So the missile shield was a Polish and Czech project, huh?
The U.S. decision not to build a missile defence system in central Europe is inevitably seen as caving in to Moscow and seriously damaging relations with some of America’s staunchest allies in the new democracies in Europe. The date of the announcement, the 70th anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland on 17th September 1939, provides for extra drama, symbolism and pathos which will be in full display in the days following this momentous announcement.
Let’s not get carried away though. What is certainly true is that America’s standing with two allies, the Poles and the Czechs, will be hurt – they were subject to huge pressure to accept the shield and paid the price for doing so by seeing their relations with Moscow and some European allies deteriorate. They will certainly be even more careful next time and Washington may forget about the two countries joining any future “coalition of the willing” with ANY U.S. administration.
But in reality, the damage for the central Europeans is not huge and the suggestions that the lack of the shield on their soil weakens their position versus Moscow is plain throwback to strategic thinking a la Cold War.
In military sense, the shield was never going to be any protection against Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal. Its value for the Poles and the Czechs was mainly political, reinforcing already good bilateral ties with the United States.
But let’s not forget that the shield was not a Polish or Czech pet project – it was a U.S. idea right from the start. As a matter of fact there has been plenty of opposition to the shield from the public and politicians across central Europe including Poland and the Czech Republic where sizeable majorities were against. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was at best lukewarm on it and if he may have any regrets about the shield today, it will be that he gave his reluctant consent in the dying days of the Bush administration.
Second, it is definitely wrong to assume that any improvement in ties between the United States and Russia must be bad for central Europe. It does not have to be a zero sum game, and in fact a better tone between Russia and America may result in less tension between Moscow and the Poles and Czechs. Is it really going to be so bad for central Europe if for example it will be easier now for Moscow and Washington to strike an agreement on reducing nuclear arms?
So although Moscow will be triumphant that no U.S. military installation will appear on its former turf, it will only be a symbolic victory. The end result will be that the Poles and other central Europeans will be incentivised to see the European Union rather than the United States as the main vehicle for dealing with Russia or any other major international issue. The Poles have already begun the process of trying to find common ground with Russia, a fact that should enable it to shed the image of the EU’s Russophobe-in-chief, which in the past limited its ability to influence EU policy.
So if there is a symbolic dimension to the demise of the missile defence project it is that it sends to a well deserved resting place Donald Rumsfeld’s concept of the “old” and “new” Europe. It will be symbolic because the dismantling of the ”special” relationship between the former Soviet satellites with the United States, which was visible in their overwhelming support for the war in Iraq, has been going on for quite a while. It a natural consequence of the “new” Europeans becoming part of the European Union mainstream. Twenty years after communism collapsed, they are no longer special care nations requiring some kind of parental love from the United States. What they need is a normal relationship with Washington, similar to that enjoyed by other smaller U.S. allies in Europe such as the Netherlands or Denmark. The Poles and the Czechs need to think hard about what this new relationship should be about and the Obama administration would be well advised to make sure it makes the first step in this direction to calm things down. So in a sense, the end of the missile project may be a catalyst for re-forging of ties along perhaps less romantic and emotional but more pragmatic and natural lines. The end result may be a win-win for Europe and the United States, which sometimes appeared torn between a desire to see a strong united Europe and a temptation to divide the Europeans and play them against each other. It is clear that the former was and will be the better option for the West.