Busy with classes and students, I often have time during the day to only glance at the headlines. When the news came the President Obama was scrapping the missile defense plan for Poland and the Czech Republic that President Bush had begun, perhaps in thanks for Iraq war support, I thought “that makes sense.” The plan was always an irritant to the West Europeans who felt there should have been NATO wide planning, and needlessly antagonized Russia. It’s not like anyone is planning to nuke Warsaw, for crying out loud.
Then I got a call from someone whose views and integrity I respect who seemed positively livid about the decision, thinking it represented a level of foreign policy incompetence on the part of the Obama administration that rivals Kennedy’s early weakness vis-a-vis Khrushchev. We seemed to give in the Soviets, he argued, projecting weakness, looking like we’re not loyal to our allies, again leaving Poland in the lurch as we’ve done so many times. Chamberlain and Daladier gave Hitler the Sudeutenland and assured Czechoslovakia’s doom, then after the war we allowed Poland to fall under Communist control.
As I thought about his argument I realized two things: 1) his argument makes sense, is rational, and well thought out; and 2) I nonetheless disagree. Our different opinions rest on how we are conceiving of European foreign policy and geopolitics in the 21st century. His view, which may well be correct, is that the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t changed the general set of political interests that guided policy for the last sixty years. Moreover, the US is still a major super power; if Obama simply scraps something like this giving the Russians a cheap win, it causes others to question our resolve and emboldens would be rivals. Even if the missle shield was a bad idea, we need to get something in return for scrapping it.
My view, is that Russia is a weak state, whose foreign policy interventionism is limited to its “near abroad,” places like Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has no chance to expand back into Eastern Europe, or gamble that they can attack NATO memberstates and get away with it. The cost would be huge, and there is nothing to gain. Russia wants influence, but it can’t handle another empire.
In fact Europe in the 21st century is in a totally new position than any time in the recent past. Instead of being internally divided, most of Europe is united within the EU, with a level of not just interdependence but common identity that has never before existed. Moreover, there is no real external military threat to Europe. There are threats of terrorism, economic crisis, and of course things like global warming or pandemics to fear, but not military invasion. Even if Iran got a nuclear weapon, the idea it’d somehow want to hit Europe is not credible. Mutually assured destruction still works.
So I view this as a logical, rather minor move. Sure, the Poles and the Czechs will complain, but it’s not like we owe them anything. They’re still in NATO, after all. Russia gets a “victory,” but given how often the US has bullied Russia in recent years, that’s not about to create a resurgent activist Russia. In fact, there are probably aspects of this we don’t yet know. The Europeans want Russia to be a stable part of the European system, and this could be a move designed to make it easier for Russia to back off on provocative postures.
To be sure, even during the Cold War I thought the power of the then Soviet Union was over-rated. Communism was an utterly unworkable economic system that sucked the soul out of the country and caused internal decay and collapse. The idea they could successfully attack and hold a vibrant western Europe never seemed credible to me in those days. Obviously, that wasn’t the majority opinion then, and it pre-disposes me to see Russia as even more a second rate minor power now. They have nukes, but really no way to throw their weight around, save economic clout via their oil reserves.
Moreover, I think the US, while immensely stronger than Russia, has also been shown to be far weaker than people believed. After the heady victory in Iraq in 2003 the US was unable to transform military victory into political results. Thus the occupation of Iraq dragged on to the point that people stopped even remembering that the war had actually been won years before. In Afghanistan things are worse — the Taliban is strengthening, the government is corrupt and likely guilty of voter fraud, and the country finds itself in chaos. If the US can’t manipulate politics in those cases, how effective should one consider our military power to be? We have nuclear weapons, but there are limits to what we can do. Add to that the economic crisis and our likely inability to maintain the costs of an interventionist “imperial” foreign policy, we may decide that it’s not in our interest to try to manipulate world affairs or be a guarantor of stability.
My friend’s counter-perspective, of course, sees all that differently. The US nuclear umbrella is important, it prevents proliferation and helps assure that regional rivalries don’t spin out of control — such as North Korea vs. Japan. Even if, as he acknowledged, the economic crisis means we have to curtail obligations, this must be done carefully and from a posture of strength, not weakness. The world is a potentially much more dangerous place, and how we restructure our military and political role is important — to simply retreat is to create a power vacuum that other states will fill.
It’s also not clear what the military perspective was — what did the Pentagon advise or tell the President?
In all the unknowns the big question remains just how different this new era is than the old. As my blog title indicates, I’m of the opinion that we are going through a change of historic proportions. This creates danger, but it’s not clear how to respond to those dangers. Do you move cautiously and slowly, or should you embrace bold new ways of conceptualizing the way the international system operates? I think the latter is necessary, believing that systemic change is usually violent because people don’t give up the patterns of thought that have become obsolete. Yet what if I’m wrong?
Ultimately, those are decisions the President makes, often with information and negotiations that we do not know. This means all any of us can do is speculate. Still, one thing is clear: we definitely live in very interesting times!