Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, making the first overseas trip by a member of President Bush's Cabinet, received a worried welcome Saturday from European allies concerned about the new administration's plan to deploy a national missile defense system.
Rumsfeld reiterated that the United States intends to develop and deploy a system designed to defend against a limited missile attack.
He said twice at a conference here on security issues that "these systems will be a threat to no one." He insisted that such a system "should be of concern to no one, save those who would threaten others."
But a parade of European officials from the German chancellor to the chairman of the Russian State Duma's foreign affairs committee thought otherwise. In speech after speech, they expressed concern that the United States was too eager to build a sophisticated anti-missile system that could touch off a new and dangerous arms race.
Rumsfeld spent most of his day holding one-on-one meetings to introduce himself to his counterparts from eight countries, ranging from Britain to Singapore.
A senior Pentagon official said Rumsfeld told British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon that he expects no decisions on U.S. troop levels in the Balkans to be made until this summer.
He said the U.S. contribution to Balkans peacekeeping would be considered as part of a regularly scheduled multinational review of forces in the region.
Hoon urged that the United States "stay the course" in containing Iraq, and Rumsfeld appeared to agree with him, the Pentagon official said.
But the main subject of the day at the annual Munich Conference on Security Policy was the Bush administration's determination to deploy a missile defense system.
Missile defense is divisive because many European leaders fear it would leave their countries unprotected, thus creating a trans-Atlantic division. They also oppose it on grounds that it would violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the former Soviet Union, a pact Rumsfeld has called "ancient history."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder set the tone of the conference in a keynote speech that warned the United States against "overly hasty and early determinations" about deploying missile defenses.
Karl Lamers, the foreign policy spokesman for Germany's conservative opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, charged that the U.S. anti-missile plan was the sort of project dreamed up by people who want to be "invulnerable" so they can be "masters of the world."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he understood U.S. concerns, especially about Asia, but warned three times against taking ill-considered steps that might spur a new international arms competition. "A new arms race in Asia or space . . . would create less, rather than more, security," he said.
Fischer said he was not speaking just for Germany, noting that his reservations were "by and large the European understanding of this discussion."
Rumsfeld responded by cordially but emphatically rejecting the assertions about an arms race as outdated rhetoric. "The phrase 'arms race' has been mentioned two or three times today," he said. "I really think that's kind of left over from the Cold War. I think it's a phraseology and context less relevant today than it was then."
Rumsfeld provided no details on how Bush intends to proceed toward deployment. He made clear that while the allies will be consulted, they should not expect to change Bush's mind.
"No U.S. president can responsibly say that his defense policy is calculated and designed to leave the American people undefended against threats that are known to exist," Rumsfeld said.
He said Bush would not wait until technology can provide for a perfect defense, but he mentioned no timetable.
"It is not so much a technical question as a matter of a president's constitutional responsibility," he said. "Indeed, it is in many respects . . . a moral issue."