Friday, October 19, 2012

Needlessly awakening the hibernating bear?

Why does the United States continue to pursue a comprehensive ballistic missile defense system (BMD)?  As someone who came of age in the post-Cold War environment, I don't have the engrained fear of nuclear destruction that most Americans endured throughout the 20th century.  And today, it feels like the threat of nuclear war affecting our lives is almost (almost) too remote to consider.  The Soviet-U.S. rivalry died with the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. and Russia have embarked on a new arms control regime that will further reduce the likelihood of nuclear war.  So then why is the installation of a missile defense system seen by some as essential to American power?

Expanding NATO protection

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has dramatically expanded its alliance.  After the Cold War, NATO almost doubled from a sixteen-member organization to an alliance with twenty-nine states including many former Soviet Republics.  And as NATO drove east, Russian policymakers grew anxious.

Given American moves in Europe throughout the 1990s, "the Russians have, in their view, considerable reasons not to trust NATO" (Kay, Sean. "NATO’s Missile Defense – Realigning Collective Defense for the 21st Century." Perceptions Journal of International Affairs XVII.1 (2012), 46).  "Russians assert they were told in the early 1990s that NATO enlargement would not go beyond integrated Germany" (Kay, 46).  Despite being told that that increase was for defensive purposes only, NATO launched a military action in Serbia, a longtime Soviet ally.  A legitimate Russian fear was, therefore, shunned by American policymakers as they sought to drive east, which has dialed up tensions between the U.S. and Russia.  "Russia . . . made clear it would pursue missile development to circumvent NATO systems" (Kay, 42).  

The threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program intensified fear among southern countries of a potential strike, which prompted additional missile defense installation.  The U.S. is concerned about instability in the region because "[e]ven a minimal Iranian nuclear capability could enhance Iranian leverage in the Persian Gulf -- making it difficult to maintain the flow of oil" (Kay, 38).  "[T]he combination of Iran's behavior outside the norms of acceptable international behavior gave the NATO allies legitimate concern" (Kay,39).  The United States committed itself to Polish defense by deploying 100 troops along with Patriot missile batteries.

But as the missile defense system was erected, other NATO allies became wary of the diplomatic blowback.  "[French] President Nicholas Sarkozy said that missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic would 'bring nothing to security' but rather will 'complicate things and move them backward'" (Kay, 43).  

Leverage for future U.S.-Russia negotiations

The primary motivation for NATO missile defense might not be the system itself but rather the leverage a potential gives the U.S. to seek concessions from Russia for other security issues.  Russia's opposition to further economic sanctions and an oil embargo on Iranian oil mean that it still controls substantial influence over Iranian nuclear program negotiations.  Russia could also help the international community negotiate with the Syrian government that is continuing to kill its people.  A number of U.S. policymakers suggested that dismantling the Iranian program would eliminate the need for the missile defense system in Europe.  Under Secretary of State William J. Burns told a Russian new agency, "If through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense."  Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates similarly said, “I told the Russians a year ago that if there were no Iranian missile program, there would be no need for the missile sites.”

Because an effective missile defense system could potentially eliminate the threat of Russia's nuclear weapon -- as well as Iran's -- its deployment in an expanded NATO could be intended to cajole Russia to become more assertive in settling global security issues.  Regardless of underlying security concerns, the system will continue to exacerbate Russian security concerns. "American officials repeatedly insist that the missile defense system is not a threat to Russian security -- but seldom account for the possibility that Russia might define its own national security perceptions" (Kay, 48).  And whether or not NATO intends to confine Russia's nuclear arsenal, its system has the capability to do so.

Ultimately, however, this system is based on promised technology that doesn't exist and could possibly deteriorate negotiating with a necessary security ally in Russia. And unfortunately, missile defense has taken on a partisan dimension in the American political process.

Physicists and experts regularly remind policymakers that the technology is unfeasible and the risk of new arms races high. Yet what American politician wants to argue against defending an American city against nuclear attack even if there is a logic to raising concerns about missile defenses? Missile defense has thus been popular and support for it has become a political litmus test in the United States - regardless of the science or risks. (Kay, 37-38)
1)  Does a ballistic missile defense represent a security dilemma for Russia?
2)  Should the U.S. pursue installation of a comprehensive system at all costs?
3)  Is the threat from Iran sufficient to justify provoking potentially more powerful states (i.e. Russia)?

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