The Perils of Losing Mitteleuropa
Central Europeans have a long history of waiting in lobbies. Tomáš Masaryk waited in the lobby at Versailles to find out if he would be given a country. Edvard Beneš waited in the lobby at Munich to find out if he would keep his country. The Polish London government waited in the lobby at Yalta to find out if they would get their country back. And for nine months, Poland and the Czech Republic have waited in the lobby in Washington to find out if they would host an anti-ballistic missile project for the United States.
The answer came, as it so often has for Central Europe, in the middle of the night. There is something unsettling about the thought of an American President placing a midnight phone call to the Czech Prime Minister - the leader of a country that, for its support of America's shield, has endured isolation in the EU, nuclear threats from Moscow and a retaliatory Russian gas cutoff - to say that the sole remaining superpower no longer requires his services.
In words that should not have had to be uttered in this century, former Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek said that the decision was "not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence."
Defenders of the President's decision evoke political realism. At the heart of the rationale for ending the program is the proposition that America has weaker interests in Central Europe than it has vis-à-vis Russia. The Czechs and Poles may be linked to America by shared values, but what are these two mid-sized allies in a sleepy corner of Europe compared to the benefits of cooperation with Vladimir Putin's Russia?
Missile-defense advocates tend to counter by citing the negative consequences of mistreating allies or the danger of losing Czech and Polish support for U.S. military missions. These are valid points. But they overlook a larger one: that the US has a fundamental, primary interest in securing stability and freedom in Central and Eastern Europe that is greater than any momentary diplomatic gains (should they actually come) of cooperation with Russia, even on something as important as Iran.
1. America's ‘Low Countries.' The strip of land between the Baltic and Black Seas is the point of geopolitical ingress and egress to Europe. Its position in U.S. geostrategy is similar to that which the Low Countries held for 19th Century Britain. Only when the goulash of bite-sized powers between Germany and Russia are securely anchored in the West can the US turn its attention elsewhere. Three wars - two hot and one cold - started here. The second and worst came about in large part because the US, having championed the creation of Central Europe's infant nation-states, refused to provide for their defense.
The resulting power vacuum invited geopolitical predation on a scale not seen since the Mongols, eventually costing the lives of a half million Americans.
2. Institutionally-Embedded Intermediaries. The post-Communist member states of the EU comprise a hundred million citizens and a third of the EU's voting power. They tend to be geopolitically Atlanticist and economically pro-free market. A properly-construed long-term U.S. strategy would cultivate them as strategic ballast in an eventual EU geopolitical actor. By aggravating America's worsening regional image problem, Obama's backtrack will ensure that the Poles and Czechs approach their role in the European project with a chip on their shoulder.
3. Canaries in the Coal Mine. U.S. actions in Central Europe are watched closely in countries further east. If the pulse of Atlanticism beats loudly in Warsaw and Prague, political elites in Kiev, Minsk and Tbilisi are more likely to calculate that a democratic, pro-Western course is sustainable. The Kremlin has long claimed that U.S. influence here is temporary. Signs of retreat make that claim look a lot more credible, discouraging regional democrats and emboldening Moscow to push its luck elsewhere, particularly in Ukraine.
Missile defense addressed these dangers by demonstrating America's hard-power commitment to NATO's eastern flank. The shield's role as geopolitical pacifier was arguably its greatest value, independent of what it did vis-à-vis Iran. With it gone, Poland sits on a reactivated strategic frontier. If Russia moves against Ukraine, Warsaw may invoke the recently-articulated "Siksorski Doctrine," treating a Russia-controlled neighbor as a threat to Polish sovereignty. The result would be a heightened regional security dilemma.
Heading off this scenario before it metastasizes must now become an overarching aim of U.S. global strategy, regardless of whether Obama realizes it or not. Patriot missiles and futuristic promises of SM-3s are not enough; to remain credible, Washington must find an immediate, tangible strategic-platform substitute. Its wisest course would be to transfer select U.S. and NATO bases (perhaps training and headquarter facilities) from Germany to Poland and the Czech Republic.
The Administration will not like this option and neither will the Russians. But with time Obama may find that missile defense was a cheap and easy fix compared to the alternatives. Retreat from Mitteleuropa is not an option. Russian cooperation counts for little if it comes at the expense of freedom and stability in this geopolitically-vital space.
As the 20th Century repeatedly showed, Central Europe has no place in the geopolitical lobby of history. There is no alternative but for this region to be fully and unambiguously anchored in the West. America has no nobler calling as a Great Power than to ensure that this occurs.