IISS/CEPS European Security Forum meeting on Missile Defence and European Security, Brussels, April 2, 2001


by François Heisbourg, Chairman of the Geneva Centre for Security Studies and Chairman of the European Security Forum

The first meeting of the European Security Forum on 2 April 2001, was devoted to the issue of missile defences, with the discussion drawing on three papers written respectively from a European, an American and a Russian perspective.

Missile defences are a particularly time-urgent and important topic in terms of the European interest, in view of the advent of the new American administration. Whereas the Clinton administration forwarded its National Missile Defence plan under congressional pressure rather than as a priority of its own choosing, President Bush has put missile defences at the centre of his security and defence platform. Europeans therefore have reason to assume that missile defences, in one form or another, will become an actual, rather than a virtual, facet of the US military posture. No less importantly, the Bush administration has not yet put forward a specific systems architecture in terms of missile defences: in other words, the Europeans are faced with a general intention, not a specific policy. The opponents of missile defences therefore do not have a sitting target at which to aim their own suggestions, so as to help orient American policy in the least damaging direction. This temptation is fuelled not only by Bush administration statements taking the interests of allies and partners into account; but there is also ample evidence that a number of competing missile defence visions co-exist for the moment within the Bush team. No clear choice has yet been made as to scope of missile defences – global, regional or homeland defence? – their scale – defences against limited strikes only or broader strategic ambitions? – their pace (a piece-by-piece or a "big bang" approach?) - their objective (intercepting ICBMs only directed at the US and/or dealing also with shorter-range missiles threatening Europe and East Asia) or their technological emphasis (boost phase taking precedence or not vis-à-vis subsequent phase intercept?).

In this lies a substantial difference vis-à-vis the Clinton Alaska- and ground-based re-entry phase project against limited attacks by "rogue state" intercontinental missiles.

From a European perspective, this had every apparent defect: it would have provided no positive contribution to the security of America's allies while entailing the risk of upsetting the ABM Treaty and generating tension with Russia and China, while at the same time what was presented as a fait accompli was put forward in a half-hearted manner. Under those circumstances, it isn't surprising that NMD received high levels of flak. Even the United Kingdom took its distances.

Since then, the Europeans have moved in a cautious manner now that NMD has been superseded by a less clearly defined missile defence. For America's allies – notably the European members of NATO and the EU – and partners (not least Russia), the challenge is now to define what they believe can be the least damaging possible outcome, and to seek policies leading to such an outcome. And for the Americans, the symmetrical task is to establish the least counterproductive balance between alliance commitments – and more broadly security relations with other partners such as China and Russia – on the one hand, and the pursuit of missile defences on the other.

This problématique – to use a typical piece of Brussels Euro-speak – colours the three papers presented to the European Security Forum.

Thus Ivo Daalder, a former NSC staffer, makes specific suggestions as to the manner in which the US should reconcile missile defences and broader strategic objectives. Klaus Becher, the Senior Fellow for European security at the IISS, puts forward proposals flowing from the specific interests of the European allies, while Alexander Pikayev, like a number of other Russian analysts – and indeed decision-makers – seeks to promote cooperative missile defences against the threat of non-strategic ballistic missiles.

It is hoped that these papers, and the debate they have helped generate, will contribute to the generation of policy initiatives in which the negative impact of missile defences will be mitigated, while exploiting whatever good can be secured from them.

In particular, the members of the European Union have every interest in defining their interest and way vis-à-vis the European decision-shaping process in the short term: the window of indecision as to the specific content of the Bush administration's missile defence policy will not remain open much longer. The time to influence policy is now.

It will not have escaped the reader that this Foreword has been set in a damage-limitation mode, rather than in a strongly positive light. This is a deliberate choice, for the Europeans are faced with strategic priorities (notably the emphasis on investment for force projection) which conflict with the budgetary demands of missile defences: and the Europeans don't always share the US vision as to what the appropriate policy mix should be towards the risks linked to missile proliferation. Therefore, it is likely, to use Henry Kissinger's recent analogy, that America's partners are going to look at American missile defences policy as the equivalent of a visit to the dentist: enthusiasm is not a foreseeable part of that prospect.

May 2001