Baseless threats of cold war

HONOLULU — U.S. plans to deploy an antiballistic missile defense system in Europe have raised fears of a new Cold War. Russian responses to the proposal have been fierce: Moscow has warned countries that hosting interceptors would make them targets in the event of conflict. In fact, the planned deployments pose no threat to Russia’s strategic arsenal. Russia’s real concern is the prospect of integration of former Soviet bloc countries in Europe into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Moscow wants to maintain as much influence over Europe — eastern and western — as possible. Japan should expect similar tactics to be employed against it as it deploys a missile defense system of its own.

Fears of “rogue states” with nuclear weapons or the accidental launch of a ballistic missile prompted the United States to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Washington seeks to deploy a “shield” of interceptor missiles that would block an attack consisting of a small number of ballistic missiles; the technology can’t stop more than that. The prospect of North Korea putting a nuclear warhead on one of its missiles was foremost in the minds of U.S. security planners. Japanese strategists were equally alarmed and that prompted Tokyo to join the U.S. in developing and deploying a missile defense system, dropping legal barriers to Japan’s export of weapons systems in the process.

While North Korea has been the primary focus of missile defense proponents in recent months (and the 1998 Taepodong test first set off alarms), Iran was one of the original U.S. concerns. Fears have mounted in recent months as Tehran continues its standoff with the world over its nuclear ambitions and Iranian rhetoric escalates. It is now estimated that Iran will have the capability to mate a missile and a warhead by 2015; North Korea’s nuclear test underscores that that threat is not hypothetical.

Missile defense technology is still being developed. The results have been mixed. Tests of long-range interceptors have failed more often than succeeded, while Patriot batteries that provide limited end point defense have been improving since they were first battle tested in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And it is fair to ask whether rogues would use missiles if they wanted to threaten the U.S. or its allies — they are more likely to smuggle a weapon in a cargo container or something similar. Nonetheless, the U.S. has decided to proceed with deployment and has installed missiles in Alaska while preparing for other deployments in Japan and Europe.

Those limitations guarantee that any ABM system poses no real threat to a country like Russia, which can overwhelm any shield with its thousands of missiles. That has not stopped Moscow from bitterly protesting U.S. plans. In recent weeks, Russian leaders from President Vladimir Putin down have complained that the deployment of an ABM system in Europe — 10 interceptors — would trigger a new Cold War in Europe; Russian generals have threatened to target during conflicts the European governments — Poland and the Czech Republic — that offered to host the interceptors; Warsaw and Prague have not been deterred.

Those generals know the ABM system does not threaten their deterrent. But they also know that joining a system integrates the host government deeply into a bigger and broader network. That worries Russia: Its influence over Europe would be diminished. Beijing is just as concerned about the prospect of an Asian missile defense system and the impact it would have on its leverage over Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The prospect of Taiwanese integration into a U.S. defense system is the most troubling for China.

While Poland and the Czech Republic understand the risks, other European governments seem more worried about Moscow’s response. They have echoed Russian complaints about the missile defense plans — even though the U.S. has briefed Moscow more than 10 times on the system and its purpose. French President Jacques Chirac once warned that the deployment threatens to spark a new Cold War in Europe, although he has lately changed his views.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warns that the planned deployment could divide Europe, but in a different way. He worries that the interceptors can’t protect southern European countries like Turkey, Greece and Italy from Iranian missiles. He believes that a “two tier” NATO is dangerous and rightly so: “It is the indivisibility of security that is the guiding principle.”

Scheffer is correct — whether the subject is Europe or Asia. A shield that protects some allies while exposing others risks dividing them. Only shared vulnerability ensures that alliances work. Moscow is hoping that other European governments do not share Scheffer’s logic — and is pressing them to think otherwise. Beijing is similarly inclined as its Asian neighbors contemplate joining the U.S. missile defense system in Asia.

China worries that its deterrent is vulnerable. It has a much smaller nuclear arsenal. It has about 200 warheads — the total is expected to reach 220 by 2015 — and only about 20 missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S. The U.S. could launch a first strike to knock out most of those missiles and use missile defense to take out any that survive. That would leave China susceptible to U.S. coercion.

As a result, Beijing has threatened to build many more missiles to overwhelm a missile defense system. That is a bluff. Beijing knows that the Soviet Union was bankrupted by fears of a Star Wars-type system — a massive shield that would intercept all Moscow’s missiles — which was pure fantasy. It is far easier to trick a defense shield — and much less expensive.

Japan should not be intimidated; neither should Europe. If a shield protects against just one rogue missile, then it has served its purpose. An ongoing conversation with Moscow and Beijing is the best way to cope with fears about missile defense systems — not additional threats.

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