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One month into the presidency of George W. Bush, two of the world’s largest alliances face a test of strength. One, across the Atlantic, is between the United States and European nations. The other, spanning the Pacific, binds Japan and the U.S. Signs of tension have been appearing in these vital alliances at the very time that President Bush is giving them top diplomatic priority.

What is straining Japan-U.S. ties is the recent collision of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine with a Japanese fisheries training vessel. Inflaming public sentiment, moreover, are two incidents in Okinawa: the contempt expressed for local officials by a U.S. military commander, who called them “nuts and wimps” in an e-mail to subordinates, and an arson case involving a U.S. Marine. Unless the two nations deal properly with these issues, many Japanese will begin to doubt the value of the alliance itself.

The Atlantic alliance has shown signs of stress over the European Union’s decision to build a rapid-reaction force and U.S. plans to build a national missile defense system. In a bid to bolster the alliance, British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the U.S. over the weekend. It was Mr. Bush’s first summit with a key U.S. ally other than Canada and Mexico. Meanwhile, a Japan-U.S. summit hangs in the balance, given the volatile political situation here.

Britain has boasted a special relationship with the U.S. since the days of Winston Churchill, serving as a bridge between America and continental Europe. America’s concern is that the EU may be trying to build a “European army” independent of NATO. Mr. Blair’s job was to dispel that concern by assuring the U.S. that the proposed 60,000-strong force would be a complement, not a counterweight, to the U.S.-led NATO forces. The British leader succeeded in this part of his mission. At Camp David, Mr. Bush signaled U.S. support for European plans for the force after being assured by Mr. Blair that it would be used only when the Atlantic alliance chose not to be engaged.

But Mr. Blair apparently did not reward Mr. Bush with an endorsement of the latter’s plan to build the controversial NMD, about which most European nations, including France and Germany, have doubts. They worry that it could open a Pandora’s box, reviving arms races around the world.

The crux of the problem is nuclear-arms control. NMD would take the teeth out of the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty, which restricts U.S. and Russian deployment of these interceptor missiles. The ABM treaty had created a “balance of terror” by exposing the two nuclear powers to possible missile attacks, thereby prompting them to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

Now the U.S. is trying to change that treaty, which bans systems like NMD. If Russia does not agree, warns Washington, America will scrap it unilaterally. Moscow, on the other hand, threatens to repeal the related nuclear arms limitation treaties if the U.S. abandons the ABM treaty. China is also crying foul, not only about NMD but also about the theater missile defense that the U.S., along with Japan, Taiwan and others, is also promoting. In protest, Beijing has refused to open disarmament talks in Geneva that aim to prohibit the production of fissionable materials for nuclear weapons.

The U.S. itself is divided over NMD, not only because of the enormous technological difficulties and staggering costs involved, but also because it could hurt relations with China and Russia as well as U.S. allies. Mr. Bush, while promising “humble diplomacy” — a welcome departure from superpower hegemonism — appears to be very aggressive when it comes to missile defense. The surprise air raids against Iraq, whatever the reasons, also seem to reflect his instinct for tough diplomacy against adversaries.

America cites as the rationale for building an NMD network the continued presence of “rogue states,” such as North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Never mind that that epithet is no longer officially used. The fact is there are still certain states in the world that pose security threats. It is open to question, however, whether meeting missile threats with missile shields is the best defense. As leaders of U.S. allies in Europe point out, nonmilitary or political responses may be far more effective in the long run.

The fundamental flaw in the NMD program is that it could encourage efforts to build up more sophisticated missile systems. In the process, humanity’s dream of creating a nuclear-free world in the 21st century could grow even more distant. As the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, Mr. Bush should listen humbly to what allies have to say and act with greater prudence.

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