December 03, 1999
NYT - US and Nato Allies Divided Over Defense Needs


BRUSSELS -- Ten years after the end of the cold war, the United States, unchallenged as a superpower, faces a different challenge in NATO: its allies' insistence on seeing the world from their own perspective and setting their own defense priorities instead of following Washington's.

So it was at the alliance's headquarters here Thursday that Defense Secretary William S. Cohen tried to convince skeptical Europeans that not only the United States but Europe, too, would face a real threat to its security if North Korea, Iran or other nations continued developing or acquiring intercontinental nuclear missiles.

"I think it's important for allied countries to understand that the threat is real, and that in all likelihood it will increase in coming years," Cohen said later.

The United States would need the support of its allies even if it decided to build an effective missile-defense system to defend just itself, he said. But he concluded: "There is by no means a consensus within the alliance. It's something they will look at and we will discuss over the coming year."

The divide over defense needs also was evident today in allies' assurances to Cohen that their ambition to create an autonomous, all-European military force with the ability to send 50,000 troops to the far reaches of the Continent the next time trouble broke out would not diminish their military commitments to the American-led alliance.

NATO's secretary general, Lord Robertson, who favors the European force, observed, "There are around two million people in European armies in uniform today, and yet the European allies had to struggle hard to get 40,000 to go and serve in Kosovo."

But reorganizing and cooperating more closely with one another, the Europeans said, could give both the European Union and NATO the stronger European defense pillar the United States has been urging for decades. As long as the new European Union military structure did not duplicate NATO's unnecessarily, Cohen agreed with his fellow ministers Thursday, "a stronger Europe means a stronger alliance."

To some extent, the problems the alliance is having arise because the member nations are finally getting things they have wanted for years.

The United States has been calling for a stronger European military contribution to NATO since John F. Kennedy was president. But now that the Europeans say they want to make one, the United States wants them to concentrate on building that stronger European security and defense identity within NATO.

The European allies thought that they won the lasting peace they yearned for when the cold war ended, and some of them cut military spending by up to half. But two wars in the Balkans, and the Europeans' obvious military shortcomings in this year's war in Kosovo, convinced them that they still depended far too much on the United States to handle trouble in their own backyard.

Britain, with France, bore most of the burden and frustration of the unsuccessful United Nations peacekeeping operation in Bosnia until NATO took over and ended the fighting there in 1995.

And now, France and Britain, even with President Clinton's closest soul mate in Europe, Tony Blair, as prime minister, are at the core of the European defense structure that is expected to be decided next week at a European Union summit meeting in Helsinki, Finland.

The nations that would provide the bulk of a European force agree that it would act on its own only if NATO as a whole -- in effect the United States -- decided not to get involved.

Though American officials have trouble imagining a European crisis the United States could stay out of, Europeans no longer do. "American politicians, not only in the Senate but in public discussion generally, have to make big efforts to explain to the public why they should be engaged in Kosovo with billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers even though their vital interests are not in the least involved," the German defense minister, Rudolf Scharping, said today.

But how the Europeans can build the force structure they plan by 2003, let alone meet their commitments to strengthen NATO, with military spending as low as it is now, was another question debated today.

"You cannot buy security on the cheap," Lord Robertson said.

The United States spent 3.2 percent of its gross domestic product on the military this year, according to alliance figures. But Germany, with one of the largest armies in Europe, spent only 1.5 percent.

Even France and Britain, with 2.8 and 2.6 percent respectively, will not soon catch up to the United States at those rates in precision-guided weapons technology, battlefield intelligence and command-and-control systems, heavy-lift air transport and the other assets the Europeans found they lacked in Kosovo.

The North Korean missile threat got mostly shrugs here, European diplomats said, after watching a series of slides shown by Pentagon officials depicting wider and wider circles radiating from North Korea, representing the ranges of the three classes of missiles already tested or being developed there. The circles threw their shadows over parts of both Europe and the United States.

A three-stage missile, the Taepo Dong-2, which North Korea is still developing but has agreed not to test in exchange for American economic aid, could devastate targets in all of the United States and most of Europe with a nuclear payload, the Pentagon officials said.

But the allies appeared unprepared to take this missile threat seriously, European officials said.

Part of the point of the American briefing on missiles was to try to show the allies why the United States might decide to build a limited anti-missile defense system to counter the new threat, a system that would be barred by the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty unless Russia agrees to changes American negotiators have so far failed to get Moscow to accept.

"There is no reason why you cannot have a system like the one the United States is thinking about and full strategic stability at the same time," a senior American official said, explaining that if Clinton decides to go ahead with a national missile defense, it would initially have only 100 interceptor missiles based in Alaska. That would not be enough to pose a threat to Russia's huge nuclear arsenal, but if it worked, it might be able to take care of a few warheads lobbed in from Iraq or North Korea.

But coming on top of the United States Senate's recent rejection of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, the Clinton administration's desire to tinker with the antiballistic missile treaty has piqued the concern among some allies, particularly the French, that the world's only superpower is crashing around the world like a bull in a china shop.

"We must avoid any questioning of the ABM treaty that could lead to disruption of strategic equilibria and a new nuclear arms race," President Jacques Chirac of France said a few weeks ago, as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott was trying in vain to convince the allies that amending the treaty to meet a new missile threat from rogue states would not set off a new arms race.

French officials worry that China, for one, might decide to deploy hundreds of intercontinental missiles rather than the score or so it has now.

They also worry that, with the Senate having rejected the test ban treaty, countries like India and Pakistan will resist pleas from Washington to stick with their decision to stop testing the nuclear weapons they both first exploded last year.

Several allies, Cohen said Thursday, raised concerns that Europe might actually be more exposed to possible rogue missile attacks if the United States proceeded alone with a missile defense.

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