US missile defence: right decision, wrong presentation

Scrapping the European missile defence system may well have been the right decision for American security. But this terribly-timed move will undermine future relationships with long-suffering Eastern European allies for very little benefit from the Russian bear.

By Jonathan Eyal, Director, International Security Studies, RUSI 

US President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap plans for missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic was not a great surprise. The new administration has never hidden its distaste of the Bush-era project - which it believed nobody needed, and which was based on technology nobody had proven, but still costing the kind of money nobody could afford.

And, in purely technical terms, the decision may be correct. A much more flexible system designed to intercept shorter-range incoming hostile missiles, and without entailing any territorial ‘footprint’ on European soil, not only makes greater sense, but also avoids a whole host of ancillary political problems. Furthermore, if as a result of scrapping the old project there is even a faint chance to improve relations with Russia, the US Administration would have been negligent in its duties not to try this option.

Nevertheless, the presentation of the US decision was awful, despite the best efforts in Washington. And the implications of this decision on America’s standing in Europe and on President Obama’s own security credentials may be far-reaching.

The Obama Administration was fully aware that, while abandoning the old missile defence project, it must not give the impression that Washington was caving in to Russian pressure. So, the announcement was couched in carefully-calibrated terms. The President explicitly rejected the Russian assertion that the old Bush-era plan was a threat to Russian security.

The White House also claimed that Russia did not figure ‘at all’ in its decision. And, for good measure, the initiative was also presented as a more inclusive approach: an old bilateral arrangement to site missile defence systems will be replaced with a NATO-wide umbrella, offering better security for all of America’s allies. Finally, Mr Obama also explicitly cited Article 5 of NATO’s North Atlantic Treaty, which pledges all of the Alliance’s members to collective defence. This was a roundabout way of saying that the decision should not be interpreted as diminishing in any way the commitment of the US to defend the European continent. So, Washington prepared its initiative quite carefully. But major problems remain.

Bad timing

The first one concerns the timing of the announcement. If improving relations with Russia was not the main concern, then why did the Administration not wait for a NATO-wide consensus on the new missile defence arrangements before announcing its new position? This consensus could have been forged in the coming months, and it could have been announced at the planned December meeting of NATO defence ministers. This would have given credibility to the American initiative: it would have proven that the US is serious about a European missile defence system, and determined to consult its European allies about the best solution.

So, why did Washington not wait? The simple answer, of course, is that – despite all the denials – Russia was very much on Obama’s mind. The US president is scheduled to meet with Dmitry Medvedev, his Russian counterpart, next week, and Washington obviously felt that the meeting would benefit from making the decision public now. Not bad thinking as far as US arms control negotiations are concerned, but not a particularly convincing performance for the Europeans.

Snubbing Eastern Europe

And then, there is the question of Eastern Europe. The Administration has shown no particular concern for the feelings of Poland and the Czech Republic. Neither of these two countries were particularly persuaded that President George W. Bush’s initial plan for missile defence was either very logical, or very workable. But the governments of both states expanded a great deal of political capital in pushing through the plan through their national parliaments. This was no mean feat: it is now forgotten that the Czech coalition government collapsed partly because of a dispute over the siting of the radar station on Czech soil.

Local politicians now feel let down by Washington’s change of heart; at the very least, they were owed a greater period of consultation, rather than just an early morning phone call from a US president who has already made up his mind. Obama used to criticise Bush’s unilateralism, but this is precisely what he has now done.

This slight for the pride and reputation of the East Europeans comes at the end of a long list of other snubs, all delivered since President Obama came into office. The US administration started by announcing its desire to ‘press the reset button’ on America’s strained links with Russia, without explaining what this meant. It then launched nuclear disarmament talks in Moscow, in almost total secrecy; not even the European nuclear powers – Britain and France – know what the Americans are currently discussing with the Russians and how far they have got in these negotiations. And, when Poland commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the start of Second World War earlier this month, all the important European leaders were present – including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – but the US had to be begged to send any representative. Washington’s initial plan was to send an old, retired Secretary of Defense as its envoy for this historic event.

Personnel appointments in Washington have aggravated the problems. Liz Sherwood-Randall, the newly-appointed official responsible for Europe in the National Security Council, is famous for originally opposing the inclusion of the East Europeans into the NATO alliance during the Clinton presidency. Furthermore, Obama’s initial promise to appoint ambassadors solely on merit was ignored: most of the US embassies in Eastern Europe went to the usual clutch of Obama’s existing electoral campaign donors, or to those who may be able to contribute funds to future Democratic electoral campaigns. If this means that Washington takes Eastern Europe seriously, then it is hard to see what neglect actually means.

Complicating the European security debate

But probably the biggest flaw is to be found in Washington’s expectations of potential benefits from this move. The Americans are clearly hoping that the concession to Russia would open up new venues of cooperation over disarmament talks and over future sanctions against Iran. Nothing of the kind is likely to be happen: the Russians have already reiterated their opposition to any fresh sanctions against Iran.

The Americans also hope that their concession would improve relations between Russia and Eastern Europe. But precisely the opposite is more likely: alarmed by the current developments, the East Europeans will adopt a much more circumspect approach to Russia. The plan to draft NATO’s new strategic concept will be complicated by Eastern Europe’s demands that the Alliance should concentrate on their territorial defence under Article 5, rather than on expeditionary operations or broader, out-of-area security concerns, precisely what neither Washington nor the Western allies want. And Moscow itself may be emboldened to become more insistent in its demand for a ‘new European architecture’, code-words for, essentially, a plan to change all the arrangements put in place at the end of the Cold War, arrangements which the Russians now resent.

In short, far from simplifying the security debate in Europe, the US decision is likely to complicate this further.

Washington hopes that all these problems are merely temporary, and can be sorted out fairly quickly. A visit by the US President to some East European capital, a pat on the back for the Polish prime minister or, say, the Lithuanian president, should be enough to smooth ruffled feathers.

Perhaps, but not very likely. For the message given to the East Europeans is stark, and it will be remembered: all those East European politicians who stuck by the US through thick and thin have been mistaken, and have little to show for their loyalty. In the future, Eastern Europe will start resembling Western Europe: a region which will remain friendly to the US, but which is unlikely to go out of its way to help America in all its international adventures. Mr Obama will quickly discover this new reality. And he will also discover that the East Europeans will start asking some searching questions about their continued contributions to Afghanistan. For, if the US does not appear to take Eastern Europe seriously, why should Eastern Europe take seriously all of America’s security concerns, thousands of miles away from the ‘old continent’?

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.



Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

View profile

Explore our related content