BERLIN -- The most pressing issue facing the European Union today is how to agree on a common position that expresses its widely shared concerns over plans by the United States to deploy a National Missile Defense system and the effects such a system would have on the future of arms control, disarmament and international security.
The EU clearly has a real stake in the question of NMD for several reasons.
First, Europeans believe there is a reasonable risk that deployment of NMD will spark a renewed nuclear arms race and destabilize international security. Russia has already made it clear that it will only consider further reductions of its nuclear forces if the current Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is preserved. If the United States decides to abrogate the treaty, Russia will then respond by withdrawing from all other existing nuclear arms control agreements, such as the START treaties.
Second, given its close economic, political and geographic links with Russia, Europe has strong interests in preserving stability and security there. Construction of the NMD system could undermine Russia's faith in its strategic deterrent and subsequently compel Russia to divert resources from its economic development programs toward its nuclear weapons programs.
And finally, an American NMD could actually increase the vulnerability of Europe. The location of some of the radar facilities that would be used for NMD in England and in Greenland, a Danish territory, directly involves the EU in the construction of the American system. This means that acquiescence to U.S. plans would make these countries partly responsible for the operation of the system without actually benefiting from it.
Individual EU members have already expressed dissatisfaction with the plans for an American missile defense in various venues. During President Clinton's recent visit to Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder expressed the wish that the president take into consideration the concerns of the European allies before he makes a decision on deployment. And German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer suggested that the Europeans should adopt a joint position on this controversial subject, but recognized that "interests are not homogeneous within Europe, so we will need time for discussion."
At the U.N. conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in April and May, France and Britain also expressed reservations. Britain stated that the U.S. position on NMD and amendment of the ABM Treaty "should be addressed bilaterally with the Russians. ... We hope that they can reach an agreement. We have made clear to both sides that we continue to value the ABM (Treaty), and wish to see it preserved."
France declared that it was "anxious to avoid any challenges to the treaty liable to bring about a breakdown of strategic equilibrium and to restart the arms race."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprising proposal to develop a joint defense system with Europe also served to place the onus on the Europeans to directly respond to missile defense questions.
The EU has already officially stated its intentions to work with Russia and to deal with matters related to arms control and disarmament as well as international security.
There are several options available to the EU to deal with this issue.
On one extreme, it could adopt a common position that declares its unconditional opposition to the deployment of NMD on the basis of the disruptive impact it would have on arms control and international security. Alternatively, it could call for the preservation of the ABM Treaty and suggest that the United States delay its decision on deployment to allow enough time for negotiations with Russia to proceed.
Or the EU could simply repeat the vague language it has already used to express a desire to see international security preserved, for arms control treaties to be respected and for the concerns of the allies to be weighed in preparation for the decision on deployment. That, of course, would be the same as not adopting a common position at all.
By framing a strongly worded common position on NMD, the EU can show that it is capable of acting effectively and in unison on security issues. It would be a useful and unambiguous tool with which to influence the United States.
There is a clear need for the EU to shift away from the usual practice of timid objections. It should respond persuasively and demonstrate its resolve.
By adopting a common position opposing the deployment of the National Missile Defense system, the EU can prove its credibility and advance its own security interests.
Clara Portela-Sais and Denise Groves are researchers at the Berlin Information-Center for Transatlantic Security.