U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that he will scrap the existing missile shield program in Europe has triggered an impassioned controversy.
“Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back,” read the headline of a Polish daily. A number of Republicans have accused the president of appeasement towards Russia, which strongly opposed the planned deployment of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and radar sites in the Czech Republic.
The president, his secretary of defense and his secretary of state have all said that this change has nothing to do with Russia, and is simply the result of evolving missile defense technology.
Iran is still quite far from developing the long-range missile capabilities that would allow it to strike at European targets, which the previous program was supposed to protect.
On the other hand, its technology in short-and medium-range missiles seems to be quite advanced, allowing it to reach Israel and as far as Turkey.
Thus the decision to replace that U.S. missile shield program — with a cost of up to $ 4 billion U.S., with a technology many considered unproven, against a non-existing threat — with a more flexible, sea-based one. Many observers question the reliability of the ground-based interceptors that were to be deployed in Poland, whereas the sea-based Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) that will replace them seems more trustworthy. One of them downed a non-working U.S. spy satellite in February 2008.
One can understand why Obama and his aides would make the argument they make. The last thing they need is to be accused of being soft on Russia and of not keeping their eye on Iran. Yet, the incensed Czech and Polish reaction (unlikely targets of an already unlikely Iranian attack — we are getting deep into Fantasyland here) show something else.
The discarded U.S. missile shield defence program was as much a sop to disgruntled East and Central European allies as anything else. Not surprisingly, it received a strong impetus after the Russia-Georgia war last year, though the latter had nothing to do with Iran.
The true significance of ending this program lies elsewhere. It signals a switch from the persistent policy to encircle Russia that has been followed by the West since the end of the Cold War.
A key factor for ensuring long-term peace after a war ends is how victors treat the vanquished. The difference in how Germany was treated after the First World War and how it was treated after the Second World War is revealing. Meanness or generosity towards the defeated have different effects.
The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Yet, far from looking for ways to facilitate Russia’s transition as a former superpower to a lesser role, the West seemed bent on pushing Russia to the wall.
If the fact of keeping NATO alive after the very purpose of its existence (to counter Soviet communism) had disappeared was not bad enough, this was compounded by the alliance’s aggressive expansion into Eastern and Central Europe.
The notion that having almost all of Russia’s former Warsaw Pact partners join NATO should not be seen as an unfriendly act by Moscow — since the leopard had now “changed its spots,” and NATO has supposedly become something else — is difficult to grasp.
Initially, President George H.W. Bush committed not to pursue this expansion further and promised president Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not seek the membership of former Warsaw Pact members, let alone former Soviet Republics — something which the U.S. has labelled a “misunderstanding.” Yet, the dynamics of the “colour revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, in which their democratization went hand in hand with a strong anti-Russian attitude and a concomitant demand to join NATO, quickly left any such commitments behind.
Thus, a veritable “pincer movement” in which the former superpower saw itself surrounded on most of its western borders by former allies turned vocal antagonists, took place. The ante was upped even further with the now-scrapped missile defence system to be based in Poland and in the Czech Republic.
The notion that a former superpower can be denied its own sphere of influence (as evidenced by the setting up of U.S. military bases in Central Asia, the eastward expansion of NATO and the ignoring of Russia’s and Serbia’s stated preferences on Kosovo) has lain at the bedrock of a western policy toward Russia that showed little foresight and even less prudence.
Bringing Russia back into an international system in which Moscow does not see itself under constant harassment and encirclement from the West, but rather as a legitimate and fully respected member, would be one potential outcome of this policy change in the European missile shield.
Though only a first step, it has much going for it.
Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).