Missile Shield Redux

WARSAW—Monday’s disclosure that North Korea was preparing a long-range rocket launch and possibly an underground nuclear bomb test put ballistic missile defense (BMD) where it belongs: squarely atop the transatlantic agenda.  Although we learned Friday that this particular missile launch was a failure, Pyongyang’s determination to proceed has underscored the enduring nature of the threat inherent in the proliferation of ballistic missile technology.

Missile defense has been a powerful, if not much publicized, undercurrent in U.S.-European relations ever since U.S. President Barack Obama abandoned the Bush administration’s plan to deploy radar in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland, planning instead for a new phased adaptive approach.  The decision to scrap the original plan was then widely interpreted in Central Europe as a concession tied to the U.S. reset with Russia.  This region views missile defense as not just a matter of technical feasibility or geostrategic considerations, but as an important symbol of the state of relations with the United States. But, in reality, BMD is a global strategic concern today—and it should be treated as a keystone for rebuilding the flailing U.S.-European relationship.  This is an opportunity to strengthen transatlantic relations that should not be missed.

The recent incident in which Obama, during a visit to South Korea, was overheard (via an open microphone) telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election, has inflamed concerns along NATO’s Eastern periphery.  Clumsy as it was, this open mic moment confirmed what should have been a given: that the remainder of the year will be a time in which the United States and Russia will negotiate a host of technical and political issues against a backdrop of broader security concerns.  Regrettably it also pushed the BMD debate back into a regional context when this transatlantic conversation needs a global perspective.

With new missile threats arising as more missile-capable states join the club (in 1972 only nine states owned ballistic missiles; today there are more than two dozen) there is a compelling incentive to move toward implementing an effective allied BMD system alongside our European allies.  At the same time, the politics of BMD deployment in Europe not only incite Russian opposition but also continue to unfold against the backdrop of a changing strategic environment in which the United States seeks to rebalance its interests in the Pacific.  What is missing in Europe is the larger context of the issue: the need to move beyond the residual Russia dimension and the collective response to the threat of nuclear-armed Iran, linking it firmly to the transatlantic security agenda for the coming decade.

The current European debate on U.S. missile defense overlooks the fact that the United States is hardly the only player in the game, with Russia, India, and Israel among the most active.  Most objections to ballistic missile defense have come, to date, from Russia, China, and some U.S. analytical circles.  In Europe, Russia’s opposition to missile defense continues to be the recurrent theme.  Moscow has pushed back on BMD deployments in the region with a mixture of technical arguments and strategic objections; clearly, prestige is also at issue.  Arguably the least credible of Russia’s objections is the argument that BMD deployment will inevitably lead to destabilization, leading to expansion beyond the initial tasks.  The geopolitical argument is essentially about European basing of radar and interceptors, with the concomitant perceived loss of prestige.  Chinese opposition to BMD follows, in part, the Russian argument with its charges of destabilization.  Underneath this are concerns that a working ballistic missile defense system might become available in Taiwan, reigniting geopolitical dilemmas.  Like the Russians, the Chinese raise the question of a potential risk posed to China’s ICBM forces. Beijing argues that this increases the potential risk of a U.S. first strike (or simply adds political advantage to a BMD-defended United States).

Should Obama be reelected in November, it is uncertain whether Washington will go ahead with missile defense deployment absent an agreement with Russia in 2013, or back away from the project.  His open-microphone gaffe suggests that the administration might be willing to conclude a short-range missile agreement with Russia by offering concessions on missile defense in exchange.  Hence, unease in Europe on missile defense is fuelled by the realization that 2012-13 could be decisive for the future of a revised European missile defense plan.  The administration’s recent announcement of a “strategic pivot” to Asia has added to the distance across the Atlantic and concerns that the United States may now be less committed to BMD deployment in Europe.  Instead, the unease on the future of ballistic missile defense should re-energize the transatlantic conversation.  It should be the starting point for a public debate of how BMD systems deployed to Europe need to interlock with the larger U.S. system to address the truly global threat that is emerging.

The United States and its European allies have argued deterrence vs. defense since Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative speech; that transatlantic debate should now transition firmly from “whether” to “how.”

Andrew A. Michta is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Director of the GMF Warsaw Office.