Undermining NATO Cohesion

Post Global, the “collaborative, global” Washington Post blog moderated by David Ignatious and Fareed Zakaria, has posted a smart essay articulating what is likely the next iteration of responses to Obama’s secret letter to Moscow. Written by Jan Jires of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, the essay focuses on the very real repercussions to U.S. diplomacy in abandoning the planned missile defense project in Central Europe.

It has always been clear that the real challenge posed to Russia by the missile defense installations in Central Europe is not of a military character, as the Russian government officially argues, but of a purely symbolic character. Russians are frustrated by the fact they are no longer treated as a veto-wielding actor in Central European affairs. They also know that the Czech and Polish governments want to participate in the project in order to strengthen their ties with the U.S., to anchor America in Central European security, and to demonstrate that their countries are not, at least politically, in “Russia’s backyard.”

It makes little sense to quarrel about how this paradigm shift occurred. The real challenge now is: In case the Obama administration decides to abandon the project, it should do so cleverly and manage the process in a way that secures the political interests of the United States and its Central European allies.

There are two important things at stake. The first is the traditionally Atlanticist orientation of Central European allies. The second is the future of Russia’s foreign policy, especially in the country’s vicinity.

In the past two years, the Polish and Czech governments haveinvested tremendous political capital in supporting the missile defenseproject despite skeptical public opinion at home and distrustfulpartners in the EU and NATO. Following Czech, Polish and Americanlobbying, NATO unanimously, though rather vaguely, endorsed missiledefense as contributing to the alliance’s security. Last summer, aftercomplicated and politically risky negotiations, both governments signedbilateral agreements with the United States allowing it to deploymissile defense components.

As a result of this prominence, abandoning the missile defense planin a politically insensitive way can undermine not only these twostrongly pro-American governments but also the very credibility of theUnites States as an ally. Countries are supposed to pursue foreignpolicies with certain degree of continuity, the very minimum beinghonoring formal commitments made by preceding governments – or beingable to manage policy changes in such a way that they are notinterpreted by friends and foes alike as selling out valuable allies.Mismanaging the demise of the missile defense project could deliver afatal blow to Central European Atlanticism or, if you like,pro-Americanism.

The Obama administration must also avoid any impression that byscraping the missile defense installations the United States tacitlyacknowledges Russia’s veto power over the foreign policies of CentralEuropean NATO members. That could fatally damage NATO’s cohesion aswell as the U.S. leadership role in the alliance.