This week, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg will visit Washington. During the trip, Schwarzenberg is expected to repeat his request, made two weeks ago, for a US security agreement in exchange for hosting anti-ballistic missile radar sites on Czech soil. Critics claim the agreement would sideline NATO and antagonize Moscow, which has threatened to target any former satellites that participate in the Missile Defense System (MDS). But on both counts, a renewed US pledge to NATO’s smallest and most exposed eastern members has the potential to do more good than harm.
First, US officials need not worry about undermining NATO. As one senior Czech official told the author, “We have full confidence in Article 5…[but] common sense tells us increased cooperation with the United States…in fields not covered by NATO may be necessary.” What Prague appears to want is an enhanced cooperation agreement similar to those that Washington has with Britain and Denmark, which also host US defense sites. Far from diluting NATO, these arrangements push member relations toward a higher plane of practical cooperation—a direction in which the Alliance as a whole should be moving.
Second, while it may provoke Russian complaints in the short-term, a US-Czech agreement could reduce overall tension by demonstrating the depth of Washington’s strategic commitment to its allies in the region. Such a statement is long overdue. When Russian generals threatened in February to aim missiles at Warsaw and Prague if they participated in MDS, NATO failed to adequately respond. This prompted the Czechs to look—as Schwarzenberg said—for “an affirmation of the alliance.” Any reluctance on Washington’s part to provide such an affirmation would only fuel regional anxiety and embolden Moscow to push harder next time.
But Russia would not be the only intended audience for the new agreement. In negotiations with Prague, Washington can establish a standard package for what it will provide other fellow-travelers in the MDS program. This could help in dealings with Warsaw, where some officials want an elaborate package of US concessions that includes a 1930s-style mutual defense treaty, antimissile batteries, and—allegedly—a cash payment of $200 million. By contrast, Prague’s concept could eventually be extended to other Alliance members as part of a joint US-NATO missile system.
In the end, Washington’s request for sites faces as much of a challenge in the notoriously fickle Czech and Polish parliaments as does funding for the system in the US Congress. Regardless of what happens to the shield itself, however, adding another NATO member to the shortlist of Washington’s most trusted allies while meeting the mutual US-Czech desire for closer defense cooperation would be well worth the trouble, for both sides.
Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe.
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