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By Shirley Williams

Shirley Williams is the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democratic Party in Great Britain.

LONDON -- A year ago, it seemed quite a sensible and modest proposal: a limited national missile defense just sufficient to deal with a small number of long-range ballistic missiles that might be lobbed at the United States by ``rogue states'' intent on blackmail. The system would not be big enough to upset the balance of deterrence on which peace between the nuclear powers has been maintained for nearly 40 years. It could not protect the United States if, for instance, Russia were to launch a full-scale attack on it. But it did seem to offer a way to deal with a new and unpredictable threat.

Now, however, the whole issue has moved to a different level. It has been caught up in the partisan debate in the U.S. Senate, and it has become an election issue. Few people in Washington are talking now about a strictly limited shield to deal with rogue states. What is now under discussion is, on the one hand, a radical recasting of defense to embrace a Star Wars scenario, or, on the other, an ambitious package agreed between Russia and the United States, linking sweeping strategic nuclear arms reductions within the framework of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (Start II and III) to an amended Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

Escalation of the national missile defense debate began with a breathtakingly bold move by the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He persuaded the Duma, which has sat on it for years, to ratify the Start II treaty and to start negotiations on Start III.

Start II means nearly halving the number of strategic nuclear warheads on both sides, from 6,000 to between 3,000 and 3,500 by 2007. Start III would halve them again, to only 1,500 on both sides. Given Russia's declining capacity to maintain and protect nuclear weapons, such reductions would enhance Western as much as Russian security.

But the Duma attached a condition: that there should be a satisfactory outcome to the discussion about amending the ABM treaty. Russia is not prepared to see the treaty gutted -- as it would have to be -- if more than a very narrow NMD system was planned.

Yet a gutted and worthless treaty is exactly what the chairman of the Senate's committee on foreign relations, North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, wants. He has always opposed the ABM treaty. He does not accept the limitations it imposes on U.S. defense capacity, and he has the support of 20 or more Republican senators. Furthermore, although he has not spelled out the details, presidential hopeful George W. Bush is sympathetic toward some kind of Star Wars defense.

Helms has already let it be known that any agreement reached between Clinton and Putin, when they meet in June, would not be approved by the Senate. He has another card up his sleeve: The 1997 amendment the Senate made to the ABM treaty reserved for America the right to determine whether or not Russia was the legal successor state to the old Soviet Union -- and therefore whether the ABM treaty was still valid.

It is becoming clear that a faction of the Republican Party not only wants to deny any triumphant swan song to a detested president. It distrusts international arms-control treaties per se. The Senate's refusal last year to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty may have been a straw in the wind.

The Clinton Administration, meanwhile, is trying to sound and act as if everything is proceeding normally. It is discussing with Russia the changes to the ABM treaty needed for a limited national missile defense. On April 30, in his Boston foreign policy speech, Vice President Al Gore identified himself with the president's view that the treaty could be retained.

The political implications of national missile defense are immense, however, and cannot be hidden. For Russia, entirely dependent for its strategic defense on nuclear weapons, any such system beyond a limited first or, at most, second stage, undermines mutually assured deterrence. Having its own national missile defense is beyond the bounds of its resources. So the temptation would be to multiply the number of warheads, together with decoys and other counter-measures on each intercontinental ballistic missile to ensure that some get through to their targets. Putin is sensibly offering massive mutual nuclear disarmament instead -- at least for now.

For China, which has only about 20 warheads, national missile defense is even more threatening. Relations across the Taiwan Strait are more tense than they have been for several years, but the situation has been contained by some helpful decisions by Bill Clinton and by Taiwanese President-elect Chen Shui-bian. Clinton recently vetoed the sale of four Aegis class destroyers to Taiwan, and Chen wisely asked the U.S. Senate not to proceed with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would increase the numbers of weapons that the United States could send to Taiwan.

But a U.S. commitment to national missile defense would almost certainly compel China to review its current levels of nuclear warheads. It has even indicated that it might attack surveillance space satellites if such a system is deployed. To quote the white paper again: ``Even an NMD program intended to counter a threat of 20 to 50 (presently nonexistent) North Korean warheads is likely to provoke a Chinese deployment of several hundred long-range strategic warheads... NMD, whose ostensible purpose is to protect the nation from the threat of nuclear attack, will have occasioned a substantial net decrease in U.S. security.''

As for Europe, Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security policy spokesman, has cautioned the United States that any system must not ``strain transatlantic links,'' nor provoke a crisis with Russia. The words are restrained, but the concern felt by EU governments runs deep, and it is straining fragile governing coalitions such as Germany's.

How can political leaders justify to their people cooperating in a defensive system which defends only one of them, the United States?

What will happen to mutually assured deterrence, the foundation stone of peace in the nuclear age?

What advantage is there for Europeans in smashing the ABM treaty, which has successfully limited the nuclear arms race?

And why risk dismissing the best opportunity for substantial nuclear disarmament in years, following the Duma's indication of willingness to ratify Start II and III?

Republican opinion in Washington is determined that, if Americans can be protected against rogue missiles, they will be. Europeans, less used to technological solutions to political problems, note that former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry's visit to North Korea, and the opening of talks with South Korea, are gradually bringing North Korea in from the cold. And a cautious reintroduction of a once-isolated rogue state into the international community is bearing fruit (despite setbacks) in Iran. The EU approach is to bring troublesome neighbors within the scope of the rule of law, by insisting on basic human rights, democratic institutions and the market economy as prerequisites for trade and aid.

Of course, it can be argued that the EU should produce its own national missile defense. A fellow of the Brookings Institution, Ivo Daalder, recently advocated this course. But a world of isolated superpowers, each protecting itself against the other at colossal expense, and giving up on international institution-building, is not what Europeans want and is not in the interests of peace.

The issues at stake are at least as important as those which led to the ABM treaty itself, in 1972. There is little time left for the Europeans to make their voices heard -- but they must. Britain, the closest U.S. ally and the base for the essential early warning system, carries a very special responsibility.

(c) 2000, Prospect/European Viewpoint. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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