Will Missile Defense Split the U.S. and Europe?

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Europeans tend to get nervous at times like this. The pomp and ritual that attend the start of a new American presidency — the parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, the handing over of the nuclear briefcase — induce a patriotic rush among Americans, but cause a frisson of anxiety in Europe. Not long ago, when a young, unknown Southern governor with little stated interest in foreign affairs won the presidency, gloom settled over many corners of the Continent. "Nothing suggests (he) believes the problems of the planet are as serious as those of his country," Le Monde sighed. "We are facing an American Administration that will be more isolationist than its predecessor."

That isolationist was Bill Clinton, who by the end of his second term was feted throughout the Continent for his abiding engagement in Europe. Now, as the presidency of George W. Bush begins, Europeans are worried again. During last year's presidential campaign, Bush and his advisers stunned European leaders with suggestions that they intended to pull American troops out of the Balkans, abrogate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and in general act more unilaterally than any U.S. Administration since the beginning of the cold war. Members of the Bush team have since labored to calm European jitters, but nothing has dispelled doubts about Bush himself. "Bush doesn't know anything about foreign affairs," says a French official. "He has done nothing remarkable in his life, he has a very lightweight C.V., he's only been out of the U.S. three times. So he remains a huge question mark."

The official is being a bit unfair: Bush has left American shores at least twice as many times. And his inner circle includes familiar stalwarts such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and trade representative Robert Zoellick, all of whom have earned respect in European capitals. They have spent the early days of the Administration mending fences. In her first day on the job Rice said her top task will be to keep U.S. alliances strong; Powell called nato "the bedrock" of American relations with Europe. No one believes that the U.S. under Bush plans to retreat from the world stage.

But everyone knows that this Administration is far more likely than the last one to chart its own course, pursuing American interests and setting its own priorities whether the rest of the world goes along or not. And that could mean a reorientation in the Atlantic relationship. On a range of security and foreign-policy issues, the future seems to augur continental drift, if not an outright split. Though bound together by a military alliance and $1 billion in daily trade, Europe and the United States are increasingly marching to different beats — and there will be moments when the Bush Administration will pump up the volume. "The new administration has experienced people at the top," says one E.U. official. "But many of them do not understand the Europe of today."

Last week Bush miffed some Europeans by skipping the World Economic Forum in Davos and announcing that his first foreign trip will be to Mexico. The fear is that Bush's foreign-policy attentions, limited as they are, will focus on Latin America and Asia. "There's no question he has to have a relationship with South America and the Pacific Rim," says Menzies Campbell, foreign-affairs spokesman for Britain's Liberal Democrats. "But there's anxiety about whether it will come at the expense of a constructive relationship with Europe." But Bush knows he can't leave Europe alone. In December he phoned French President Jacques Chirac, who was in Washington, and arranged a one-hour schmooze at the French ambassador's residence; a top aide says Chirac "took it as a hopeful sign that Bush will be more attentive to allies." Last week Bush invited Tony Blair to Washington for a meeting in late February.

When Bush does meet his European counterparts, they will have plenty to talk about. Take Iraq: support for sanctions against Baghdad has collapsed in Europe; but the Bush team is full of Desert Stormers with scores to settle. Last week's reports that Saddam Hussein has revived his weapons program provides fuel for the fire of Administration hard-liners, who are determined to turn up the heat on Saddam and quash any effort by allies to end Baghdad's isolation.

If Iraq doesn't produce some testy moments, the Balkans will. Europeans raged at campaign hints from Bush and Rice that they would order a pullout of American forces from nato's peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. Now the Administration is backing off — Rice has said that "it is important to review American deployments" but that "any review will take place with allies." Still, the U.S. will likely insist that its troop numbers be reduced — even though the U.S. accounts for less than 20% of the total peacekeeping force in the Balkans — and will move toward a burden-sharing arrangement in which the U.S. maintains a token presence on the ground but provides the military backup to deter aggression. Says Sean Sullivan, an American nato official in Kosovo: "The line that is being formulated is that America's ability to lead in the Balkans is not tied to its troop presence."

That upsets some officials in Kosovo, who say that American troops provide an emollient against conflict that European forces do not. Yet Europe has no choice but to shoulder more responsibility for the Balkans and operations like it. Powell has given a muted blessing to the E.U.'s new defense force, "so long as it strengthens nato, and does not weaken nato"; and one influential Bush adviser, Stephen Hadley, has written that the U.S. should give Europe "breathing space" to develop its defense identity. As it hands off more of the load to the Europeans, the Administration won't hesitate to harangue the E.U. about its military deficiencies. "If we're not careful, this thing will be all architecture and no troops," admits Campbell. "We have to show we're serious about capability — which means increases in defense expenditures."

That's sure to cause grumbling among European politicians, as will the Republicans' hellbent determination to deploy a missile defense system. Domestic politics may push Blair to come out in favor of the project, but no one else in Europe is convinced. Last summer Clinton managed to avoid a spat over his national missile defense (NMD) program and punted the issue to his successor, arguing that missile-busting technology was still unproved. While Powell lately has signaled lukewarm support for missile defense, Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is one of nmd's biggest cheerleaders. Europe's leaders fret that the U.S. plans will vitiate arms-control regimes and encourage Russia and China to build up their arsenals.

But Russia has made overtures about cutting a deal with the U.S. over the endangered abm treaty — perhaps in exchange for economic aid and bilateral warhead reductions — which would allow Bush to go forward with a clear conscience. Opponents of nmd in Europe suspect that, sooner or later, America's missile shield dreams will become a reality. And some have started to say that Europeans should not expend too much capital trying to stop it. "Their time would be better spent praying the technological challenges prove too difficult to overcome," says Dominique Mo´si of the French Institute on International Relations.

What the Atlantic dispute over missile defense reveals is a philosophical chasm that may prove impossible to bridge. Left-tilting European governments invest real significance in the patchwork of multilateral treaties and institutions that constitute a "global governance" system. But American conservatives, such as those in Bush's coterie, chafe at such constraints on unilateral action. Europeans believe global warming and genetically modified food are threats worthy of diplomatic attention; Bush's national security team hardly believes such concerns exist. And the E.U. is far more committed to the United Nations and international development: European countries collectively spend three times as much as the U.S. on foreign aid. Last week Bush confirmed some of Europe's worst fears by cutting off funds to international groups that promote abortion.

It's no wonder some Atlanticists despair of the next four years. "I'm pessimistic about this," says one American diplomat. "I think it's going to be ugly." In the worst case, American unilateralism will embolden anti-American forces in the E.U. and result in petty feuds between the two continents. But there's a more hopeful outcome. Champions of a more integrated, autonomous E.U. have long traded on fears that, as a U.S. diplomat puts it, "America is going to eat our lunch unless we get cracking." Now Europeans have the opportunity to move beyond such laments about American hyperpuissance and seize a role in the world that matches their ambitions. On many fronts — from peacekeeping to climate change to Russian democracy — Europe is better situated than ever before to shape a future that accords with its interests. There's no better reason than that to get cracking.

With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, Anthee Carassava and J.F.O. McAllister/London, Bruce Crumley and Thomas Sancton/Paris and James Graff/Brussels