President Obama's decision to shelve the Bush administration's missile defense plans has created a crisis of confidence in Washington's relations with Central and Eastern Europe. The defense architecture the administration proposes may make more strategic sense in addressing the immediate Iranian threat. Nevertheless, it runs the risk of shattering the morale and standing of transatlantic leaders in the region who now feel politically undermined and exposed. The roots of this crisis lie less in missile defense than in policy failures over the past decade. Understanding and rectifying those errors is key to getting back on track with our allies.
Our first mistake was being overly optimistic about what would happen when these countries joined NATO and the European Union. We basically checked the box "mission accomplished." We assumed that Russia would finally accept that Central and Eastern Europe were gone from its sphere of influence and stop trying to interfere in their regional politics. But geopolitical competition didn't stop. Moscow simply tried to pressure and interfere in new ways, using energy and other weapons. It seeks to marginalize these countries in NATO and the European Union by going above their heads. It still wants to create a zone of special Russian interest, influence and lesser security.
The second mistake was poor handling of our commitment to defend Central and Eastern Europe counties under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. Given the low-threat environment, we decided NATO did not need to station troops in those countries' territory and pledged instead to create a reinforcement capability that could be used in times of crisis. I sat at the table in the mid-1990s as Washington promised Polish leaders that NATO would have a corps-size reinforcement capability to provide for their security.
But that NATO corps-size reinforcement capability never materialized. There are not even official defense plans for these countries. The power of Article 5 was always the fact that these commitments were backed up by planning, exercises and boots on the ground. Yet a lack of leadership and divisions within NATO prevented the alliance from fulfilling such pledges.
The alliance has also decayed in its role as the key crisis manager in Europe. Central and Eastern Europeans have watched as one ally after another has prevented NATO from acting over the past decade. NATO was AWOL during the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. When Georgian leaders quietly approached the alliance several months before hostilities, NATO demurred. When war broke out, the secretary general interrupted his vacation for one day to hold a meeting and issue a statement. NATO's supreme allied commander did not even do that much. The NATO Military Committee met only after the war was over. Hardly an inspiring performance.
Given this record, we should not be surprised that Central and Eastern Europeans doubt what NATO would do to help them in a pinch. While they are loath to say it publicly, their leaders have told me that they are no longer certain NATO is capable of coming to their rescue if there were a crisis involving Russia. They no longer believe that the political solidarity exists or that NATO's creaky machinery would take the needed steps.
Had we handled these issues differently, our debate about missile defense would be quite different. The Poles and Czechs bought into the Bush administration's plans for missile defense not because of Iranian missiles but because they were losing confidence in NATO. Atlanticist leaders were seeking additional security through an American military presence on their soil. That is why missile defense assumed a political significance in the region that transcended the merits of the actual program. And that is why abandoning the program has created a crisis of confidence.
We must take real steps toward solving this problem by providing strategic reassurance to Central and Eastern Europe through the front door of NATO and not the back door of missile defense. President Obama has already decided to push for defense plans for these countries. But a top-secret NATO defense plan in some safe in Brussels will not mollify Central and Eastern European anxieties. Their primary worry is not the prospect of an imminent Russian military attack but political intimidation or blackmail or a regional crisis that spins out of control. It is above all their lack of belief in our solidarity in the alliance.
That is why we need a broader package of political, economic and military measures that will reinforce that solidarity and provide reassurance. We also need to fix NATO so that it can again function as a crisis manager, as it did in the Balkans in the 1990s. Nothing prevents us from taking these steps. They do not contradict any of our commitments to Russia. They require only political imagination, will and a modest investment of resources. If we get that right, then the Obama administration's decision on missile defense can be a catalyst that helps us get this relationship back on track. If we don't, the crisis of confidence in the region will only deepen.
Ronald D. Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.