In California tomorrow evening an explosive event will ignite the biggest threat to US relations with Europe since the end of the cold war. American unilateralism, unprecedented in its reach and potential global danger, will take another, perhaps decisive, stride towards fulfilment. A new era is beginning. Whatever its final shape, one element of this is already clear: Britain faces probably the most uncomfortable choice she has confronted in the 50 years of the special Anglo-American relationship. It sets in wary context the beaming scenes of shared economic satisfaction between our two countries which the chancellor presided over yesterday.
Unless the moment is postponed yet again, a rocket will be launched from Vandenberg air force base, carrying a warhead and a decoy. Five thousand miles away, on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, another rocket will take off a few minutes later, carrying a kill-vehicle to knock the first one out. This won't exactly be a real-life simulation of the scenario it is designed to prepare against, a missile attack on the US from North Korea. The controllers on Kwajalein will be copied into the California countdown. They know exactly what is coming and when, which nobody would know about North Korea. The rockets, figuring out the decoy, are meant to meet at a closing speed of 12,000mph, something which in two earlier tests has failed to happen. If they do, the US national missile defence programme (NMD) will almost certainly be readied for deployment.
But even if they don't, the same outcome is likely. There are more tests where this one came from, and the US political system is becoming committed to an acceleration of the arms race. Russia may have subsided as a nuclear enemy, but new threats proliferate, which supposedly aren't amenable to nuclear deterrence. The technology of kill-vehicles may be unproven, but the can-do triumphalism of the US military knows no limits. With the homeland open to attack, the wagons are circled, the treasury is opened, and a programme costing at least $60bn receives the backing of two presidential candidates who dare not take the risk of saying NMD probably will not work, certainly will destabilise the world, and will challenge Nato as an alliance of consenting partners.
The technology is chronically in doubt. Many applied scientists believe it never will work to the necessary level of certainty. One of them, Dr Theodore Postol, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has published accounts in fine detail of the fraudulent tests already constructed by the Pentagon to guarantee the apparent "success" of Friday's test. Another, Michael W Munn, a veteran of anti-missile work at Lockheed's, said the Pentagon was deluding itself with its belief in the bottomless powers of radars and sensors to distinguish between warheads and decoys.
The threats against which this costly speculation is directed are also contested. Official Washington appears to be deeply divided. Significant voices are concerned that the threat from North Korea is being judged exclusively on the basis of technological potential, irrespective of political, economic and social factors. The New York Times reported this week a mounting challenge to those who "appear to have discounted deterrence as a counter to the missile threat, even though deterrence governed American strategic thinking throughout the cold war". Freed of the Soviet menace, the US must prepare to face lunatics. The imagery of the rogue state is prominent, despite the recent startling evidence that North Korea, seeking to normalise relations with the south, seems equipped with a decent level of self-interested rationality.
The voices that dispute the rogue-state model, however, are of fading consequence. Washington may be troubled, but it will not be diverted, especially if the Republicans and George W Bush win the White House. The Clinton people are the inventors of NMD, in a "thin" version, with minimal missiles based only in Alaska and better designed to give political cover to Al Gore than absolute protection to the US. The Republicans have been speaking for something far more ambitious. In its complete form, NMD contemplates 250 missile silos and interceptors based around the world. One of its ideologues, Senator John Warner, potentate of the armed services committee, told me in March that he saw the issue as extremely simple: the right of the US to protect its land. Richard Perle, a cold war hawk from the Nixon years who now hovers round the Bush campaign, said in London last week that the antiballistic missile treaty, which would debar NMD, is an anachronism, and Europeans should wise up to America's perception of her interests.
This may be prudent advice. The homeland psychology of Americans is responding to perceived threats no differently from the builders of the great wall of China. More than 60%, though they show little knowledge of NMD, say they want it. They have the money to buy it easily, though there will be plenty of other defence interests arguing for different ways of spending the surplus trillions. Having triumphed over the evil empire of the Soviet Union, Americans aren't prepared to be held hostage - as proponents of NMD would have it - by the gnats of Iran, Iraq and Korea, whose firepower, though in truth disputable, is easily parlayed into a horrendous threat.
Trawling the web, I have yet to find a European leader, or even an authoritative European commentator, who speaks warmly of this prospect. They see a bigger threat to the security of their countries from the instability provoked by NMD, especially in Moscow, than from the behaviour of Iran or Iraq. They do not appreciate the kind of blackmail they see developing, whereby Washington attempts to counter allied complaints by demanding that Europeans accept, and presumably pay for, NMD cover for themselves.
Britain, especially, is in the firing line. Fylingdales is already slated as a radar base for a "thin" NMD. For anything bigger, it would need a huge physical expansion and could become a site for the interceptor missiles themselves. But our engagement is locked in another way too. Tradition, history and the expectations of friendship make it hardest for Britain to say no. These qualities have become a kind of bondage. They seem to render our leaders incapable of saying a single word about NMD: witness the smug silences even of Robin Cook, and the generalised belief in government that requesting an opinion is inviting ministers to commit an unfathomable breach of national security.
Tomorrow's test may fail. Let's hope it does. The embarrassment could at least delay the next steps. But we have to assume these will be taken. Europe's disbelief in NMD ought not to mimic America's confidence, until the very threshold of the euro's creation, that the European single currency would never happen. It is likely that America, on the cusp between isolationism and internationalism, will opt for unilateral action. We are nowhere near prepared for the consequences.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000