Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For the Benefit of All

U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the deployment of a silo-based missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic represents one of those rare cases when a decision meets the interests of all players. Many commentators hurried to portray the Kremlin as the biggest benefactor. Indeed, after the decision, the silo-based interceptors will not be deployed just dozens of kilometers away from the Russian border. And there is no longer the threat that the silos could be transformed into launch pads for surface-to-surface medium-range ballistic missiles with the capability to hit Moscow within minutes from liftoff. Some people are even expressing concern that such a big unilateral decision by the United States might be interpreted as an indicator of U.S. weakness and provoke a more belligerent policy by Russia.

It would be certainly wrong to deny that the Russians have good reason to celebrate. The decision, however, was made by a U.S. administration whose first consideration is American interests.

Even in the planning stages, the now-abandoned missile defense system hurt trans-Atlantic ties by placing enormous pressure on individual U.S. allies in Europe and provoking a new split within the European Union. Some observers say that the lieutenants of former U.S. President George W. Bush intentionally decided to deploy the system — widely criticized for being based on unproven technology and aimed against nonexistent threats — to drive a wedge between Old and New Europe in order to control the emerging EU giant.

Therefore, the Obama administration made an important reconciliatory gesture to its European allies by abandoning Bush’s plans to deploy the missile defense shield through bilateral agreements and by circumventing NATO, the cornerstone of the United States’ influence on the world. Instead of following the obsolete — and self-damaging  — “divide and rule” strategy of the Bush era, Obama has promised to follow a multilateral approach in his administration’s missile defense policy and will probably abandon attempts to undermine the EU. Therefore, like the Russians, European federalists in Paris, Berlin and Brussels have good reason to pop open the champagne. In a rare coincidence, NATO’s leadership joined them in celebrating.

It is true that the Poles and, to a lesser extent, the Czechs deserve sympathy in their complaints about being mistreated by the United States. Why did Obama call the Czech prime minister at 1 a.m. to inform him about the decision? Did the White House staff not know about the six-hour time difference between Washington and Prague? Or did it simply not care about inconveniencing the leaders of that small country?

On a more serious note, Warsaw and Prague received an important lesson on the danger of building political leverage on a negative agenda — trying to capitalize on playing one friend (Washington) against another (Brussels). Bilateral relations can change direction very quickly, and there might simply not be enough time to reap the desired fruits of the friendship. Moreover, it can take years if not decades to win back one’s damaged reputation and respect.

Quite frankly, the Poles and other Central Europeans won with Obama’s decision. The end of the United States’ “divide and conquer” strategy helped them avoid the awkward position of being accused of being the Bush administration’s Trojan horse inside the European Union at a time when their best hopes for development and prosperity are firmly associated with the EU and subsidies funded by the union’s taxpayers. From now on, they have a better environment — and motivation — to build their European identity.

The missile defense drama is not over yet. Warsaw wants “compensation,” including the deployment of U.S. troops on its territory. Together with other countries, it has launched a campaign against the possible withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. It is unlikely that these efforts will improve Poland’s security. The emergence of any new weapons and troops near Russia’s borders would not go unanswered by Moscow. We can only hope that the debate around the Bush missile defense system in Europe has provided a sufficient antidote against repeating the dangerous mistakes of the past there.

Alexander A. Pikayev is a security analyst with the Institute for International Affairs and Global Economy.