The provocative folly of Poland missile defence


Missile Defence Agency Seal Triggered by events in Georgia, the US and Polish governments have agreed that Poland will host an American base for ten interceptor missiles designed to shoot down a limited number of ballistic missiles that, the US claims, might one day be launched against NATO Europe by a future 'rogue state' adversary such as Iran.

The system, on Poland's Baltic coast (and Russia's doorstep), to be manned by 100 US military personnel, is expected to operate by 2012. The Czech government had previously agreed to host a complementary tracking radar system.

Separately, the US will provide Poland with advanced air defence systems, unrelated to the shooting down of ballistic missiles.

The US proposed giving Poland such a modest anti-missile system two years ago, but Poland hesitated in the face of strong opposition and retaliatory threats from Moscow, which from the beginning believed that it was the true target of the proposed system.

Such prototype systems — already being installed in some NATO countries — are politically and technically controversial. Democrat critics in the US Congress last year condemned such 'high-risk, immature programs'.

Ever since President Reagan's famous 'Star Wars' speech in 1983 advocating a total US strategic missile defence system against the Soviet Union, anti-ballistic missile defence research and development has been part of US defence spending.

George Monbiot last week wrote scathingly in The Guardian that in US defence budgets, missile defence is a vast corporate welfare program, 'the biggest pork barrel of all, the magic pudding that won't run out however much you eat ... because the system will never work'.

In real life, a serious attacker could overwhelm any ABM defence, using dummy missiles and stealth technologies. Yet Monbiot reports that since 1983 the US has poured between $120-150 billion (billion!) dollars into ABM systems whose feasibility is yet to be demonstrated.

This profligate waste won't worry the US economy. According to authoritative SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) figures, US military spending accounted for an amazing 45 per cent of the world total in 2007, followed by the UK, China, France and Japan, with 4–5 per cent each. Since 2001 US military expenditure has increased by 59 per cent, and by 2007 was higher than at any time since World War II.

Seventeen years after the Cold War ended, the US remains a highly militarised economy in search of a plausible enemy. China is difficult: the relationship too risk-prone, with China now dangerously enmeshed as a US creditor and industrial supplier. And the Islamist threat is too diffuse, too inchoate, in traditional military terms.

Never mind that the Cold War is over: Putin's proudly recovered, self-sufficient Russia can again plausibly be framed in the role of the putative enemy at the gates of Western civilisation.

And the post-communist East European successor states, always viscerally afraid of Russia, have been keen to encourage US strategic advance into their region as 'protection' against possible future revived Russian threats. Neo-conservatives in the Bush administration have mischievously encouraged such misplaced fears and hopes.

A tragically unnecessary diplomatic and strategic re-polarisation is now taking place in Eastern Europe, already eerily reminiscent in some ways of years prior to WW1 and WW2. SIPRI reports that over the past ten years, Eastern Europe has been the region with the highest increase in military expenditure in the world.

Under pressure from American and Eastern European troublemakers, NATO Europe's post-Cold War relationship with Russia, which objectively had every reason to be balanced and cordial, assumes the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy of estrangement, as hostile rhetoric and commentary on both sides begins to ramp up. More sensible counsels in Paris and Bonn try to stem the tide, but recent trends are troubling.

This Polish-Czech missile defence system is strategically futile and diplomatically provocative to Russia. The insultingly implausible cover story that it is not directed against Russia but at 'rogue states' is a further taunt. It is all clumsily irresponsible, in the recognisable style of the ending Bush administration. This is dangerous baggage that Obama or McCain will now have to deal with.

By any rational calculus, this decision is a folly. But as historian Barbara Tuchman analysed in The March of Folly, great nations at times pursue national security strategies that in historical hindsight can only be thus understood. I fear this is the latest example.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Tony KevinTony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat in Moscow (1969-71), UN New York (1973-76), and as Australian Ambassador in Poland (1991-1994).


Topic tags: tony kevin, Polish-Czech missile defence system, cold war, georgia conflict



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Existing comments

It is difficult to understand why the US is so bent on aggravating other nations to no good purpose but Tony Kevin's "the US remains a highly militarised economy in search of a plausible enemy" makes sense, very unfortunately for the rest of us.

Bill Dowsley | 26 August 2008  

Hang on Tony. Wasn't it Stalin's USSR that invaded Poland in September 1939 within days of the armies of the Third Recih having done the same? Didn't the Soviets base this attack on the notion that Poland had ceased to exist because Hitler had just obliterated Poland's nationhood? Were not many thousands of Poles subsequently sent to the death camps of Siberia by the Russians?

Ex-KGB supremo Putin is a Stalinist. His government has just recognised South Ossetia and Akhazia as independent despite the fact that
they are internationally recognised as being Georgian.

Tony says that the Poles, among other eastern Europeans, have a 'visceral' fear of Russia. He's got that right. As Ossetians have ethnic, and therefore Islamist, ties with Iran, perhaps they too should remember what happened to the Chechens when they tried for independence from mother Russia.

Claude Rigney | 26 August 2008  

Thanks for that, Tony.
An aphorism seems to apply to Eureka Street’s comment-submitting readership as much as it applies to players in the Great Game: Le plus ca change, le plus ca meme. Putin a Stalinist? Stalin was a Georgian, and an ex-seminarian Georgian at that.

David Arthur | 26 August 2008  

Hang on David. Josif Stalin (Djugashvili) was from the Gori District of Tiflis, in other words, a Georgian. He was also a seminarian at the Russian Orthodox Theological College of Tiflis, leaving there when he was 19.

Putin and Stalin both Georgians and ex-seminarians, how about that! What really unites them is their common tyranny. Putin has utterly defeated his political rivals (e.g. his catspaw Mededev) by establishing himself as the authorative interpreter of Stalin's brutal imperialism, evidenced by his ruthlessness in waging war on Chechnya and Georgia... La plus ca change indeed..!

Claude Rigney | 27 August 2008  

Why would Putin's view of Bush's missiles and radar in Poland/Czechoslovakia be markedly different from JF Kennedy's view of Khrushchev's missiles in Cuba?

john dominish | 27 August 2008  

A test of the genuineness of Russia's concern for the independence of the Ossetians will be whether they will allow North Ossetia and South Ossetia to unite as an independent nation (if that's what the Ossetians want).

Gavan Breen | 27 August 2008  

Thanks for all the comments on this and my preceding article on Georgia.

The international system of states is essentially anarchic and amoral. All states look for security and balance in their foreign relations. No state likes to see vociferously hostile states on its borders, especially if that hostility is being egged on and funded by a major outside power - in this case, the US. Russia - and it is not unreasonable for it to do so - seeks friendly neighbours on the Finland model. Finland is not a satellite - it is a firmly independent, functioning Western democracy and a member of the EU. Yet it knows how to conduct calm relations with Russia. It is a lesson the other post-Soviet system independent states need to learn.

We should not fall into Cheney's trap of demonising Russia. The ideological Cold War is over. There is no more global struggle of ideas, and no more reason to be judgemental about Russia's present governance than about any other sovereign country. (For Chechnya, compare Iraq). For those who want a new Cold War,one should ask them why?

As for Georgia,the parallel between the two breakaway regions' fears of the Georgians and Kosovo's fears of the Serbs are very close. As Serb brutality to Kosovars led to a NATO-supported secession,so did Georgian brutality to the Abkhazians and South Oswsetianhs propel what has now happened there.

The Ossetians are a Christian, ethnically Persian-origin, people. Their language ahd culture are quite distinct from Georgia's, apart from their common Tsarist Russian and Soviet colonial history.

Putin is not a Georgian. He was born in Leningrad, now St Petersburg.

Already, Cold War style polarisation is escalating in NATO countries. I wonder whether the views I have put forward here in Eureka Street are to be regarded as seditious,now that the Australian Foreign Minister has joined the Western chorus of condemnation of Russia? It is sad that DFAT does not think for itself on such grave matters of international security.

tony kevin | 28 August 2008  

If we needed an update on the current Kremlin mentality we need only to have read in last Thursday's SMH that its ambassador to the UN has a poster of Stalin displayed in his office.

Claude Rigney | 30 August 2008  

The part I don't get is WHY ?? Why would Poland want to wear the bulls eye for some one else's defense ?? Are the politicians in Poland so feckless and corrupt to endanger their OWN people for Yankee lucre ?? We saw how the first "bid" fell short... to persuade them to do the "right" thing by their friends [whomever they may be that are 2B Protected] and accept "Bush's" shield.......OR did they go for the dollars thinking that Bush will soon be gone and disgraced or imprisoned..and the U.S. will have been bankrupted by bushco and no missiles will ever appear or be installed....a win... for a bit of unhappy press.... There is something in this deal that SMELLS..............

Thomas | 09 November 2008  

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