Missile defense: Postpone and re-evaluate

Translation Gwendolyn Albert

The European pillar of American national missile defense

The European (or “third”) pillar of missile defense is a planned component of the American national missile defense system, tasked with protecting the United States of America (and indirectly, their allies) from possible ballistic missile attack. The American missile defense system has been in development since the 1950s in various modifications, but it was not until the administration of the Republican President George W. Bush that it was expanded (President Clinton only supported a project for missile defense in combat - TMD). In 2001, the United States increased funding for missile defense and withdrew from the Soviet-American Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (the ABM treaty). That treaty, signed in 1972, restricted the distribution of missile defense capabilities.

In 2002, the USA began bilateral consultations with the Czech (Social Democratic) government on the possible positioning of a US radar station in the Czech Republic. The USA simultaneously initiated negotiations with Poland on the positioning of missile defense capabilities there. It is worth noting that initially Hungary was also considered as a possible host country for part of the American missile defense project. This sprinkling of US military bases throughout the countries of the former Warsaw Pact (as opposed to the concentration of these elements in a single country, such as a country with an already-existing US military base) testifies at the very least to a potential geopolitical factor in the American administration’s decision.

Green Party requirements

Green Party representatives in government were confronted with the official US proposal to include the Czech Republic in the American system of national missile defense on 19 January 2007, the same day the cabinet in which they were being newly seated received its vote of confidence in the Czech Parliament.

Not quite one month later, on 17 February 2007, the Green Party convention adopted its official stance on the US proposal. This stance embodies the conviction that “the strengthening of international security can only be achieved through the multilateral cooperation of the international community” and asks the Green members of government to “advocate in the Czech government for the requirement that the government discuss the creation of this defense system at the NATO Council and the Council of the EU and strive to develop a common stance on this issue” as well as to “advocate in the Czech government for the proposal of a negotiating position for the Czech government which will seek a binding guarantee from the US government that the radar defense system will be incorporated into the command and control structures of NATO.”

Most Czech experts agree (and this has been confirmed by many working for the US administration) that it was the tireless stance of the Green Party that resulted in a turnaround in the American negotiation strategy on the third pillar. The Czech executive branch gained an opportunity and a strong argument through which it managed to convince the Americans of the advantages of a multilateral approach as opposed to a purely bilateral negotiation on the third pillar, combining the American system with the comprehensive missile defense planned within the NATO framework. It is no exaggeration to say that the USA adjusted its stance on foreign and security policy on the basis of these Green Party requirements.

Debate in the Czech Republic

The public debate on American missile defense and the radar base is primarily distinguished by a high degree of emotionality, which has polarized both camps (opponents and supporters) to the detriment of any factual or pragmatic discussion. Extreme anti-Americanism has been clashing with an obstinate Russophobia, while naïve pacifism has contrasted with a messianic faith in brute force. Too often the arguments for and against the radar refer to the past, in order to avail themselves of every conceivable trauma from Czech history, instead of responsibly analyzing the present and the future.

Just like in Poland, in the Czech Republic the subject of this debate has become Russia, not the alleged threat posed by the so-called “rogue” states against the American system as officially primarily intended. Supporters of the radar perceive a possible American presence on Czech territory as a very valuable security guarantee and as the pinnacle of the country’s post-communist transformation, anchoring it in the West. Opponents of the radar, on the other hand, reject any close (or superfluous) connection of Czech foreign policy with one or the other superpower. For historical reasons, supporters of the radar do not trust security guarantees coming from the European continent and point to the non-existence of a common European security policy, while opponents of the radar believe that membership in NATO alone, and indirectly EU membership, is sufficient to guarantee the country’s security. In addition to security questions, of course, the view of each camp differs as to the existence or urgency of the declared threats; the technical effectiveness of the system as a whole; the radar’s effect on public health; concerns over accelerating the global arms race, including concerns over the militarization of space; and the future of a common European foreign, security and defense policy.

NATO, EU and Russia

While most of the Czech media interpreted the conclusions of the NATO Bucharest summit as a “green light for the radar”, the truth is that the two relevant paragraphs of the Bucharest communiqué on missile defense are rather vague and can be analyzed and understood in contradictory ways. The fact that the allies were not and are not completely united on the matter of the third pillar was indicated by the difficulty with which the phrase “substantial contribution” was negotiated (regarding the benefit the planned third pillar represents for the allies’ defense). The text of the communiqué basically postponed the political decision on the degree to which the third pillar of American missile defense will be incorporated into the NATO architecture until the April summit in 2009 or (most likely) even later.

While a discussion on the third pillar did take place within NATO (albeit a delayed and limited one, more a report to the allies on the progress in the bilateral talks) there was no discussion of it at the Council of the EU at all and therefore no position taken. Allegedly there was no debate because questions related to defense fall fully within the jurisdiction of the Member States, even through Articles 11 and 16 of the European Union Treaty state that EU Member States “shall refrain from any action which is contrary to the interests of the Union or likely to impair its effectiveness as a cohesive force in international relations” and that “Member States shall inform and consult one another within the Council on any matter of foreign and security policy of general interest in order to ensure that the Union's influence is exerted as effectively as possible by means of concerted and convergent action.”

All EU institutional activities on the matter of the third pillar were concentrated at the European Parliament, which held debates, commissioned studies, issued several resolutions on the American plans, and tirelessly called on the Council to involve itself with this subject. It has to be said that the end result of the parliamentary debates, studies and resolutions was ambivalent to say the least, tending towards the negative with respect to the existing format of the missile defense concept. At the EU-US summit on 10 June 2008, US President George W. Bush submitted a proposal to EU representatives for summit conclusions in which the EU would explicitly welcome the American intention to locate missile defense elements in Central Europe, only to encounter an ambiguous response from the EU which resulted in the third pillar not being mentioned at all in the final version of the conclusions.

The Russian reaction to the American plans must be perceived to a certain extent within the context of the “new” Russian foreign policy. While it is true that Russian concerns over the impact of the planned form of the third pillar – i.e., 10 missiles in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic – on Russia’s strategic nuclear force are baseless, that is not the case with regard to their concerns over the future form of the American system, which could undergo significant expansion and improvement. Such concerns are even more legitimate for China, which currently boasts less than 30 ICBMs.

Here the concern is not so much the threat of the arms race spiraling out of control as of competition in the modernization and technical advance of the nuclear arsenals of the various superpowers, including the transfer of weapons systems into space (a step which is currently taboo and which would have very negative results in future).

The way in which the USA communicates and negotiates on missile defense with Russia (and by extension with the broader international community) is even more important in that it can either create or remove pretexts for Russia to withdraw from various important treaties, to fail to renew them, or to be unwilling to satisfactorily negotiate them, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The international tension surrounding American intentions in the area of missile defense will be reflected in the talks at the evaluation conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010.

Postpone and re-evaluate

The new US administration of Barack Obama will not reverse American foreign policy as far as missile defense is concerned (all the more so in that the Secretary of Defense will remain, for a short time at least, Robert Gates, who is a backer of this project). However, the future president is more cautious on missile defense, primarily with regard to its effectiveness, which has yet to be confirmed. Because the US Congress significantly reduced the financing allocated to constructing the third pillar at the end of last year, it can be expected that the development and eventual location of the entire system will be postponed for several years. The global financial crisis will definitely also require the redirection of defense expenditures into other areas of the budget. The April NATO summit will evaluate various options for the possible incorporation of the third pillar into the NATO architecture. It would be illogical for the Czech Republic to anticipate developments and make a statement on a project which at the current time should be considered premature, if not uncertain.

The conclusions of the NATO summit in Bucharest recognize the existence of a threat from the proliferation of ballistic weapons. However, they also underscore that missile defense is only part of a “broader response” to this threat. Naturally, the proliferation of ballistic weapons in and of itself represents a real threat should accompany nuclear weapon proliferation. In this connection, we must ask what the relationship is between missile defense and preventing nuclear proliferation. We must also ask whether we have truly done the maximum possible to ensure that international non-proliferation treaties are effective and that nuclear disarmament occurs rapidly, or whether effective diplomatic and communications channels have been opened with those countries which have been labeled as problematic. We must weigh all the pros and cons which the American plans involve, especially the danger of the militarization of space, which features in the original Republican strategy entitled “Brilliant Pebbles” and which currently has both its supporters and opponents across the American political spectrum. Last but not least, we must ask whether it is really necessary to invest billions of dollars into a system to foil threats which in the modern world will most probably materialize as small, violent actions using primitive (but frighteningly lethal) technology, not as ICBM strikes.

Missile defense does not address the causes of international tension and does not address terrorism at all. The causes are, primarily:  Unequal access to and unfair distribution of natural resources; the dependency of economic growth on non-renewable resources; great economic and social disparities; unfair trade policies; human rights violations; the feeling amongst the inhabitants of some countries that they are being abused, violated, or forgotten by the rest of the world; ethnic, religious and cultural intolerance; lack of education; lack of freedom; and many other causes, including the psycho-emotional reasons that lead people to commit desperate acts.

For the time being it seems the future American administration will have a more sophisticated and less reactionary approach to solving international problems than its predecessor. It should primarily concentrate its energy on addressing the real roots of international tensions and strengthening the multilateral dimension of its relations towards international regimes, treaties, laws and principles. Missile defense does not have to be repudiated a priori, but it should be moved to the research and development phase, and the time prior to its eventual unveiling should be used for a more intensive effort in the area of international diplomacy, negotiating both the future of missile defense and its relevance for addressing actual security threats. It is also essential that the European Union finally begin to concern itself with this matter and send the signal that it does have a foreign policy that is genuinely common to all its members.

The author is the Minister of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic and the First Deputy-Chair of the Czech Green Party