President Obama yesterday announced that the United States would scrap its planned deployment of a sophisticated missile defence system in Eastern Europe.
The move had been predicted for some time but the clumsy timing of the announcement was not missed by many, coming on September 17th, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland in 1939.
The move had been anticipated following President Obama’s letter to Dmitry Medvedev in early 2009 implied that a United States missile defence may be rendered unnecessary if Russia were to drop its intransigent opposition to sanctions against Iran. This was therefore simply further tangible action in ‘pushing the reset button’ on relations with Russia.
Alongside the aim of securing Russian cooperation in tackling the Iranian regime, there are numerous additional short term benefits to abandoning the so called ‘son of Star Wars system’ - a project that has been around since the Reagan presidency. Its cost in the middle of the global recession are difficult to justify and questions over its use in Americas conflict against the Taliban and insurgents within Iraq are just a few of the immediate concerns about the project.
However, the move by the White House seems short sighted and naïve when viewed in terms of the potential threats developing in the coming decades and the ever increasing significance of Eastern European allies in the face of Russian hegemony in the region.
The missile defence system was to consist of two key military installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Both nations have long sought to unshackle themselves from Russian influence and establish themselves as secure states. It was this rationale that led Poland and the Czech Republic to sign deals with the United States immediately following the war between Russia and Georgia over the renegade republic South Ossetia.
Many ‘transatlanticist’ politicians in both nations invested vast amounts of political capital to support the programme, which developed during the height of the Bush administrations international unpopularity. To facilitate the agreement, politicians from both nations weathered strong domestic criticism. According to Foreign Policy Magazine around 70 percent of Czechs opposed the idea of hosting the radar system for the missile shield and the final treaty faced strong opposition in parliament.
The Czech and Polish governments saw the presence of a U.S. facility on their soil as a bulwark against an assertive Russia and an extension of US protection as a reward for their loyalty in the war on terrorism. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski expressed his nations disappointment when, during a visit to Washington, he remarked that “we paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia” adding that he expected the United States to honour the commitment.
The change in policy will raise fresh doubts over American commitment to Eastern Europe; will the continent now feel able to resist pressure from the Kremlin, whether it is in military matters or in the supply of oil and gas? The jubilation felt in Moscow would certainly suggest that Russia may begin reasserting its authority in what President Dmitry Medvedev has described as a sphere of Russian “privileged interests”.
President Obama has claimed that the plans have been shelved due to the downgrading of the threat from Iran. However, an April report of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center noted that "with sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015."
Others have claimed that technological limitations trump any grand international plans, arguing that the weaponry is ineffective and untested. However, recent tests have shown that 37 of 46 intercepts have been successfully completed in realistic conditions since 2001 by land-mobile, sea-based and silo-based interceptors. After such results, there is no reason to believe the European elements would not work as planned.
The United States maintains that it is committed to ensuring that no nation feels the need to develop nuclear weapons. But this stand must be made from a position of strength. It must be made clear that resources spent on nuclear weapons and missiles will be wasted because the U.S. possesses both the means and the will to block them.
But above all the plans should not be abandoned simply to adapt to current military challenges. In 1999 the United States biggest security challenge was instability in the Balkans. Just a decade later it finds itself embroiled in conflict on numerous fronts against a hidden Islamic terrorist network. To delay or dismantle plans for a sophisticated defence system on the premise that current security threats do not warrant the investment is short sighted. If America is to maintain its military supremacy it needs to be able to defend itself against hostile states in the future. The idea that the military of the U.S. will remain preoccupied with rag tag militant groups rather than state-to-state conflicts in the foreseeable future does not stand up to historical precedent.
At best the change in policy will warm relations with Russia and squeeze Iranian ambitions. But at worst President Obama has denied America a strategic trump card that could have secured its military supremacy for decades to come, making it better able to contain hostile states in the future. Of course, only time will tell.