The Importance of Being Earnest About Missile Defense

If Washington treats Asia similarly on missile defense as it did Eastern Europe, allies there should be wary of cooperation.

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Nicholas Grothaus is a junior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. Ilan Berman is the Council’s vice president.

Since the start of the year, the Obama administration has executed a very public pivot to Asia in its foreign policy and defense planning. The shift is more than simply rhetorical; in both doctrinal and practical terms, Washington is increasingly looking to the Asia-Pacific as its new arena of geopolitical focus.

For the time being, at least, the United States is getting a warm reception there. Worries over a rising and increasingly bellicose China are clearly driving countries in the region into America's arms. Yet the long-term credibility of the United States to project power and build alliances in Asia is likely to be shaped by how it has managed its international partnerships in other parts of the world.

That record is far from encouraging and on no issue more so than that of missile defense. Over the past several years, America's efforts in helping Europe erect a serious antimissile capability have arguably become the biggest bone of contention between the United States and Russia. Moscow has made no secret of its vociferous opposition to a European shield, which Kremlin officials maintain could negatively affect—if not invalidate outright—their country's strategic arsenal. Never mind that Russia's rationale appears to be based less on a legitimate fear of United States and allied capabilities than on ideology—and on a desire to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Eastern Europe.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

And drive a wedge the issue has. Early in its first term, the Obama administration publicly rolled back commitments made by its predecessor to Poland and the Czech Republic for leading roles in America's evolving global missile defense architecture. Instead, the White House has moved ahead with what it has dubbed a "European Phased Adaptive Approach"—involving the deployment of sea-based defenses and the installation of early warning radar in Turkey and interceptors in Romania and Poland as protection against the evolving ballistic missile threat from Iran.

But the administration's commitment to this plan is very much an open question. Late last year, President Obama was famously recorded telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to negotiate the issue of missile defense with Moscow after his re-election, raising concerns about the durability of America's commitment to the security of its vulnerable Eastern European allies. This is true not least because the Obama administration has invested itself so heavily in the idea of a "reset" of relations with Russia, and easily might be tempted to use missile defense as a bargaining chip in that effort.

Money matters as well. The looming "fiscal cliff" confronting policymakers in Washington might make the idea of missile defense cooperation with Europe moot. Indeed, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has suggested that the European Phased Adaptive Approach simply won't be sustainable if the ruinous "sequester" provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act go into effect early next year. That turn of events would leave America's European missile defense partners in a definite lurch.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the fiscal cliff.]

These matters have ramifications well beyond Eastern Europe. An authoritarian regional powerhouse attempting to coerce its neighbors is something America's current and potential partners in the Asia-Pacific are all too familiar with. If the Obama administration wants its much-publicized "pivot" to Asia to succeed, particularly in a time of fiscal constraints, then it is going to need to strengthen existing alliances and build new partnerships there. Doing so depends upon whether or not those countries feel they can have faith in U.S. commitments. If they see the United States reneging on its security agreements with Eastern European countries to appease a declining Russia, then there is little hope they will trust Washington to uphold the deals it makes with them in the face of a rising China.

Nor are American interests in Asia confined to countering Beijing. While European missile defense is geared towards checking the emerging threat from Iran, U.S. missile defenses in the Pacific will need to address a much more advanced North Korean one. Pyongyang's recent announcement of an impending long range missile test, the second to be conducted in under a year, only serves to highlight the very real danger that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea poses to other East Asian countries—and, potentially, to the United States itself.

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

Addressing these problems, however, hinges on having the confidence of allies in the region. No nation is likely to risk paying the political price of cooperating with the United States on missile defense if it thinks Washington will simply use those efforts as a bargaining chip later on. Partnerships require trust, and trust requires that the Washington keep its word.

Sadly, if the administration's track record in Europe is any indication, America's Asian allies could have a great deal to be concerned about.

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