How Europe Stopped Complaining and Learned To Love Missile Defense

Like climatic change or the shifting of tectonic plates, the European change of heart on missile defense is hard to detect, hard to predict, hard to describe. But it is coming, I am certain—or at least as certain as a climatologist or a seismologist can ever be.

It isn’t happening very fast, of course, and it isn’t universal. I have no doubt, for example, that the British Foreign Office will continue fighting against missile defense right up until rockets start falling out of the sky over London: As an organization that loathes change of any kind, its mandarins cannot help but despise something that so profoundly disturbs the status quo. Nor is anyone, anywhere, necessarily convinced about the technology. Does it work, can it ever work, and will the Americans lie to us about how well it works—all of these remain open questions, which I won’t pretend to be able to answer either. (Click here, incidentally, if you want to read why the Defense Department thinks it will work, and here to read why Slate’s Robert Wright thinks it won’t.)

Nevertheless, in the wake of Paul Wolfowitz’s grand trek through Europe earlier this month, I do detect the beginnings of a change of heart, at least as far as the politics of missile defense are concerned. The U.S. deputy defense secretary’s trip was, as the Washington Post reported, an unusually large and well-coordinated effort. Wolfowitz, or in some cases his aides, met with officials in Moscow, London, Paris, Rome, Warsaw, The Hague, Copenhagen, and Istanbul. They also went to Asia—New Delhi, Beijing, Seoul. Everywhere they went, they started debates, at least among those who care about this sort of thing—defense ministry bureaucrats, the worthier sort of journalist—whose numbers are admittedly limited. (When British opinion pollsters recently asked the British electorate what issues they consider important during the current election campaign, defense figured somewhere near the bottom of the list.) Slowly, those bureaucrats and journalists are warming up to the Bush administration’s position.

To be more precise, Europe, at the moment, divides rather neatly into two categories of country:  those who have nukes (England, France, Russia) and those who do not (everyone else). The latter group had initially opposed missile defense, largely on the grounds that it would detach America from Europe. If the Americans had it, the argument went, they would hunker down on their continent, batten down the hatches, and let NATO sink on its own: Why would the United States need Polish or Portuguese allies if it could protect itself with technology alone? Most smaller NATO countries have, deep down, always doubted whether the distant United States would really and truly come to their rescue anyway.

As the plan was presented by Wolfowitz et al., however, precisely the opposite appears to be the case. The Bush administration is now describing the program as a group effort: missile defense, that is, not as some sort of American lone cowboy defense strategy, but an international affair to be conceived and executed in concert with the NATO allies. In places like Warsaw this went down extremely well. By becoming part of a missile shield—whether or not the missile shield works—their security would be bound closer than ever to that of America, the only country whose military (rightly or wrongly) inspires anyone with any sense of confidence.

In London and Paris, the issue is trickier. In both places there is a partly denied but nevertheless authentic distress at the idea of British and French nukes being made redundant. Not only do the French and British nuclear programs contribute to their respective countries’ national sense of importance, they also give them a satisfying explanation as to why they should remain permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. In their case, to soften the blow, the Bush administration appears to be promising more than mere inclusion. It also appears to be hinting delicately at the possibility of defense contracts for French and British companies. As both countries are currently led by prime ministers who love nothing more than pointing at jobs they have personally created, I suspect this was the right tactic.

If the Bush team is clever, they might also be able to play on Tony Blair’s general enthusiasm for international cooperation. If Blair can be persuaded to see missile defense not as the latest incarnation of Reagan’s Star Wars but as a shiny new form of multilateral activity, he might even be able to override the Foreign Office’s objections. A hint that this might in fact be happening was evident recently in the left-wing Guardian, whose veteran columnist Hugo Young wrote a not-wholly-unfavorable account of the missile-defense program. The right-wing Daily Telegraph already supports it; Blair himself, an avid reader of the conservative press, can’t be far behind. 

Bringing Russia on board, I concede, will be trickier: If nuclear weapons are devalued, Russia will simply become a very large country with a great number of problems. Nor are the Russians necessarily interested either in American security or in multilateral cooperation, which they have always suspected will end with an outside intervention in Chechnya. Obviously, the Russians can, if they choose, also make a lot of noise about the ABM treaty, which will have to be terminated if missile defense is to go forward. Particularly loud howling could damage the American position elsewhere in Europe and even generate real opposition in the United States.

On this point, however, the Russians are in a much weaker position than most people think. Look at the technicalities: In fact, the ABM treaty has an escape clause that allows either signatory an honorable exit on six months’ notice. Look at the morality: The Russians themselves are in violation of the Conventional Forces Europe treaty in Chechnya and have been for some years now. Until now, we’ve been too polite to make much of a fuss about it—but we could. 

Nor do the Russians have much reason to be totally intransigent, especially if they see something in it for them. I would guess, in fact, that the lead article in Monday’s New York Times, summarized by Slate’s “Today’s Papers,” did not appear by accident. The article revealed, among other things, the Bush administration’s intention to purchase 300 Russian surface-to-air missiles, part of a package designed to persuade Moscow to give up the ABM treaty quietly. Although loudly talked down by Russian officials, I doubt that such an idea would have been made public if administration officials did not already have hopes that it would ultimately be accepted. It is clearly a bribe—as even the New York Times does not fail to notice, there is no firm evidence that Russian surface-to-air missiles actually work—but then, the Russian elite is not known for its objections to bribery. Equally, President Putin has a vested interest in convincing the Russians that Russia remains a powerful and important nation: They voted for him, after all, because he implicitly promised that it would be so. What could be better, from Putin’s personal point of view, than an important Russian arms sale to the United States?

If Russia plays along, then any objections remaining in the rest of Europe will drop away too. Not everyone will like it, not everyone will see the point, but they’ll go along—leaving only what appears, to my eye, to be the completely insurmountable task of convincing the Chinese. China’s leadership, which is far less susceptible to outside bribery, and far less interested in its “voters,” has already threatened to start mass production of nuclear weapons if missile defense goes ahead. This could be very dangerous—unless, of course, it is the real point of the whole exercise. Reagan’s Star Wars program came to nothing, but it did bankrupt the Soviet Union. Will we someday praise Bush’s missile-defense program for bankrupting the People’s Republic of China?