Trans-Atlantic Tensions Europe Divided Over US Missile Defense Plan

Washington’s plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic have cast a shadow over US relations with Europe. Will German Chancellor Angela Merkel feel compelled to distance herself from US President George Bush?

The American three-star general Henry Obering patiently answered each question, taking plenty of time to make sure nobody could claim later that US allies hadn’t been properly informed. The director of the US Missile Defense Agency had come to Brussels to meet with the 26 ambassadors from NATO members and Russia, who sat like obedient schoolboys in the darkened hall at NATO’s headquarters listening to Obering for an hour and a half last Wednesday.

The man behind the podium did his best to allay their fears. No, Moscow need not worry, the planned missile system was entirely defensive in nature. Yes, the main purpose was to provide protection against a possible attack from Iran. Which was, after all, an objective shared by Washington’s European allies, America’s friends around the world, and the entire international community -- hopefully including Russia too.

And of course Moscow had been aware all along of what was in the works, the general said in answer to one question. He showed two slides listing all the meetings where American officials had met with the Russians to keep them up to date.

The general’s presentation to the NATO-Russia Council was simply the Bush administration’s last attempt to defuse the political controversy surrounding the defense project. But the initiative can be considered to have failed, considering the disgruntled noises which can be heard all across Europe.

The US missile program has been a cause for anxiety ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of "pursuing world domination" and warned against a "militarization of space" at Munich’s annual security conference three weeks ago.

The most controversial defense project since the end of the Cold War certainly has the potential to divide Europe. Eastern European leaders such as Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Czech Republic’s Mirek Topolanek -- who come from countries where memories of being under the Soviet yoke are still fresh -- support the US missile defense program. Both hope to move closer to the US to benefit from the protection of the world’s only superpower.

But other countries fear being pushed into a situation where they have to decide between siding with the Americans and their partnership with Russia -- and the important energy resources it provides. Upping the ante is Moscow’s threat to start a new arms race, should Washington continue with the project.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, sees the dark clouds gathering over the Atlantic. And she’s all too aware of what it could mean for her time at the helm of the EU if the old western part of the bloc breaks with the new eastern members.

Europe's old Cold War demarcation line between east and west last became apparent during the US-led invasion of Iraq, when it split open like a festering wound. Much to the surprise and chagrin of the French and Germans, George Bush’s "coalition of the willing" to topple Saddam Hussein included Polish, Czech and Hungarian soldiers.

Now Merkel will try to keep history from repeating itself by finding a common European path. But where will it lead?

Complicating matters for Germany’s leader are attempts by Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber to get involved. On the same day as Putin’s speech in Munich, the leader of Bavaria’s CSU party -- the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) -- called the chancellor to urge her not to make any decisions on her own.

Instead Stoiber argued that the sensitive issue of "Europe’s security architecture” should be discussed in the three-party committee of Berlin’s ruling coalition, which consists of the conservative CDU and CSU along with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Stoiber felt it was important that the SPD were finally included in discussions about "Germany's strategic positioning in foreign and security policy." Merkel agreed, meaning that top members of the government and the leadership of the various factions of the coalition will soon meet for strategy discussions.

Until she manages to sort out Berlin’s own position on such matters, Merkel would like to avoid discussing Europe's security policy during her EU presidency. But that’s looking unlikely. Tempers across Europe have become increasingly heated since Putin’s speech in Munich. Now there are concerns the dispute could even overshadow the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Union's predecessor, the European Economic Community (EEC).

Festivities celebrating European integration and cooperation won’t mean much to Merkel if the continent is simultaneously bickering over basic questions of war and peace. And the European project will seem more than ever like a pipedream of self-obsessed politicians, if unity can only be achieved at the cost of everyone having to keep their mouths shut.

Part 2: Son of Star Wars and the new Cold War

Merkel now has to come up with more for her EU presidency than just one of those closing statements that massage the egos of the officials involved. What is required is a presidency where there is open discussion of missed opportunities and goals -- and not only regarding climate change, the current topic du jour.

The deployment of military equipment, especially when it could provoke Russia into entering a new arms race, is the real European issue at the moment. As the current representative of the EU's 27 members, Merkel is facing growing expectations that she should put forward Europe’s position directly to US President George W. Bush. Three issues are key:

  • Europe has no interest in a new arms race, especially one on its territory. A new round of rearmament must be avoided.

  • The relationship between the EU and Russia must prove itself in just this kind of dispute. The missile defense system is only feasible with the co-operation -- and not against the will -- of Europe’s eastern neighbor.

  • Sixty years after World War II, the relationship between Europe and the United States clearly needs to be rebalanced with greater emancipation for the Europeans.

Experienced German opposition politicians like Guido Westerwelle are well aware of the potential dangers lurking behind the issue. Addressing the German parliament last Thursday, the head of the business-friendly and largely Atlanticist FDP party warned against a "new arms race” before confronting the chancellor directly: "I am asking you what the German position is.”

Renate Künast, parliamentary floor leader of the Green Party, criticized Merkel for not rejecting the deployment of US missiles and radar stations in Poland and the Czech Republic during her EU presidency: "The Americans' behavior up until now has been absolutely unacceptable.” Oskar Lafontaine, the frequently anti-American leader of the socialist Left Party, was quick to back her up: "European foreign policy can only be successful if it’s coordinated.”

The chancellor could ignore the voices of the opposition, were it not for the discontent stewing within her own coalition. SPD leader Kurt Beck was the first to speak up when he recently warned against sparking a new "Cold War.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier distanced himself early on from the US plans, earning him the disapproval of the trans-Atlanticists in the conservative camp. Martin Schulz, the head of the Social Democrat faction in the European Parliament, demanded Merkel put the issue on the agenda of the upcoming EU summit.

But in the meantime, the wind seems to be turning also amongst Christian Democrats. No longer is supporting close friendship with America considered automatic loyalty to Bush. A push for greater autonomy from Washington appears to be gaining momentum within the German conservative camp.

Even the CDU politician Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign relations committee, is demanding the chancellor discuss the US plans in Brussels. But the chancellor is still trying to determine the lay of the land herself -- since Bush has not yet bothered to discuss the issue with her.

Merkel has already had several meetings with the US president and they have also spoken dozens of times on the telephone. They have talked about all sorts of topics -- Boeing and Airbus, the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, and even the proper way to deal with Putin’s Russia. However, Bush never brought up the missile defense shield -- which now appears somewhat strange in retrospect.

His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, tried to allay German doubts during her last visit to Berlin. She assured them that the Russians had been properly informed about what was going on from the start.

In fact, a high-ranking Pentagon official did indeed meet with his Russian colleague on March 17, 2006 to discuss the issue. And on April 3, an entire US delegation flew to Moscow to notify the Russians about the status of the missile program. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov about it twice. And the topic was on the agenda of the NATO-Russia Council on November 17 of last year as well.

But there is some contention about just how informative all of those talks actually were. The Germans claim that the information the Americans gave was sparse and vague enough so that the Russians wouldn't suspect that the US was going to get down to business soon.

The US ambassador to NATO, Victoria Nuland, notified NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the project’s current status in an eight-point memo. The deployment of the defensive systems in Poland and the Czech Republic were "options to protect much of Europe and the United States against the increasing missile threat from the Middle East.” US allies would be informed of "meaningful decisions” -- however a "public announcement” of Washington’s plans was not anticipated.

But is it enough simply to tell your partners what is going on with an issue which has such far-reaching consequences? Is consultation even enough? Shouldn’t military decisions that almost automatically provoke political reactions be made in the context of a partnership?

It certainly isn’t some inconsequential little thing that the Americans are planning. The missile defense system, an extension of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars” program, is one of the most ambitious defense projects in history.

Massive radar stations in Alaska, Britain, and California are meant to detect any enemy missiles and destroy them with defensive rockets. Sixteen US warships have already been converted to help look for potential threats. Washington wants to deploy 54 intercept missiles by 2013 -- with ten of them in Europe. That would close what the Americans see as a giant gap in the defensive shield that would otherwise leave the eastern seaboard of the United States unprotected.

The gap will be filled by stationing missiles in Poland -- assuming the equally interested British don’t snap up the project first. The high-security installation with its underground silos would be the size of a football field. Radar equipment currently on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific would be upgraded and moved to the Czech Republic.

The system is intended to work in the following way. After the radar detects a target, intercept missiles are launched from Poland and are directed towards the incoming projectile, presumably launched from Iran. Admittedly the so-called "kill vehicle” has to score a direct hit on the enemy warhead to destroy it -- no easy task when the target is traveling at around 25,000 kilometers an hour. And that’s just one of the many open questions and difficulties which have led many critics to doubt the feasibility of the program.

In Western Europe, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- long Washington’s most loyal ally -- is the leading proponent of the so-called "Son of Star Wars” program. After the UK news magazine The Economist reported that the prime minister had personally pushed for Britain to be a part of the project in secret negotiations with the Bush administration last autumn, a Downing Street spokesman felt compelled last month to address the issue: "The prime minister thinks it is a good idea that we are part of the consideration by the US. We believe that it is an important step towards providing missile defense coverage for Europe, of which we are part.”

The Russians see these developments as a threat. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of the country’s strategic missile forces, couldn’t have been any blunter. If the US missile defense systems were deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, his own missiles would be "aimed at these targets.” As if wanting to spread a little of the Soviet-era chill, he also said Russia could "within a short period” commission new medium-range missiles which could disable the US facilities in an emergency.

Solovtsov’s comments make perfectly clear that Russia isn’t quite the friendly, democratic partner that so many European politicians like to see in their large eastern neighbor. But the threats also show that Moscow sees the deployment of American missiles on the territory of its former satellite states as an unacceptable challenge to its sphere of influence.

The aggressive response from Moscow has shocked Western European countries, including France, which has so far refrained from getting too involved in the US missile defense program. But now French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is calling for a deeper dialogue between the Europeans and the Americans about the project.

And the German public in particular has always reacted strongly to any attempts to start an arms race. Members of the chancellor’s party fear that any mishandling of the issue could spark a new debate about rearmament.

Memories of highly-charged discussions about arms in West Germany in the early 1980s are being rekindled. In 1979 NATO agreed to the so-called "Double-Track Decision," which was meant to encourage the Soviet Union to scale back its medium-range ballistic missiles across the Warsaw Pact. Otherwise, the trans-Atlantic alliance would deploy its own medium-range weapons systems in Western Europe.

In only a few years, the NATO strategy mobilized the German public like few other issues. More than 400,000 people marched in protest during Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bonn in 1982. Social Democratic backbenchers abandoned SPD Chancellor Helmut Schmidt partly because he decided to back the deployment of NATO Tomahawk cruise missiles and Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles.

The missile debate could once again become a serious challenge for a German chancellor. It might even test Angela Merkel’s own list of priorities that she has set for her administration. "Germany must attempt to hold the international community together, also especially to hold Europe together,” she said upon taking office.

At the time, she said her predecessor Gerhard Schröder had helped to divide Europe. That, according to Merkel, cannot "be allowed to happen again.”

Translated from the German by Marc Young

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