Mitt Romney and the experts close to his presidential campaign have repeatedly proclaimed that Barack Obama abandoned the US's close allies in Central and Eastern Europe when "scrapping" the Bush-era missile defence plans and resetting Washington's relations with Moscow. How important this argument in Romney's tactic of attacking the current US security policy is, coincides with the fact that Romney chose to visit Poland along with Israel and Great Britain during his overseas trip at the end of July. It is nothing new that Obama's redefined missile defence plan faces criticism from the Republicans, who use it as a platform to accuse the current administration of being too generous towards Russia at the expense of the post-communist NATO allies in the region. But did Obama really abandon Central Europe by replacing the Bush-era missile plan with an alternative project?
Let's start answering this question by asking why Poland actually agreed to host parts of a missile defence system on its soil. European refusal of the American missile defence would, for Washington, imply the following consequences: a loss of interest for strong security cooperation with Europe and the decision to instead build the missile defence on its own territory (which is possible considering the technical functionality of the system but tied to much higher costs). Logically, America would then withdraw its soldiers from Europe. This would lead to the dissolution of NATO because Europe's non-cooperation would be understood as clear confirmation of incompatible threat perceptions between the US and Europe, thereby destroying the last reason for the NATO alliance to exist at all.
In this case, i.e. without American protection, Europe would become largely insecure because of insufficient security capabilities. Since Europe would have to carry the negative security balance itself after the withdrawal of American soldiers, this would lead to attempts at major rearmament across Europe. Furthermore, if the US function as an external balancing power in Europe disappeared, the great European powers would become unbalanced, and the question would become: how will they behave toward each other? Would Germany strive to obtain nuclear weapons? Worries about the security and defence capabilities of the EU and the sense of responsibility for boosting these capabilities, could give Berlin a plausible justification for this decision. In turn, an unbalanced Russia would enhance the threat perception in the post-communist states as well as in Sweden, Norway and Finland. Ultimately, because of the absence of US protection, Poland, with its sandwich-position between Germany and Russia, would fall again in the insecure, grey zone.
However, if Poland's external survival depends on the continuous presence of the US in Europe as a stability power, and if the refusal of the American missile shield would cause the withdrawal of American soldiers from Europe, then the decision of the Polish government to host the missile defence should be seen as the optimal alternative Poland could choose. Consequently, from the perspective of Polish security, it makes little difference whether the missile defence system ultimately will be a part of a national US or a common NATO missile defence system. Rather, the most important thing is that while the US shifts strategic attention toward Asia and removes soldiers and weapons from Europe, the missile defence system will anchor it militarily in Europe again. Additionally, according to Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, Poland can expect an increasing number of US soldiers deployed on its territory. Instead of setting up a base with 10 ground-based interceptors on Polish territory, as stated in the agreement from August 2008, improved versions of the U.S. Navy's Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) will probably be placed there.
Since Poland, as a result of its troubled geopolitical position, has learnt to think about international relations in categories of Realpolitik, it could not be very concerned about the reset between Washington and Moscow either. Regardless of more or less figurative rhetoric between the USA and Russia, the current distribution of power as well as incompatible interests in many regions of the world do not allow the two great powers to eschew a competitive approach. So far the Obama administration has softened its rhetoric towards Russia without making any major concessions; Poland has, therefore, nothing to worry about.
In sum, Romney's assumption that Poland has become especially disappointed with America during Obama's presidency does not seem to be right. Whether Romney may be aware of this or not, he will not forgo accusing his Democratic rival of favoring Russia at costs of US allies in Central Europe. Rather, he is going to make this argument one of the central issues in a final debate in the election campaign over the future course of US foreign policy.
Dr. Daria W. Dylla is a senior researcher and a teacher at the Institute for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne. She specializes in the European Foreign and Security Policy, transatlantic relations, and theories of International Relations.