The Obama administration's decision to alter course on missile defense was the right choice. Those who claim it is a capitulation to Russia are wrong, and it plays into Russia's hands to portray the decision in that manner. But the change of course will have to be complemented with new, more appropriate initiatives to reassure NATO's East European members that the U.S. commitment to their security remains steadfast.
Missile defense was never intended to protect Eastern Europe from a Russian threat. It was about defending Europe from the threat of Iranian missiles. As countless analysts have pointed out, the interceptor and radar installments in Poland and the Czech Republic were always inadequate for defense against a Russian missile strike.
It was the Russian and, later, the Polish government, which successfully transformed public perceptions of missile defense from strategy for countering rogue states into a bone of contention between the Russia and the West.
Making missile defense about Russia, rather than Iran, served the interests of then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, providing him with a means of dividing NATO public opinion, already lacking cohesion in the wake of the Iraq war.
It served the interests of the Czech and Polish governments as a bargaining chip for extracting enhanced military technology from the United States on the one hand, and as a means of demonstrating resolve in the face of an increasingly bellicose Russia on the other.
Russia thus became the focus of the debate. This muddied the waters, distracted European public attention from the issue of Iran, and created yet another problem for NATO at a moment when the alliance was facing unprecedented challenges in Afghanistan.
In short, the old U.S. strategy was unlikely to protect Europe from either Russia or Iran, and was creating unnecessary divisions within the alliance.
Now these divisions can begin to heal, the Iran issue can receive the appropriate attention, and a more practical discussion of the security needs of NATO's Eastern European members can begin. This discussion is needed, but it should be seen as a complement—not an alternative—to a reset of relations with Russia.
Russia does not pose a serious threat to any NATO members today, but its future political trajectory is still uncertain. Russia has shown no remorse over its invasion of Georgia a year ago, and has been actively seeking to maintain ambiguity regarding its policy toward neighboring countries, including those in NATO.
This ambiguity serves Russia's interests well by dividing the fearful countries of Eastern Europe from their Western European counterparts, who are more inclined to pursue a strategy of long-term engagement to cope with Russian saber rattling.
A successful reset of NATO relations with Russia must face this fact. As long as Russia can credibly threaten Eastern Europe, the divisions within the alliance will continue, prohibiting a coordinated NATO approach to its giant Eastern neighbor. Reassuring Eastern Europe should thus be seen as part of encouraging a more open Eastern attitude toward NATO's Russia policy, and thereby a stronger NATO approach to improving relations.
There is no reason that NATO states should be prohibited from fortifying their own defenses, for example, by increasing NATO air patrols, or with Patriot missile batteries. Russia, after all, has just begun a joint military defense exercise with Belarus not far from the borders of NATO's pro-Western Baltic nations.
The challenge will lie in determining the minimum NATO must do to reassure Eastern European states about NATO's commitment to their security. This will be tricky, but doing any more than the minimum will play into Russian attempts to portray reassurance as a sign of NATO hostility.
At the same time, it will be necessary to convince Germany that beefing up security for Eastern Europe will actually improve NATO-Russian relations in the long run. This, in turn, will require effective and proactive public diplomacy.
Whether the shift in missile defense strategy will lead to greater Russian cooperation on Iran, as some hope, remains to be seen. But it is the right thing to do if it removes a major bone of contention within NATO itself.
It should help focus the alliance on the problems it faces in Afghanistan while opening the door to more clearheaded strategies for NATO-Russia relations.
Christopher S. Chivvis, author of a forthcoming monograph, "Future Directions for NATO," is a political scientist at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit policy and research institution.
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Times on September 22, 2009. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.