Last month, the American President, Barack Obama, shelved a project to build permanent installations for ballistic missile interceptor rockets in Poland and the Czech Republic. The aim of this system was to protect the American homeland from being attacked by a limited number of ballistic missiles from the Middle East – namely Iran. While the technology remains in its infancy, it has come on a long way since Ronald Reagan’s administration proposed ‘Star Wars’ in the early 1980s, a space-based system whose aim was to render the Soviet nuclear arsenal permanently redundant. While such fantasies were way out of reach at the time, the development of powerful computers has since made possible the necessary calculations needed in order to launch, direct and hit a ballistic missile with an even quicker vehicle, travelling many times faster than the speed of sound.
While some have doubted the feasibility of the technology required to make the system work – a legitimate opinion given the failure of many previous tests – the system is nevertheless within the technological grasp of modern science. It is only a case of when the system can become permanently operational, and not if it will work. With sufficient technical and financial input, it will inevitably become a reality – just as the both the Manhattan project in the 1940s and the stealth aircraft project in the 1980s became realities. Moreover, the ability to shoot down such speedy missiles could open up a range of other opportunities for the utilisation of anti-ballistic missile technologies, including improved integrated aerial defence systems and energy-based precision munitions. And given the likely proliferation of ballistic missile and their accompanying weapons of mass destruction over the coming century, such a system is hardly undesirable. Indeed, an American or European headstart on anti-ballistic missile technology would extend Western pre-eminence during a period of worldwide geopolitical flux.
According to senior officials within the current American government, President Obama does not intend to scrap the development of the technology – or indeed the system itself. The focus is merely going to shift, away from a static land-based system located in Central and Eastern Europe, towards a maritime system predicated on naval warships, making it more mobile and potentially more effective and lethal. This new programme – based on a re-assessment of Iran’s own capabilities – could even extend the geographical coverage of the system, and make any potential host to the old system less vulnerable to attack. Obviously, any future enemy would have had to have struck at the location of the installations themselves first – namely Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom (which agreed to host one of the powerful radar systems required to track the inbound missiles) – in order to get at the United States. If the platforms with which to launch the interceptor rockets were mobile, and outside mainland Europe, it would remove this concern.
And yet, the scrapping of the original proposals has opened-up a number of other issues, relating to America’s role in Europe; the power of Russia; and the cohesion of the European Union. While unpopular among the Polish or Czech public, their governments seemed wedded to the project. From their perspective, allowing the system’s infrastructure to be built on their territory would bring with it a permanent American security guarantee and increased military cooperation, not least against any future Russian revanchism. Their desire to see American military power brought into their own territories has been further compounded by the relaxed attitude of several Member States, including Germany, Italy and France, to recent Russian provocation and intimidation. Without a firm European commitment to defend their interests, the Central and Eastern Europeans have sought an insurance policy elsewhere.
The key question is whether the American decision is a temporary phenomenon, or whether it is the start of something more permanent. Given the brusque way in which the Czechs and Poles were treated, and the day on which the announcement was made (the day Soviet forces invaded Poland in 1939), it seems that Russia also figured strongly in Washington’s calculations. President Obama wants Russia’s help in dealing with Afghanistan and Iran, which have become increasingly critical as strategic priorities for the United States since 11th September 2001. Is America therefore prepared to surrender Central and Eastern Europe to what Russian leaders have described as their ‘near abroad’ or ‘zone of privileged interest’?
‘No’, we are told, ‘America is not’. Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, firmly rejected this notion, just after President Obama made his announcement about the cancellation of the programme he had inherited from President George W. Bush. But actions sometimes speak louder than words. Russia staunchly opposed the American system, not because the Kremlin was fearful of the American missiles (there would have only been ten interceptors in Poland, vastly outnumbered by Russia’s arsenal of warheads), but rather because it saw them as a direct affront to its project to re-emerge as a great power. As such, the termination of the programme in Poland and the Czech Republic has removed a thorny obstacle to enhanced American-Russian relations and tacitly reinforced the notion that Russia has regained some sort of suzerainty over areas once under Tsarist or Soviet rule.
This debacle suggests that Europeans are still not thinking clearly enough about their own position in their own homeland, let alone their power in the European Neighbourhood or their authority in the wider global system. From the start, the European Union has had little role or say in the American anti-ballistic missile programme, even though Europeans are more vulnerable to attack than Americans due to their closer geographical proximity to the Middle East. Disagreements amongst the Member States over the desirability of such a system have prevented a proper European discussion. Some Member States’ deferential approach towards Russia has further reduced European cohesion, while Poland and the Czech Republic have failed to anchor their security policy adequately in a European infrastructure – instead looking elsewhere for support. As for the United Kingdom, what it gets out of hosting parts of an American system is anybody’s guess (other than amplifying itself as a potential target). The question must be asked: how can European integration mean anything if it does not deal with issues of such great geopolitical importance?
Warsaw and Prague must realise that their security concerns will only be realised in the longer term through the European Union and not through deals with external powers; they can acquire more influence in Brussels than they can in Washington. The unilateral shift in American policy may have taught the Poles a lesson; although the Czechs – or more specificially, their President, Vaclav Klaus – have yet to realise this fact. Obstructing the Treaty of Lisbon will damage Czech (and European) security, not strengthen it.
European leaders also need to think more clearly about how to define the European interest – particularly their relations with Moscow. Just because President Obama proposes a policy does not necessarily mean that it is right for the European Union. From a European perspective, which is more dangerous? A nearby, competitive and aggressive Russia, or a distant and deterrable Iran? Appeasing the Russians for the sake of Iran or Afghanistan is hardly a desirable approach; and letting Moscow entrench and extend its power in what is actually the European Neighbourhood – let alone parts of European Union territory – is pure madness. If it is to count for anything in the twenty-first century, the European Union must at the very least secure geopolitical dominance in its own backyard.
And finally, a good opportunity has arisen for European leaders – particularly if/when the Treaty of Lisbon takes effect – to work with the new American administration in creating a new and improved anti-ballistic missile system, which covers fully the aerial approaches to the European Union, the United States and their allies. The technology can be made to work and could provide both powers with a solid insurance policy, disabling any potential attacks from rogue states like Iran. Indeed, the system could even discourage such regimes from developing such dangerous weaponry in the first place, for the simple reason that it could be swiftly neutralised by Europeans and Americans if used. The cost of the system would also be spread between Europeans and Americans, giving rise to more effective and affable relations between two powers in a relationship of equals, as well as enabling Europeans to take more responsibility for their own defence.