Why Europe Needs Star Wars

Obama's bid to scale back Eastern European missile defense systems is meant to ease tensions with Russia while protecting against Iranian aggression -- but in fact it just threatens regional security.

Johannes Simon/Getty Images
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Late last month, a Polish newspaper revealed that the Barack Obama administration plans to discontinue the deployment of U.S. ballistic missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. In their place, the White House reportedly wants to build a modified, short-range version of the program in the Balkans or Turkey. This relocation, the administration assumes, will assuage Russian concerns while continuing to provide an effective defense against the threat of Iran’s growing missile program. Proponents of such a move argue that the result will be increased Russian cooperation abroad, newfound favor with anti-shield Western European allies, and — best of all — freedom to divert U.S. attention from Europe’s contentious east to bigger problems elsewhere.

If the administration is aware of the political costs of this new approach, it seems to think they will be limited to a minor abrasion in U.S.-Polish and U.S.-Czech relations — to be cleared up easily with some careful PR and a consolation prize. After all, what are a few hurt feelings among two small allies compared with improved relations with Moscow? Isn’t the prospect of a "reset" relationship with Russia worth the cost of U.S. disengagement from Central Europe in general and backpedaling on missile defense in particular?

Actually, no. These costs are very real, and they stretch well beyond PR to involve primary, long-term U.S. strategic interests. Consider just these four:

1. A destabilized eastern flank. Since the Russian invasion of Georgia, Central European countries have found themselves sitting on a reactivated strategic frontier. Missile defense assuages their predicament by providing visible evidence of U.S. security patronage– evidence they would be less eager to obtain if NATO had created contingency plans for the region’s defense in the 1990s. Scrapping the shield won’t make the regional insecurity complex go away; it will simply manifest itself in louder demands for NATO territorial defense, increased regional defense spending, and access to advanced U.S. weapons systems — all of which are just as likely to provoke Russian ire as missile defense.

2. A more contentious NATO. There is a widespread belief that a U.S. backtrack on missile defense would reduce friction within NATO by mollifying anti-shield members such as Germany. Actually, it will only divert Central European political energy into the pursuit of new and perhaps more controversial forms of reassurance. Imagine the German response to a Polish call for higher defense outlays or a Baltic request to move NATO bases eastward. In addition, the potential alternatives for the missile defense sites are limited and the administration’s plan might require that facilities be constructed in countries, such as Germany, where public opinion is even more opposed to missile defense. The net effect is more, not less, tension in an already strained alliance.

3. An emboldened Russia. Moscow is unlikely to interpret a repositioning of missile defense the way Obama hopes — as a trust-building measure to incentivize Russian cooperation on other fronts. Instead, Russian leaders will learn a simple lesson: that when America and its allies are threatened, Washington backs down. Already, Russia has watched as the Obama administration has softened U.S. support for Georgia and backed off the push for Ukrainian membership in NATO. A third retreat in less than a year would likely trigger the typical Russian response to retreat: additional aggression. A Moscow that sees its repeated demands for a sphere of influence met tacitly today will be bolder in pushing for recognition of that sphere explicitly tomorrow.

4. Cheapened alliances. Perhaps the severest long-term cost of the new plan will be its effect on America’s alliances. On a per capita basis, the Poles and Czechs have provided greater material and political support for U.S. policies than most U.S. allies twice their size, giving the lie to the old argument that NATO’s newest members would become free riders on U.S. security. Leaving pro-shield politicians holding the bag could lead other Atlanticist leaders to think twice before taking political risks on America’s behalf — not only in Central Europe, but in other small and mid-size states, including those threatened by rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

For all of these reasons, relocating missile defense away from Central Europe would not serve U.S. interests. For more than two years, leaders in Warsaw and Prague have labored, in good faith and often through difficult negotiations, to provide secure and politically reliable territory on which to build a missile defense system that would protect U.S. allies and enhance U.S. homeland security. Nothing would do more to erode America’s international credibility than the appearance of the U.S. president alongside Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the U.N. meeting later this month in New York announcing a gentleman’s agreement to relocate missile defense.

Like every other occasion in which the United States has forsaken Central Europe in pursuit of great-power bargains, such a move would set in motion geopolitical consequences that U.S. diplomats will still be working to undo a decade from now. Before Obama takes this precipitous step, let’s hope that he will pause to contemplate the costs.

A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.

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