Obama's missile defense decision: A view from Europe
The September 17 decision itself seemed to strike the right balance between the need to keep U.S. missile defense options open, and to adjust the program to evolving strategic realities and political priorities.The strategic side was left to U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates to justify, on the ground that the Iranians' long-range missile threat was less urgent than their short-to-medium range capacities. The U.S. program accordingly needed to be refocused from fixed ground assets designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in mid-course, to mobile, mostly sea-based, more versatile ones to first address the theater missile threat in the vicinity of the main proliferators, North Korea, and Iran. The scope and range of missile defense could later be expanded, as the threat itself evolved. Not only is it a clever presentation, which minimizes the criticism that Obama does not take either the threat or the defense seriously, but it seems to make sense given the military content of the problem: Shahab 3 and Taepodong belong to the same family of expanded-range missiles derived from SCUDs by North Korea, and seem an unlikely basis from which to easily develop an effective long-range missile. It also allows the U.S. missile defense, therefore, refocused on theater capacities to tie-in better with NATO's own plans, which fall in the same category, (whereas the radar and interceptors to be deployed in Europe under the Bush plan were essentially part of U.S. national missile defense and their relation to NATO unclear at best). The main suspected motive of the decision, and its most important potential impact, are of a political nature, and concern the West's relations with Russia in the first instance. By renouncing - at least temporarily - the deployment of U.S. fixed missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic, it removes an important obstacle in U.S.-Russian relations, while giving Russia an incentive to be more forthcoming on the Iranian nuclear issue. For those who believe that policy is about prioritizing issues, it looked indeed more urgent to get Russia to be more cooperative, and specifically help contain the emerging nuclear threat from Iran, than to defend against one of the possible and distant incarnations of that threat in the face of strong objections on her part. The fact is that, as a problem, Iran today matters more than Russia, and under the circumstances the merits of her objections look of secondary importance. In fact, they have ranged from the fantastic, e.g. that missiles based in Poland could have a hidden offensive capability, to the more understandable, i.e. that by establishing a permanent military presence at their doorstep, the United States disregarded Russian interests and sensitivities, and specifically the spirit if not the letter of the 1997 statement by NATO that it saw no need to establish bases on its new members' territory. Russia's excuse for that interpretation is, of course, that having a U.S. military presence on their territory was what most motivated Poland and the Czech Republic (the Polish-U.S. agreement was signed on August 20 2008, in the middle of the Georgia crisis, a message Russia did not miss). The September 17 decision, by U.S. President Barack Obama, does not in itself guarantee better relations with Russia, or its full cooperation on Iran. It was worded so as not to be explicitly addressed to Russia, even if the message was unmistakable, and the Russians first reacted accordingly. They should not be encouraged to believe, however, that some of their reactions to the initial U.S. plans such as the threatened deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad or of tactical nuclear weapons on ships in the Baltic fleet weighted positively on the change in U.S. policy (the latter threat raises questions as to the continued adherence of Russia to the Bush-Gorbachev 1991 undertakings not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons at sea that should be answered). In fact, the "reset" of relations with Russia will require much more work, and high-level engagement from the United States and their allies. The Obama plan may hopefully have changed the atmospherics: beyond strategic nuclear arms, currently the main focus of U.S.-Russian dialogue, and Iran, European security offers a number of issues - from the Medvedev plan, to the Balkans and the Caucasus - on which to follow-up and keep engaging Russia the way it should be, that is on concrete grounds. In the Czech Republic and Poland, reactions have been mixed. Most official pronouncements underlined the obvious fact that there would still be a role for both countries in the new missile defense architecture retained by the United States. In addition, Poland will keep the benefit of improved Patriot air defenses negotiated as part of their consent to deploying missile defense. Czech President VÃ¡clav Klaus downplayed the impact of the U.S. decision, but Czech Premier Mirek Topolanek's comments were sour, mentioning a "dark day" for his country. The Polish President, Lech Kascynski, expressed his fear that his country would be left in a "gray zone" between East and West. Other comments such as those drawing on the coincidence between the dates of Obama's announcement and that of the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, which both took place on September 17, were manifestly exaggerated. After all, NATO has known much more dramatic changes in policy in the past: the abandonment of the multilateral force in the 1960s or U.S. President Jimmy Carter's 1978 about face on the neutron bomb, a project which Helmut Schmidt had tried to sell to the German public at great political expense only to see it dropped by the United States in a matter of weeks. Decisions arrived at with allies will always have to pass the test of American pragmatism if they prove to lead to an impasse or simply in view of changed circumstances. As with the neutron bomb, the mistake with missile defense was to commit the United States and their allies into a project sustainable only at a disproportionate political cost, not to abandon it. (Or rather alter it, since Obama's decision leaves many options open; it mostly delays the consideration of those most objectionable from a Russian standpoint). The disappointment expressed by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski, that he measured the limits of Poland's influence in this instance is mistaken. This is nothing special to Poland. It is a natural function of the political and military imbalance of the alliance, an imbalance only made worse by NATO European members' continued delusion that they can individually entertain a special strategic relation with the United States, rather than think in terms of increasingly global European-U.S. relations (a delusion my own country also seems to entertain as I write). That is not to say that new members do not harbor special concerns with Russia as a result of history and geography, which should be addressed by their NATO and European allies. But they should do that by further anchoring them in the Western community of nations (visas and energy are good subjects on which to move forward), and by displaying solidarity in instances where Russian deeds or words cross the line of accepted norms of conduct among nations in Europe. They should also challenge the Russians to say whether or not they accept the body of such norms established after the cold war: consideration of the Medvedev plan, inchoate as it seems, would be an opportunity to do that (in practice, it is likely to bring the Russians to reaffirm its validity, lest they find themselves in a minority of one). Plans to deploy missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic were an at best oblique and ineffective way to bring reassurance to these countries vis-Ã -vis Russia. Such reassurances need not be military: vis-Ã -vis her European neighbors the worse Russia has attempted is political and economic intimidation. It should be resisted firmly, but in kind, if it occurs again, rather than by military moves that are likely to bring about symbolic but politically dangerous military posturing by Russia.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.