How Not to Promote American Missile Defense in Europe


Apr 27, 2007

By F. Stephen Larrabee and Andrzej Karkoszka

Missile defense has suddenly emerged as a divisive issue in Europe. Rather than enhancing European security, the Bush administration's plan to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic threatens to increase strains with Russia and deepen divisions with America's European allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe, where support for the United States' polices has been strongest.

The growing opposition to the US missile defense deployment is rooted in the way in which America has managed — or rather mismanaged — the presentation of its deployment plans.

First, US officials did not lay the political and psychological groundwork for deployment. They assumed that Czech and Polish leaders — who were strongly pro-American — would willingly agree to deployment, and that public opinion in both countries would go along with whatever the governments decided.

But America failed to develop a coherent public rationale for its planned deployment of a system designed to destroy a missile fired by a rogue regime. As a result, the Czech and Polish governments were unable to answer fundamental questions about the costs and benefits of the deployment for Polish and Czech national security. This allowed skeptics and opponents of missile defense to gain the upper hand in the internal debates in both countries.

Second, American officials initially tended to view missile defense largely as a technological issue divorced from its political context. For most Europeans, however, the military-technical issues are less important than the broader political implications of deployment for European stability and security. The initial American briefings to European allies ignored this fact.

Third, the US underestimated the role of public opinion in Poland and the Czech Republic. American officials assumed that it was sufficient to have the consent of the governments and failed to recognize the degree to which these countries have become increasingly "Europeanized" in the last decade. Membership in the European Union has resulted in the proliferation of ties to Europe at many levels, as well as a major influx of EU money. This has had an enormous impact on public attitudes in Eastern Europe.

In Poland, a big gap exists between the government's attitude and that of the population regarding the EU. The Polish government is dominated by Euro-skeptics and has pursued a highly nationalistic policy that has often antagonized EU officials. Ordinary Poles, by contrast, are strongly pro-European. According to recent polls, 80 percent of the population supports Poland's membership in the EU — the highest level of support in Europe.

Fourth, American officials have tended to assume that the countries of Eastern Europe will remain staunchly pro-American and automatically support US policy. That was true five years ago, but it is much less true today. As Eastern European countries become more closely integrated into the EU, they increasingly have to calculate the impact of their policies on relations with Europe.

At the same time, the war in Iraq and abuses associated with it have tarnished America's image in Eastern Europe. This is true even in Poland, which is the most pro-American country in the region. The Polish government strongly supported the US in Iraq, sending the third largest contingent of forces, after the US and Great Britain. However, Polish public opinion, like public opinion in Western Europe, was overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq invasion.

Moreover, many Poles feel they have little to show for the government's support. As former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski noted recently, there is a sense among many Poles that the US takes Poland for granted. Sikorski's argument shocked many US officials, because he is considered one of the most pro-American politicians in Poland. But it reflects a widespread sentiment among many Poles, including those who are staunch supporters of close ties to the US.

Unlike the Iraq operation, the planned missile defense deployment will almost certainly require approval by the Polish Parliament. This approval cannot be taken for granted. The government will need to explain to a skeptical Polish population and Parliament why the deployment is in Poland's national interest — not just America's interest — and how it enhances Polish security. Simply saying, "because the Americans want it" will not be enough.

The US can still win the missile debate in Europe, but only if it stops treating missile defense primarily as a technological issue and addresses the broader political concerns that are driving the debate among European publics, including those in Eastern Europe.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. Andrzej Karkoszka was state secretary for defense in Poland from 1995 to 1998 and director of the Strategic Defense Review in the Polish Ministry of Defense from 2003 to 2006.

This op-ed originally appeared on

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