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U.S.: Bush Sends Emissaries On Missile Defense Tour

U.S. President George W. Bush is sending emissaries around the world this week to convince America's allies of the benefits of his missile defense plan and ease Russia's concerns about the project. Few nations have welcomed the plan enthusiastically, but in recent weeks European criticism of the project has become more muted and other countries -- including Russia -- also appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports.

Prague, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- What some commentators have described as President Bush's "hard sell" of his controversial missile defense initiative began in earnest today at both ends of the globe.

In Tokyo, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage began a tour of Asian capitals to explain the plan to the U.S.'s Pacific allies.

In Brussels, a delegation headed by the number-two official at the Department of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, opened talks at NATO headquarters.

Washington's consultations with its allies are a prelude to talks in Moscow on missile defense, which are expected to take place on 11 May.

Facing open hostility from Russia to the idea of a system aimed at intercepting long-range ballistic missiles and skepticism from both Europe and Asia, President Bush last week softened his tone and pledged to involve other nations in shaping the project.

"I've made it clear from the very beginning that I would consult closely on this important subject with our friends and allies who are also threatened by missiles and weapons of mass destruction."

The United States' friends and allies quickly took note of Bush's statement, which was met with approval -- even in Moscow. But Bush promised only consultations and nothing he said indicated he was prepared to modify or abandon the broad outlines of his plan, if foreign opposition persisted.

Nevertheless, analysts say this week's consultations, at least in Europe, should go well -- not necessarily because Europeans are any less apprehensive about the plan, but because they are hoping for something in return for their support. Gunilla Herolf is a European foreign policy expert at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. She told our correspondent:

"I do think that the Europeans are skeptical towards the American plan but I think that they will be less critical than they would have liked to be. This is particularly true for the French who initially were the most critical ones as far as I could see. And the reason is that it's so important for the Europeans to get the ESDI (European Strategic Defense Initiative) going."

The European initiative -- originally floated by France and Britain -- envisages the creation of a rapid reaction force by the year 2003 which would be capable of acting independently of NATO in responding to regional conflicts. The United States has expressed skepticism about the European plan, voicing fears that it could split the NATO alliance. Herolf says the key to making it work would be an agreement between NATO and the EU delineating the powers and staff of such a force.

Dana Allin, a security expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, notes that U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman recently advanced the idea of such an understanding, in exchange for Europe's agreement on Washington's missile defense plans.

"The Europeans are opposed to national missile defense but can't really articulate a good reason why. And the Americans are kind of, in their guts, opposed to European defense autonomy -- the European rapid reaction force -- but also can't really articulate a good argument against it. The suggestion from Lieberman -- and it's been picked up by a number of others -- is that maybe this is the implicit trade: that the Europeans agree to quiet their misgivings about American missile defense and the Americans quiet their misgivings about the European rapid reaction force."

What it will take to mollify the Russians is less clear. President Vladimir Putin warned Bush this week again not to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow still sees as the cornerstone of its arms control agreements with the United States. But Putin welcomed Bush's offer of consultations and he said he agreed with Bush on the need for new instruments to meet changing global security threats.

Russia has already proposed the outlines of its own anti-missile defense plan, which is currently being studied by NATO. But like the U.S. project, Russia's plan is only a plan, not a reality. Analyst Allin points out:

"One of the difficulties in discussing all of this, of course, is that we tend to forget that everything remains highly abstract. There is no national missile defense system and there's none in prospect."

This is indeed a difficulty, but it is one that gives all sides room to maneuver, since nothing has yet been fixed in stone. The compromises chiseled out this week could help shape the future of U.S. and European security for a long time to come.