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.


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