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US Missile Defence in Europe

Jan Kavan

... I have read that the Czech government started to negotiate with the US government about a possible US anti-missile installation during 2001. I was then a Foreign Minister and a Deputy Prime Minister in charge of foreign policy and security matters and I can assure you that not only I did not take part in any such negotiations, I was not even informed that do take place. Consequently I cannot confirm their existence.

In June 2002 there was a parliamentary election in the Czech Republic. No political party went into that election campaign, or even into the subsequent elections in June 2006, with the proposal to approve the installation of a US military base. So the people were never asked whether they want the US base or not. In September 2002, however, the then Social Democratic Minister of Defence in the new coalition government announced that he is involved in “technical discussions” with the US about a possible US missile defence base in the Czech Republic. At the same time he confirmed that no political decision was taken by the government, let alone by the Parliament. A few hours after the new right-wing government was finally installed in January 2007, it received a formal US request to install a radar station in the Czech Republic as part of the anti-missile system which would also include 10 interceptors in Poland.

The Czech government then hired a public relations consultant to run an explanatory campaign in order to persuade the people that the US military base is necessary and that the radar will protect both the US and the Czech Republic from a possible missile attack from rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. Some time later, North Korea was quietly dropped.

The campaign cost lots of money and received huge publicity but it was short on concrete arguments. From the beginning its major shortcoming was an absence of an explanation why Iran is such a threat both to the United States and to the Czech Republic. It is acknowledged that Iran does not possess long-range missiles capable of hitting the US, but it was argued that it may be able to produce them in 10-15 years and thus the world has to be prepared. As the late Wolfgang Panofsky pointed out in September 2007, “a ballistic missile has its return address written on its trajectory; such a launch would risk annihilation of the country and its leadership through retaliation by the USA.” There are suicidal bombers but no suicidal countries. Both Panofsky and Noam Chomsky stressed that for a terrorist group, and a country supporting it, it should be far easier to deliver a nuclear weapon by trucks, aircraft, commercial shipping and similar clandestine means than by ballistic missiles. I am no expert but this makes sense to me. I am aware of the danger of comparing uncomparable things but I still recall that during the very tough and repressive regime in the former Czechoslovakia with its closely guarded borders I was able to smuggle into the country many tons of literature and technical equipment.

We have never been given any explanation why Iran would want to target the Czech Republic or for that matter Poland, that is if we didn’t attract their attention by having a US military base on our territories. I noted Chomsky’s remark that “even if Iran had nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the chances of its using them to attack Europe are lower than the chances of Europe being hit by an asteroid.”

The hard core of the arguments used by the supporters of the radar could be described as a kind of an emotional blackmail. Newspapers trumpeted bombastic headlines such as “Not to participate in the defence is a cowardice.” Another paper wrote about “a base in a country of chicken and yellow-bellies”. Many journalists resorted to recalling Munich and appeasement. This theme was also taken up by former President Vaclav Havel, who on Easter Monday this year stressed on Czech TV (in response to Gorbachev) that “pacifists, who are today openly engaged against the radar, are committing something equally dangerous as was the pacifism we remember before Munich.” Havel then continued to argue that policies of concessions will lead to greater loss of life than firm position.” He pointed out that “US antiballistic missile defence has been developing for 15 years, cost billions of dollars, maybe it has some sense, maybe it does not, it is not on us to evaluate that. Fact is that our ally regards this as an efficient form of defence, asked us to cooperate and we are playing hard to get.” And quite angrily he complained that “for 20 years hundreds of thousands of people remained silent in the face of tens of thousands of Soviet tanks and 70,000 Soviet soldiers… Noone protested against that and now when freedom came, also thanks to United States, … we are hesitating and by that demonstrating that we have a kind of sovereignty…” He concluded that we should be grateful to the United States and to give them their radar as a very small repayment for everything they have done for us since 1918.

His outburst was fairly irrational as Havel knows perfectly well that not everyone was silent during the totalitarian regime, including himself. Everyone is allowed to change his mind but it is sad to see a friend, who to such an extent lost his memory and common sense. Havel the President denies Havel the dissident. It is significant that the opponents of the radar receive support from those Western organizations, especially in the United States, who helped us to organize protests against the Soviet occupation.

I heard the Munich argument from President George W. Bush in September 2002 when he asked me – as the President of the UN General Assembly – to get the United Nations to support his war against Iraq. He supported his argument by reminding me – as a Czech politician – of Munich and the dangers of appeasement when he compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. I am sure that he would not understand why people in Prague today compare Munich 1938 to the 2008 US recognition of the breakaway state of Kosovo and as appeasers they perceive those who are cowed by US pressure on us to agree to the radar station.

It has been argued that the radar station will enhance our own security but it was never explained how this will happen. Maybe the best explanation was given by Alexander Vondra, Deputy Prime Minister and former Ambassador to the United States, when he told the Heritage Foundation that “For us in the Czech Republic, which lies between Germany and Russia, an installation with a certain number of US troops would be good.” Similarly, Prime Minister Topolanek informed his party congress that “We must not allow our country again to fall into the geopolitical sphere of Russia. This is the real reason why the US radar base must be built in this country.”

On the other hand, even Czech top army officers acknowledge that the radar will be the eyes of the missiles in Poland and it would be understandable that the enemy would wish to blind them as soon as possible either by an anti-radar missile or by using some suicidal commandos. It has not been spelt out how the US plans to protect this radar station. The Poles obviously believe that they have to rely on their own protection and therefore they are demanding to strengthen their own air defence with US Patriot PAC-3 systems and maybe also the tactical THAAD anti-missile system. For many Poles it is obvious that these weapons should defend them from any Russian threat. I have yet to meet a Pole who believes in any threat from Iran. The Czechs are more modest. To date, they apparently asked for access of Czech firms to US military contracts. As far as I know, so far they have been offered some really insignificant orders, including a cleaning job at a base.

The other argument in favour of the bases stresses that the system will also defend most of Europe with the exception of the south-eastern regions. This, of course, raises the question why we should not wait for a system which would be able to defend the whole of Europe and be an integral part of NATO’s European defence operations. I am, of course, aware of NATO’s last summer’s supplementary resolution on the need to come up with a plan to cover those European fringes not covered by the US system. If NATO would embrace the Czech and Polish bases and if bilateral agreements with the US would be substituted by an agreement with all NATO member states then, at least, some of our political parties, for example the Greens, would drop their current objections or misgivings. The system would then become more acceptable to some of the opposition social democratic Members of Parliament. The government is clearly aware of this fact and, therefore, looks with some hopes to next week’s Bucurest NATO summit. I assume that NATO will welcome the US contribution and might promise to incorporate it in their own future system. However, as no such system exists, and I am aware of the Canadian or Norwegian objections to it, the future of the Czech and Polish bases might depend on the interpretation of what is a general and vague promise on the part of NATO. And, of course, it will also depend on the decisions of the next US Administration, including on its willingness to finance such a system.

I remember the first Alliance meeting I took part in as a Foreign Minister. It was in April 1999 and foreign ministers of NATO member countries discussed not only the bombardment of former Yugoslavia but then US Secretary of State Colin Powell raised there the issue of the US anti-missile umbrella and the need for Europeans to support it. The British Foreign Minister Robin Cook responded quite passionately and warned fellow Europeans not to have anything to do with this dangerous form of “star wars.” I do not recall any explicit support for the US then. I am, of course, aware that the situation today is different. However, there are still skeptical voices heard from several NATO countries. They point to the ever increasing estimates of the cost of the entire system and also to the unconvincing results of the tests carried out to date.

This unreliability was recently stressed in Prague by former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, Dr Philip Coyle, who repeated over and over again that the anti-ballistic missile system is not effective under real operating conditions. The tests were carried out without decoys or other means of deceptive tactics to defeat the ABM system and with information which would normally not be available such as the test missile trajectories. Even under such unreal advantageous conditions six tests out of 13 failed, according to Dr Coyle, who also informed us that even close US allies such as Canada refused to participate in the anti-ballistic missile defence because they believe that it is not effective and they fear that it would cause instability in the system of international relations.

It was interesting to compare the observations of Dr Coyle with the assertions of Lt. General Obering. Dr Coyle believes that, given the speed of the current tests, it will take 50 years to complete all system tests. General Obering, Director of the Missile Defence Agency, who visited Prague several times (last time with a number of representatives of US arms companies), on the other hand believes that the anti-ballistic missiles will be in their Polish silos by 2013 and a radar will be moved from the Marshall islands to the Czech Republic in 2011. Listening carefully to both experts, it became clear that the system is not yet ready and it will require a great amount of further tests and improvements before the envisioned 10 missiles could be deployed in 2013. It therefore raises the suspicion that the bases in the Czech Republic and Poland will be a kind of guinea pigs providing the greatest joy to firms such as Raytheon, Lockheed, and many others. After all, failure of the current system and the subsequent need for further development improvements means a permanent commercial success.

I understand that the US Congress agreed to reinstate the monies allocated to the bases which have been cut from the relevant budget only after the US signs the agreements with the governments of the Czech Republic and Poland and at least 45 days after Congress receives a study that would independently evaluate existing alternatives to the anti-ballistic missile defence in Europe. The Polish government is in no hurry, though some members of the government hope to reach an agreement before the end of the year, i.e. before the departure of the Bush Administration. They believe that given the desire of the US government to complete the negotiations before the new Administration takes over the reins of power, they may be able to negotiate a better deal with the departing politicians. Others look forward to a new President and also hope that in the meantime the Americans will be able to pacify or at least to reduce the Russian anger and hostility towards the new bases so close to the Russian border. On the other hand the Czech government is attempting to accelerate the negotiations and some hope that it may be able to sign a deal on May 5, 2008, when Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice is expected in Prague.

What is clear is that a majority of both Czech and Polish citizens oppose the establishment of foreign military bases on their soil. In the Czech Republic, frequent opinion polls indicate that 70% of the people have been unmoved by the government’s propaganda. Besides the arguments already mentioned many people and peace groups such as “No to Bases” mention several others:

  • The Czech Republic could become a target of a first strike without being at war.
  • It will become co-responsible for US conduct of preventive wars, which the US is prepared to carry out whenever it feels that its interests are endangered.
  • The decision to use the base will remain entirely in the US hands, the Czech Republic will only be informed afterwards.
  • There will be an increased danger of terrorist attacks in the Czech Republic and against Czech citizens abroad.
  • Falling pieces of destroyed missiles will represent a danger to the population in the given region which maybe twice as large as the entire Czech Republic.
  • The government report about the possible impact on health of people in the region and on the environment is perceived by leading Czech scientists as woefully inadequate and misleading.

Legally, the installation will lead to the violation of NATO’s undertaking of 1997 that there will be no foreign military bases in any of the new NATO member states. Equally, the installation will be a violation of the European Union document A Secure Europe in a Better Worldof December 2003.

By agreeing to the radar base, the Czech Republic will contribute to the rise of distrust between great powers, and between allies, including within NATO.

It is doubtful that the base will bring more technological know-how to the Czech Republic, as was promised in the past, for example in the case of major investments into the tractor factory Zetor, the aircraft factory Aero Vodochody, the nuclear power station Temelin. Compensation for export losses incurred when we agreed to ban all (non-military) exports to the Iranian Busher power station, etc. Those promises remained unfulfilled.

The Czech Constitution does not presuppose the establishment of any foreign military bases, only a short term stationing of foreign troops with parliamentary approval. The Constitution would, therefore, have to be changed (which cannot take place in the current political situation) or ignored with all the consequences.

As noone in the Czech Republic or Poland really believes that we may be threatened by Iran now or in the future, some hope that in combination with additional US commitments the bases will constitute a sufficient deterrent to Russia; others fear that the bases will unnecessarily provoke the Russian bear and make us vulnerable to any retaliation the Russians might consider adequate. President Putin’s Munich speech of February 2007 evoked the possibility of a new and dangerous “nuclear arms race.” I was not surprised when President Putin evoked the 1962 Cuban Crisis when Soviet missiles were similarly close to US homeland and the world was on a verge of a major war. Putin backpedaled soon, but the image remained. It seems to me that the Americans seriously underestimated the Russian sensitivity to US bases in Eastern Europe, so close to their homeland. The potential of this crisis to get worse and to lead to a new kind of a Cold War should not be dismissed lightly despite the recent talks between the top representatives of the United States and Russia.

I can understand that the recent offer made by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – that the Czech radar will not monitor Russian territory and the anti-missile defence in Poland will only be activated when the threat from Iran or from anywhere else is real, even coupled with a slowdown of the enlargement of NATO to include countries such as Georgia – is welcomed by Russia and also by Europe. All possibilities to reduce the tensions and reach an agreement should be explored despite the fact that any such promises can easily be broken again in the future – as happened in the past.

At the same time when the White House was still attempting to persuade the world of the dangers posed by Iran, one of the then Presidential Candidates, Fred Thompson, let the cat out of the bag by talking about the need for the anti-missile defence system to safeguard us from the potential threats posed by the strategic competitors Russia and China. This makes more sense than waiting for an Iranian attack that would never come, and terrorists who use bombs cannot be shot at with anti-ballistic missiles. This competition is obvious, such as the desire of the United States to control most of the world’s strategic raw materials, especially oil. The crucial question is what forms this will take and which methods will be resorted to.

Ten interceptors in Poland will obviously not represent a serious threat to Russia. However several military experts do not exclude the possibility of a future enlargement of such bases and more advanced missile defence. These experts seem to agree with peace groups that the main purpose of the bases is to negate the deterrent role that states expect from nuclear weapons and thus open space for the USA to carry out military actions anywhere which they could not afford to do if there were a credible threat of nuclear retaliation. The ability to blunt a retaliatory attack by an opponent possessing nuclear weapons will significantly increase the power of the Unites States. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes about “the desire to extend US supremacy as far as possible into the future before it would have to be inevitably replaced by a multilateral system.”

After 9/11, European countries offered to regard this attack as a violation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and thus as an attack against all members. Washington rejected an offer to help which some perceived as “European trap” to enable Europe to influence the conduct in the conflict. The United States preferred the “Coalition of the Willing” that was prepared to support a de facto unilateral military action of the United States. For similar reasons the United States would prefer to build the European missile shield as part of bilateral treaties with “willing” Czech Republic and Poland. This dangerous unilateral policy that may pave the way to more wars, including even ones where tactical nuclear weapons may be used, has to be strongly resisted. The Czech government, fully aware that over 70% of its citizens oppose the base, will not allow a referendum on the issue. The Parliament’s backbone may be strengthened if the opposition parties and Czech (and Polish) civil society peace groups receive full solidarity backing from at least some European governments and from non-governmental organizations worldwide, especially from the USA. I was glad to note that some such support from the US has been already forthcoming, including from groups who used to support our human rights groups before 1989, including then Vaclav Havel.

This presentation was given at the Article VI Forum meeting “NPT: Pathfinder to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World”, held by the Middle Powers Initiative in Dublin/Ireland on March 28–29, 2008. The meeting was co-sponsored by the Government of Ireland.


Jan Kavan served as Czech Republic’s Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign and Security Policy from 1999 to 2002 and as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1998 to 2002, and has most recently served as a Deputy in the Czech Parliament; kavanjm [at] seznam [dot] cz.