A consistent theme of today’s "Transatlantic Missile Defense" conference hosted by the Atlantic Council was the extent to which the United States dominates the domain.

Next month at Lisbon, a formal agreement among the NATO leaders on missile defense is expected to be one of few deliverables, a rare bright spot on an agenda clouded by massive defense spending cutbacks and lack of consensus on the Alliance’s future.   But, as Missile Defense Agency director LTG Patrick O’Reilly and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose made clear, this is seen as an American "contribution" to NATO with the European Allies expected only to coordinate and rope in whatever capabilities they might wish to bring to the table.  

The good news for the Alliance is that, much moreso than during the days of the George W. Bush Administration — much less the Reagan Administration — there’s now widespread agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that missile defense is a worthwhile project.   The shift of the threat from the old Soviet Union to Iran and a myriad of non-state actors has rendered the concerns about undermining the Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence regime moot.   And advances in both technology and strategic concept have lessened the concerns about feasibility.

Additionally, as Atlantic Council vice president and director of the International Security Program Damon Wilson put it — summarizing former NATO Assistant Secretary General Peter Flory’s remarks — NATO is no longer "stuck in study" on this issue.   We’re moving forward with formal agreements and actual deployment of resources. 

Still, while there’s consensus on the need for theater missile defense, there’s serious concern over burden sharing on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Flory noted that the added amount that the Europeans were being asked to spend were "a fraction of what the EU spends on cheese." Kari Bingen, a member of the professional staff of the House Armed Services committee,  noted that many in Congress, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, question why the American taxpayer should foot so much of the bill when the primary beneficiaries are the Europeans.

Edgar Buckley, a former NATO Assistant Secretary General from the UK, correctly noted that it was not at all unusual for there to be disproportionality in a particular endeavor.  He pointed out that the United States had traditionally provided something like 70 percent of the Alliance’s fighter jet capability while the Europeans provided a larger number of troops.   But even he was concerned about the dominant U.S. role here, wondering if it meant that Europe would be cut out of the decision making loop.

Jim Townsend, a former Atlantic Council vice president and now Deputy Asssistant Secretary of Defense for Europe/NATO Policy, largely dismissed the burden sharing issue, noting that the system envisioned under President Obama’s Phased Adaptive Approach were vital to American national interests, which have always included the security of Europe.  

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.