For the benefit of all

Barack Obama's cancellation of the deployment of a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic represents a rare cases when a decision meets the interests of all players. Many commentators raced to portray the Kremlin as the biggest benefactor. Indeed, after the decision, the silo-based interceptors will not be deployed dozens of miles from Russian. And there is no longer the threat of them being transformed into launch pads for surface-to-surface medium-range ballistic missiles. Some people are even expressing concern that such a big decision might be interpreted as an indicator of US weakness and provoke a more belligerent policy from Russia.

It would be wrong to deny the Russians have reason to celebrate, but the decision was made on primary consideration of American interests.

Even in planning, the missile defence system hurt transatlantic ties by placing enormous pressure on US allies in Europe and provoking a new split within the EU. Some observers say the lieutenants of George Bush decided to deploy the system - ¬widely criticised for being based on unproven technology - ¬to drive a wedge between old and new Europe in order to control the emerging EU giant.

Therefore, the Obama administration made an important conciliatory gesture to its European allies by abandoning the shield through bilateral agreements and circumventing Nato, the cornerstone of US global influence. Instead of following the obsolete and self-damaging "divide and rule" strategy of the Bush era, Obama has promised a multilateral approach in missile defence policy and will probably abandon attempts to undermine the EU. Therefore, like the Russians, European federalists in Paris, Berlin and Brussels have good reason to open the champagne. In a rare coincidence, Nato's leadership joined the celebrations.

It is true that the Poles and, to a lesser extent, the Czechs, deserve sympathy in their complaints about being mistreated by America. Why did Obama call the Czech prime minister at 1am to inform him of the decision? Did the White House not know about the six-hour time difference?

On a more serious note, Warsaw and Prague received an important lesson on the danger of building political leverage on a negative agenda by trying to play one friend (Washington) against another (Brussels). Bilateral relations can change very quickly, and it can take years - if not decades - to win back respect.

The Poles and central Europe won with Obama's decision. The end of the US "divide and conquer" strategy helped them avoid awkwardly being accused of being the Bush administration's Trojan horse inside the EU at a time when their best hopes for development are EU subsidies. Now they have a better environment ¬and greater motivation¬ to build their European identity.

The missile defence drama is not over. Warsaw wants "compensation", including deployment of US troops on its territory. With other countries, it has launched a campaign against withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. It is unlikely these efforts would improve security: the emergence of new troops near Russia's borders would not go unanswered. We can only hope the debate around the missile defence system in Europe is enough to stop us repeating dangerous mistakes.

Alexander Pikayev, Institute for International Affairs and Global Economy, Moscow.
First published in The Moscow Times

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