Despite voices of dismay on both sides of the Atlantic, President Obama’s decision to scrap the plans for a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic surprised no one. Already during the election campaign then-candidate Obama made it clear he was going to seriously reconsider the idea, which really just meant one thing. On many levels the American withdrawal from the shield project was an upsetting move – but it also brought a moment of much needed clarity.
In a way, Washington’s decision was a relief for governments in Warsaw and Prague, ending months of tortured political maneuvers to nominally keep the door open for cooperation on the shield while simultaneously downplaying the implications of its likely cancellation. Another uncomfortable aspect of that maneuvering was the fact that the majority of Poles and Czechs remained reticent about the shield, the commitment of their respective government to the project notwithstanding.
If anybody is to blame for that prolonged stalemate, it was the Bush administration. Bush never clearly explained the rationale or feasibility of this undertaking and urged America’s Central European allies to commit to it knowing full well that a) it would antagonize Russia, and b) the necessary support didn’t exist in the States. As a result, the final call was left up to the skeptical new White House team and in the meantime both Poland and the Czech Republic were left in a state of limbo.
For all those reasons Obama’s decision to take the shield off life support was a good thing. How it was implemented – and how that augurs for the future – is a different story. The person who picked the date of the announcement must have been the same one who chose a DVD collection as a gift for Gordon Brown. By backing out of the defense deal on September 17, the 70th anniversary of Soviet Russia’s invasion of Poland at the beginning of WWII, the U.S. touched a nerve recalling a moment in history when, not for the first or the last time, that part of Europe was thrown under the bus by the West.
It is not Obama’s decision on the shield per se that did the damage. What’s truly troubling is the Administration’s utter lack of understanding of Central Europe’s history and contemporary aspirations it demonstrated. That does not bode well for the future. Apart from picking almost any other date to make the announcement, Washington should have coupled it with concrete commitments to reassure Poland and the Czech Republic that although the tactic may be changing, the goal remains the same: an equal and respectful security partnership. The standard restating of Article V and vague language about some future cooperation on a revamped missile defense system just won’t do.
A dangerous precedent of appeasing Russia at the cost of Central Europe has been set. If it morphs into a de facto veto power over what military installations may or may not be present in the new NATO member countries, the Alliance will become meaningless. A weak NATO fundamentally undermines not just the security of the region but also the vital national interest of the United States.
So where do we go from here? Faith in Obama’s ability to foster a trusted security relationship with Central Europe has been deeply shaken and the administration doesn’t seem to give a clear indication that it really cares. Distracted by Afghanistan, Iraq, health care reform, economic meltdown, and a host of other pressing issues, the White House has clearly relegated Central Europe to the back burner. Through the mishandling of the missile shield fiasco, the Obama administration has alienated its staunchest allies in Europe in exchange for a dubious future payoff in its relationship with Russia. The time to make amends and change the tone of a rapidly souring relationship with the Central European allies is now.
Anna Nadgrodkiewicz is a member of Washington DC-based American Polish Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing issues of significance to the United States and Poland in the 21st century.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Greg Randolph Lawson: Obama Abandoning Eastern Europe
- Marek Swierczynski: Poland's Policy Setbacks Should Steer it Back Toward the EU
- Expert Survey: A Future With Russia As a Strategic Partner?