Monthly Mind May 2012 - Missile Defense makes sense, but only with Russia!

Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger

1983: Following the NATO double-track decision, NATO intends to react to the positioning of Soviet SS-20 missiles by setting up its own medium-range systems. Hundreds of thousands of people go out to protest in Bonn. Is an arms control agreement possible, limiting mid-range missiles on both sides? Decisions are taken to postpone the deployment of the new US nuclear missiles to gain more time. Later, the ultimate result was to be the "double zero solution": the zero deployment of US Pershing II missiles in return for the decommissioning of Soviet SS-20 missiles. A real Cold War arms control success story! In retrospect, the brief pause for reflection in 1983 was well worth it.

May 2012: NATO announces that the initial phase of the planned missile defense shield is to be declared ready for action at the NATO summit in Chicago. Although Russia had been invited, at the NATO summit in Lisbon, to co-operate with NATO in setting up a joint ballistic missile defense system (BMD), the alliance is now poised to proceed unilaterally - leaving Russia out in the cold. This time, no-one is demonstrating in Berlin. After all, the Cold War is history. And so hardly anyone has stood up to defend the two-track BMD strategy - setting up a NATO system while simultaneously pursuing the joint project with Russia.

And yet, today, too, there are good reasons for a brief pause, reasons quite similar to those of 1983. The decision to set up a missile defense system was a compromise right from the start, containing two equally important strategic elements: on the one hand, the alliance agreed to set up a missile defense system to better protect NATO territory against future ballistic threats. On the other hand, NATO invited Russia to co-operate as far as the planning and implementation of the BMD system was concerned. Yes to a missile defense system, but together with Russia. Security not against, but together with Russia. That was the idea - a politically very attractive idea: if it were possible to co-operate with Russia on this tricky strategic issue, it might be possible to also solve  other issues of dispute more readily. Russia would no longer be out in the cold, but could - finally - find its own place within European security structures.

Or to put it differently: under this missile defense shield it might finally be possible to realize Gorbachev's twenty-year-old dream of a "common European home".

But this home may yet remain a dream. Unlike at previous NATO summits, the Russian president will not even come to  Chicago. After all, what would be the point of attending this summit? There is now not just a serious risk of stagnation, but of a real setback in NATO-Russia relations: Russia has already declared its intention to suspend the most important disarmament treaty for over two decades, the "New START" agreement, should no progress be made on the project of joint BMD. There is even some talk in Moscow about possibly deploying new medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad and even about possible preventive strikes against future NATO BMD systems. This is rather reminiscent of 1983...

No doubt: Russia is a difficult partner. And yet we should take Russian concerns seriously, even if they seem irrational or stuck in the past. Given the enormous dimension of global and regional risks we face together, we need a new quality  of East-West co-operation and a new kind of mutual trust. We need to demilitarize the way we think about one another. And we need a Euro-Atlantic security community that is able to unite North America, Europe and Russia strategically. Is this not  the key strategic future task of NATO - overcoming the mistrust between Russia and the West once and for all? Instead, we are well on the way to promoting the kind of Cold War thinking which we thought we had put behind us years ago.

In Lisbon, the BMD project was widely seen as an auspicious beginning of a new era. And, as comments made by Medvedev and Putin show, Russia remains interested in working together with the West. Russia continues to co-operate on  Afghanistan. Since the Munich Security Conference back in February, concrete proposals for compromises on the BMD issue  have been on the table.

2012, the year of multiple elections, is not a good time to turn back the strategic clock. Obama himself confirmed this in public, albeit involuntarily, when his comment to Dimitry Medvedev about no longer having any room for maneuver before the US elections became public. But if we, his European allies, do not take great care now, it is possible that Obama may not have any room for maneuver after his possible re-election either.


It would therefore be wrong, in Chicago, to kick the project of joint missile defense shield into the long grass and to move forward on BMD without Russia instead. BMD as a game changer: yes. BMD as a game breaker: no thanks.

Treading water strategically is the best we can hope for at the Chicago summit. But stagnation must not turn into regression. It must be made clear, plainly and simply, that the door to a joint project with Russia remains open. This will then - hopefully - result in new room for maneuver in 2013. If this is the case, the joint missile defense system may yet become a reality, laying the foundation for a more extensive Euro-Atlantic security order.

In Chicago, do we really need a unilateral BMD decision by NATO? Is there any real urgency? What about a brief pause for thought - just like in 1983?


Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and Ambassador in Washington and London. He is now Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an advisor to Allianz SE. A shortened version of this piece was published by the International Herald Tribune on 18 May 2012.

18 May 2012, by Wolfgang Ischinger