09/30/2009 - 08:43

Obama's missile defense rethink: The Polish reaction

Marek Madej

Marek Madej

Madej is an assistant professor at the Institute of International Relations at the University of Warsaw and a research fellow at the...

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In order to understand the reaction of the Polish government, political elites, and public to President Barack Obama's decision to discontinue the U.S. missile defense plan in Eastern Europe, one has to remember why Warsaw had engaged in talks with Washington in the first place. It wasn't the anti-missile shield specifically, since the main U.S. goals of the project--to defend U.S. territory, U.S. forces, and the territory of U.S. allies against a long-range ballistic missile attack from the likes of Iran--weren't equally as important to Poland. Instead, Warsaw viewed this partnership primarily as an opportunity to tighten security and military links with the United States and to elevate bilateral relations to a privileged level.

For some in Poland, the mere presence of U.S. military installations and soldiers stationed on their soil would be sufficient to consider the partnership successful. Others (including the current government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk) believed that Warsaw was right in asking for more--specifically, U.S. assistance in modernizing the Polish air defense forces (by providing missile technology and equipment) and technological cooperation within domestic defense industries. Polish officials and experts, therefore, largely neglected the technical and financial aspects of the project. Instead, they focused on the political dimensions, particularly as they related to Russia, which vehemently opposed the deployment of U.S. missile defense elements in Eastern Europe.

Knowing this, it's hardly surprising that Warsaw didn't welcome the U.S. decision to abandon the missile defense plan. Although it was widely expected--the Obama administration sent many signals that the program would be reconsidered--the final announcement nonetheless put the Polish government in an inconvenient position.

Writ large, the decision raises questions about the value of the legally binding August 2008 agreement that outlined plans for the deployment of missile defense-related systems in Poland and the politically binding Declaration on Polish-American Strategic Cooperation, that was attached to this agreement. These documents are the most important results of the U.S.-Polish negotiations on missile defense, which were politically costly for Poland, as they damaged Polish-Russian relations and adversely affected Poland's image among some European allies. Moreover, the announcement came before the United States and Poland had agreed to terms on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which detailed U.S. troop placement in Poland and, therefore, before the conclusion of talks on deploying Patriot missiles inside Poland. From the Polish perspective, such a deployment would be the most tangible benefit derived from any U.S.-Polish missile defense cooperation. However, without the SOFA agreement, Patriot deployment can't happen.

So now the government can be criticized on two fronts: by those who supported missile defense in Poland but believed the government demanded too much and by opponents of the system who believed that in the long run, negotiations would bring more losses than benefits for Polish security. Many in Poland simply believe that Obama's decision is a "betrayal" aimed at making Moscow more cooperative regarding Iran and in future disarmament talks.

Following the announcement, the Polish government decided to adopt a "nothing serious happened" strategy. Prime Minister Tusk and Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski expressed their understanding that the U.S. change of heart was based on financial and technical considerations so as to show that they wouldn't treat the decision as U.S. "appeasement" of Russia. They also articulated their faith in Washington's interest in continuing talks with Warsaw on strategic cooperation and in fulfilling promises already made (particularly on the deployment of Patriot missiles). Additionally, Tusk and Sikorski expressed interest in Polish participation in the new missile defense program, admitting that from a European perspective a new program could be even more useful and attractive. It's notable, however, that early comments by Polish authorities suggesting "new exclusive and attractive proposals"--allegedly made first by the United States to maintain Polish support for the reconfigured program--were quickly supplanted by more modest statements about "interesting opportunities" offered by the new plan.

The Polish public received Obama's decision with mixed feelings. Since the majority of Poles opposed interceptor deployment from the start, it has welcomed the change in plans. (According to a September 18 poll, 56 percent of Poles supported Obama's decision and only 30 percent were against it.) But the announcement also was widely viewed as another sign (in addition to a lack of appreciation for Polish involvement in Iraq and the denial of U.S. visa waivers for Polish citizens) of U.S. ingratitude for Polish support in international politics.

So what does the future hold for the U.S.-Polish relationship? On September 17, Washington presented a rather general vision of the new missile defense architecture, skipping over many important details, particularly concerning the later phases of development. But the program's focus on Iran's short- and medium-range missile threat and on the importance of flexibility and mobility suggests that locating missile defense elements in Poland won't be as preferable as it was under the previous program. From a technical point of view there's no reason to involve Poland in the initial phase of the program. Moreover, by 2015, when the second phase could start, Poland would be only one of many potential candidates to host land-based missiles, and it would have little advantage over the others. Worse still, Poland may be poorly situated for such a system versus countries in southern Europe that are geographically closer to Iran.

Beginning serious negotiations about a new missile defense system with elements in Poland now, therefore, would be a premature step, a politically motivated consolation prize for the Polish government rather than a practical security endeavor. Additionally, engaging in another set of politically demanding negotiations without Washington's assurance that it's absolutely committed, would, for obvious reasons, carry enormous risk for any Polish government. It might be more appropriate for Warsaw to wait and examine U.S. determination in pursuing a reconfigured missile defense plan. It also might carefully consider integrating current U.S. initiatives with NATO missile defense efforts in order to strengthen the defense capability and cohesion of the alliance.

Still, Warsaw's priority isn't missile defense as such, but modernizing its air defenses. The probability of achieving this through a U.S. partnership based on the August 2008 documents is now close to zero. Certainly, the country's leaders continue to be interested in talks with Washington on the deployment of a Patriot battery in Poland, as stated in the August 2008 declaration. However, one Patriot battery, even if deployed permanently and fully equipped (compared to being used solely for training purposes, which Washington prefers) won't satisfy Poland's needs, especially since integration of the U.S.-owned installation with Polish command-and-control systems seems extremely problematic. Instead, it would serve primarily as a symbol of the U.S. military's presence in Poland and as evidence of successful U.S.-Polish negotiations. But Warsaw won't necessarily be inclined to engage in such politically risky negotiations just to secure this goal.

In fact, Poland probably would have to abandon its hope of a deal with the United States to assist in its much needed, but extremely costly, air defense modernization efforts in return for hosting elements of a missile defense system on its soil. Looking for alternatives would mean opening up the bidding process to other participants. The U.S. Patriot missile offer then would be just one of many competing possibilities for Poland. Such a shift by Warsaw also likely would mark the end of its hope to establish a privileged security relationship with Washington--meaning the U.S.-Polish "security romance" would come to an end.