. on a new SALT treaty limiting the number of strategic arms held by each side.
The proposals for the missile defense system were supported by many of the U.S. politicians at the conference. They were led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in the presidential election. He said he could not accept a situation where the United States spends billions of dollars to defend itself against terrorism but is left vulnerable to a country armed with nuclear warheads."
Western European politicians responded cautiously. The tone was set by the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who said his government wanted more information about how such a system would operate. He hoped these questions would be resolved in a dialogue between the U.S. and its European allies in coming months.
If the United States was trying to convince the Europeans on the virtues of a missile defense system, the shoe was on the other foot when it came to discussing the European Union's moves toward developing its own defense organization. The EU's main move is to create a 60,000-man rapid-reaction force by 2003. Senior officials in the United States and Canada have expressed concern that the rapid reaction force, which would have a planning structure separate from NATO, would weaken NATO's role as the heart of Western security. They also fear that the EU organization would unnecessarily duplicate some of NATO's activities or disturb relations between Washington and its European partners.
Rumsfeld told the Munich conference that NATO should remain the core of Europe's security structures.
"Our European allies and partners know NATO is at the heart of Europe's defenses. Therefore, to sustain our past success into the future we must first and foremost maintain NATO as the core of Europe's security structures. Actions that could reduce NATO's effectiveness by confusing duplication or by perturbing the trans-Atlantic link would not be positive. Indeed they run the risk of injecting an instability into an enormously important alliance."
Canadian Defense Minister Art Eggleton was also skeptical. He told the conference his government would have what he called "serious difficulties" in accepting a European security organization which detracted from NATO's role as the primary body for addressing Euro-Atlantic security challenges.
The EU has said any rapid-reaction force might need to use NATO facilities, particularly aircraft.
The Canadian defense minister said this possibility could create problems for his government.
Canada supplies AWACS early-warning aircraft to NATO with Canadian pilots and other crew. Eggleton speculated the EU might want to use the Canadian aircraft and Canadian personnel for a military operation.
He said Canada could agree only if the EU allowed it to help plan the operation and participate in the decision-making process.
European countries sought to reassure the U.S. and Canada that there was no intention of doing anything which would weaken NATO.
French Defense Minister Alain Richard told the conference: "The European defense which we aspire to is not, and will not be, an alternative to the Atlantic Alliance." He declared that "no European nation would have agreed to participate in the development of European defense if it meant a weakening of the trans-Atlantic link."
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder argued, on the other hand, that the NATO alliance would be strengthened if it had a European pillar capable of acting autonomously to resolve problems which did not interest the alliance as a whole.
A German commentator said afterward that the discussion had clarified the situation but had probably failed to convince either the United States or Canada. He noted the EU's rapid-reaction force is not scheduled to become operative until 2003 and said this allowed time for more intensive efforts to overcome doubts.