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Managing Missile Defense's Demise

By Jan Jires

Obama's "secret letter to Russia" path could destroy NATO cohesion and undermine pro-Americanism where it is still strong.

By Jan Jires

The U.S. missile defense project has always been a divisive issue both at home and abroad. Domestic critics of the project, which the Bush administration vigorously promoted, have questioned the technical feasibility of the proposed system as well as its cost-effectiveness.

Many critics abroad have been preoccupied with broader political implications of the project. They worry that the delicate parity between the leading nuclear powers and the resulting situation of "mutually assured destruction" established during the Cold War will be ruined by a missile defense system, and that the planned deployment of the system's components on the territory of Central European NATO allies will irritate Russia. It is rather ironic that they have succeeded in presenting their opposition to missile defense as a rejection of the "Cold War logic of arms race" and in accusing the supporters of the project of "Cold War mentality".

The Obama administration is, of course, entitled to review the project it inherited and to evaluate its technical feasibility, economic sensibility and political desirability. It should, however, be aware of the fact that the debate about the project has long ago ceased to focus on its declared purpose (protecting the U.S. and NATO from missiles coming from unstable countries in the Middle East and Asia) and has been transformed into a game heavily charged with political symbolism.

The course of the debate changed when Russian officials started to vigorously oppose the project and shifted it to a prominent position on their list of anti-West grievances. However, it has always been clear that the real challenge posed to Russia by the missile defense installations in Central Europe is not of a military character, as the Russian government officially argues, but of a purely symbolic character. Russians are frustrated by the fact they are no longer treated as a veto-wielding actor in Central European affairs. They also know that the Czech and Polish governments want to participate in the project in order to strengthen their ties with the U.S., to anchor America in Central European security, and to demonstrate that their countries are not, at least politically, in "Russia's backyard."

It makes little sense to quarrel about how this paradigm shift occurred. The real challenge now is: In case the Obama administration decides to abandon the project, it should do so cleverly and manage the process in a way that secures the political interests of the United States and its Central European allies.

There are two important things at stake. The first is the traditionally Atlanticist orientation of Central European allies. The second is the future of Russia's foreign policy, especially in the country's vicinity.

In the past two years, the Polish and Czech governments have invested tremendous political capital in supporting the missile defense project despite skeptical public opinion at home and distrustful partners in the EU and NATO. Following Czech, Polish and American lobbying, NATO unanimously, though rather vaguely, endorsed missile defense as contributing to the alliance's security. Last summer, after complicated and politically risky negotiations, both governments signed bilateral agreements with the United States allowing it to deploy missile defense components.

As a result of this prominence, abandoning the missile defense plan in a politically insensitive way can undermine not only these two strongly pro-American governments but also the very credibility of the Unites States as an ally. Countries are supposed to pursue foreign policies with certain degree of continuity, the very minimum being honoring formal commitments made by preceding governments - or being able to manage policy changes in such a way that they are not interpreted by friends and foes alike as selling out valuable allies. Mismanaging the demise of the missile defense project could deliver a fatal blow to Central European Atlanticism or, if you like, pro-Americanism.

The Obama administration must also avoid any impression that by scraping the missile defense installations the United States tacitly acknowledges Russia's veto power over the foreign policies of Central European NATO members. That could seriously damage NATO's cohesion as well as the U.S. leadership role in the alliance.

Above all, no explicit trade-offs should be made between the United States and Russia over the heads of Central Europeans. Unfortunately, this is exactly how President Obama's secret lettre d'amour to President Medvedev comes across. The idea, outlined in the letter, of exploiting the fuss Russia created about missile defense to make the country support U.S. pressure on Iran is not new. Dennis Ross, Obama's special adviser on Iran, proposed this tactic in his 2008 article.

If he decides to abandon the missile defense project, President Obama should make sure that everyone understands it is purely because the technology does not work or because the system is objectively not needed. However, the secret U.S. proposal to trade the abandonment of the project for Russia stopping its cooperation with Iran is exactly what will make Russia, Central Europe and the rest of the world conclude that Obama's administration is relegating Central Europeans to the role of useful idiots in some cunning U.S.-Russian plot. That is hardly in America's interest.

Of course, it is still possible that the "secret letter scoop" is a part of some clever scheme developed by the administration to push the Russians into a corner by demonstrating that they are unwilling to cooperate (or unable to deliver) on Iran - even when the USA is ready to make substantial concessions. Perhaps the Central European allies were informed in advance about the plan and assured they were not going to be thrown overboard. If this is the case, hats off to the administration.

Jan Jires is a Ph.D. candidate at Charles University in Prague and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced Intermational Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (9)

MBH1 Author Profile Page:

The Czech Republic was slated to host the x-band radar, not interceptors. The radar's capabilities are quite proven as is the midcourse defense fire control system. Combined, they are useful assets not only for missile defense but for intelligence gathering. I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the technology...yes it's expensive but until recently it was unplowed ground & the enabling hardware / software technology is an incredible feat.

Remember that (paraphrased) quip, "the person who says something can't be done is usually passed by the person doing it".

rudolf1 Author Profile Page:

It should be noted that overwhelming majority of Czechs oppose establishing the U.S. "missile defence base" in their country. "Skeptical public" is too mild a description. According to public opinions polls, about 2/3 inhabitants are against and 70 % demand national referendum on the issue. The figures are very stable since mid-2006 when the debate started here (long before Russians started to complain, by the way). So, the administration of President Obama has two problems: (a) not to further discredit the Czech government which has already heavily discredited itself in the eyes of Czech public by its willingness to have the base here; (b) not to further undermine pro-American sympathies of Czechs that had been quite strong until 1999 but then began to dwindle - due to the bombing of Yugoslavia, Iraq war, the Kosovo affair, and now the base...
Rudolf Prevratil, Prague

laslo23 Author Profile Page:

It's amazing that this opinion piece was written without giving any discussion to the fact that there is NO credible threat that the so-called Missile Defence System would address. It is so clearly a threat and provocation to Russia that claiming Russia views it as a 'having a symbolic character' is not just dishonest and false, it is an outright lie. Until U.S. foreign policy starts selling itself to the world with facts and truth, rather than ideology and lies, there will be no progress.

wa_idaho_lonewolf Author Profile Page:

here we go again with the star wars mentality. unfortunately it has long been dtermined that "missile shields" don't work. therefore it can only be assumed that the bush administrations' approach in poland and the czech republic was of an offensive nature. of course, bush and his neo-right wing crowd of maniacal lunatics were never ones to approach a problem with anything other than a mentality that can only be described as something out of a science fiction movie where there is only one good planet and the remainder of the universe is inhabited by those with evil intent. funny thing is : who looks to be the evil empire now? and moreover why would the citizens of those two republics wish to gamble their existence upon weapons systems that are nothing more than fantasies. all this revolves around nothing more than supporting arms merchants and american defense related corporations at the the expense of what we now have at hand: peace on the european continent for the first time since bosnia-serbia. peace is so hard to tolerate, isn't it?

bostonbrahmin Author Profile Page:

BOSTONBRAHMIN, what part of Putin's re-Salinization of Russia do you not get?

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Which part of "none of our effing business" dont you get?

If the former soviet republics want to poke Russia in the eye, they should do so without any wrong impression that we would have the inclination, or the power to bail them out should the bear strike back.

Russia is not the USSR. We did not wage the cold war to fight totalitarianism, otherwise we would not have planted our own dictators wherever it was necessary. We were fighting communism, an ideology that had vast corrupting power. With the end of Communism, the cold war philosophy has met its end.

Europe has to find its own equilibrium. It will do so on its own, depending on its long history and cultural ties.

onecent100 Author Profile Page:

BOSTONBRAHMIN, what part of Putin's re-Salinization of Russia do you not get? Perhaps you've failed to notice the murdered journalists, the suspended provincial elections, the media censorship, the opposition parties muzzled, the rotten state directed courts, Georgia, the gas shut off to Ukraine, etc.

You talk nonsense.

And, RobertLeeHotchkisss, Eastern Europe is looking to the west for help. They wish to be democratic countries that maintain their autonomy. Your comment regarding the US undermining the EU is ridiculous. How about Russia's support of Iran's nuclear ambitions undermining the safety of non-Muslims! Duh!

RobertLeeHotchkisss Author Profile Page:

An unspoken but remarkably consistent element of Bush's foreign policy was to undermine the European Union. The war and Iraq as well as increased friction with Russia both made great strides in creating energy insecurity in Europe and undermining their economies. Bush used the Iraq war and the missile defense ploy to pick up the United Kingdom on one side the new members of the EU on the other side of Europe.

Of course Europe has helpfully been self destructing on its own. But the United States should promoting the European Union, not trying to destroy it.

The worse thing we can do for Eastern Europe is to encourage them to look to us for help. We must cut them loose from the missile defense sham and quit obscuring the fact that they need to sink or swim with the EU.

bostonbrahmin Author Profile Page:

The discussion would be helped a lot by looking at a world map. There is no "North Atlantic" in central Asia. It is not in Eastern Europe, and definitely not in Afghanistan.

If the economic slowdown is an opportunity for two things:

A. It teaches the "value" of American-style capitalism to the former soviet block countries. For a long time they have believed the pie-in-the-sky argument that being "American" will solve all of their very local, very specific problems, arising out of geographic location and historical arc of progress.

B. It will help the US president, if he so chooses, to do a spring-cleaning of the old arsenals, both of outdated machines, as well as of outdated ideas. People need to move on from the "Soviets are coming" point of view. Encircling Russia serves no purpose. Long-range missiles are no cure for road-side bombs and suicide vests.

Time to move on, and the dual problems of the Iraq war and the collapse of Wall street, will finally provide fertile soil for the new seeds.

infoshop Author Profile Page:

Jan, I hope you will figure this out by now: it is easy to be the USA's enemy than be its friend.

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