Should we reconsider our role in US Missile Defence

Ben Folley Compass Youth writes: The Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chair, Labour MP Mike Gapes, has criticised the way in which the government announced the inclusion of the Menwith Hill military base in the US Missile Defence system. A report by the Committee released on Sunday criticised the government for quietly announcing the decision in a written answer one day before the Summer recess.

Gapes said ‘We regret the manner and timing of the announcement. And there's a resulting lack of parliamentary debate on the issue. Our job is to hold the government to account and to scrutinise its behaviour and we are not happy with the way they have dealt with this.’ The report comes just days after Defence Secretary Des Browne wrote to another MP that the Ministry of Defence ‘have no plans to hold a further public consultation on this issue’ following the consultation paper published almost five years ago.

However, even those who may have accepted the government’s justification for involvement in US Missile Defence in 2002 will recognise the political situation has changed significantly since then. Even then there was significant concern amongst Labour backbenchers. Opposition to George Bush’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001 was compounded when in the same month he released a new Nuclear Posture Review that outlined proposals for a new generation of nuclear weapons such as the as part of an ‘offensive strike system.’

In response, an Early Day Motion tabled by Malcolm Savidge was signed by 275 MPs; 214 of them Labour.However, the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee states that US officials only gave initial indications that sites in Poland and the Czech Republic were being considered for US Missile Defence deployments in March 2006. Russia is fiercely opposed to the plans, believing itself to be the main target just as it was under the programme’s predecessor, Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative.

The threat of a new arms race was clearly raised in last week’s report to the European Parliament Security and Defence subcommittee. One passage states ‘The credibility of the Russian nuclear arsenal would be significantly reduced by a credible and extensive US missile defence system. Russia would be obliged to invest more in countermeasures, increase the number of deployed nuclear warheads, and potentially develop a missile defence system of its own.’However the US does require the consent of a number of European governments in order to build the necessary military bases to operate the system. Our own government’s current position of support matches that of the Czech and Polish governments who also intend to host US bases as part of the programme, despite mass public opposition in all three countries.

A YouGov opinion poll this Summer showed that 54% of the British public agree that "the siting of US missiles and early warning bases in the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic as part of the US National Missile Defence programme, increases the security threat faced by the UK and Europe" whilst only 24% disagree. A CBOS poll in Poland in August showed 56% oppositon in that country to the proposed interceptor missile base at Gorsko, whilst opinion polls in the Czech Republic have regularly shown opposition of up to 70%.

The major difference between the three governments is that in both Poland and the Czech Republic, the leading conservative party is in power and Labour’s sister parties are questioning the wisdom of facilitating the latest US military initiative.In the recent election in Poland, Labour’s sister party the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) demanded there be a national referendum on the proposed US missile base, whilst in the Czech Republic the Social Democrat party, the CSSD, have become increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the proposed radar and have surged ahead of the governing Civic Democrats in opinion polls, who are only kept in government by the narrowest of margins through an alliance with the Greens. This unexpected ally of the right is set to hold an internal ballot to decide its policy on the radar, increasing the pressure on the strained coalition.

Opposition from Labour’s sister parties is also spreading across the continent. The National Executive of Germany’s SPD held a wide ranging discussion on foreign policy which concluded that ‘attention must be paid to the consequences in terms of disarmament policy. The SPD rejects a new arms race.’ On 14th September, a regional conference of party leaders and heads of government of socialist parties in central and eastern Europe agreed a statement of opposition to US Missile Defence. Signatories included Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and the leader of the German SDP Kurt Beck. Hosted by the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD) in Prague, the statement read, ‘We are concerned about the decision to deploy the system and are at one with the large majority of our populations in rejecting it … We do not want any new missiles in Europe.’

MEPs in the Socialist Group in the European Parliament are also expressing concern. In a debate in March this year Socialist Group’s chair, Germany’s Martin Schulz argued, ‘This missile defence system will solve nothing and get us into a new arms race,’ whilst in the same month a group of MEPs, including Czech and Polish members wrote to the speaker of the US Congress, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, to express their concerns.

The contact that Labour MEPs have with their European counterparts should be channeled back into the Labour Party at home. Since the MoD does not want to consult the public, it is unsurprising it has yet to be discussed by the National Policy Forum, the Foreign Affairs Committee report is therefore a reminder to delegates attending its next meeting. Gordon Brown should reconsider the UK’s role in US Missile Defence and seek to develop a strategy with our allies in Europe to prevent the US starting a new arms race.