Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Technology, unity and unguided missiles

Financial Times Editorial Comment: Technology, unity and unguided missiles
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 4 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 4 2007 03:00

Russia is fuming. Germany is simmering. Warsaw and Prague appear to have lost confidence in their western European allies. This, so far, is the upshot of the US's request to place missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. The continent should calm down. Despite the $100bn cost to date of the US programme, European reactions are out of all proportion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's criticism of Washington's plans - notably in a February speech that warned of "an inevitable arms race" - has inspired talk of new east-west tensions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition has suffered from mounting tensions between pro-missile defence Christian Democrats and their anti-missile defence Social Democratic colleagues. Kurt Beck, the SPD leader who is keen to raise his profile in the polls, has declared that "we don't need new missiles in Europe".

Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister, has stirred the pot still further by calling for US security guarantees in return for Prague's agreement to site a base on Czech soil. In so doing, he has laid bare scepticism that Nato would meet its own commitments to his country's security.

In this febrile climate, it is impor-tant to take a step back. The efficacyof the US system remains unproven.It is far from clear that the $10bn-plus annual outlay would satisfyany cost-benefit analysis, much less satisfy the US's hankering for total security, a chimera in any event.

Furthermore, the current system is not designed to counteract big nuclear arsenals. Instead, its target is the likes of North Korea, or, in the case of the European interceptors, Iran. The 10 interceptors planned for Poland would have no effect on Russia's thousands of nuclear warheads. What Moscow really seems to find offensive is seeing the US increase its presence in former members of the Warsaw Pact.

This issue is therefore political, not strategic. The US needs to redouble its efforts to consult and explain, particularly within Nato. Mr Beck should also curb his demagogic instincts. Indulging anti-Americanism in Germany may have worked for former chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the past, but it will not win back the SPD the prestige it has lost in recent years.

Meanwhile the Czech Republic and Poland should steer clear of rash talk of bilateral deals with Washington that could divide Nato into rival camps of "old" and "new" European states. At the same time, western European countries must stand firm against Russian sabre-rattling. They failed to do so this year when two Russian generals provocatively suggested that the Poles and Czechs could be targeted if they housed missile defence bases on their soil.

Missile defence may ultimately have merit, although the case remains to be made more fully. Meantime, Nato unity remains the most powerful weapon in the alliance's armoury.


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