The recent Czech decision to not host part of a US early warning system has nothing to do with the Czechs' overall enthusiasm for missile defense – nor their willingness to take on a greater role in the future.
Last month, headlines around the globe blared that the Czech Republic had decided to scrap plans to participate in the US anti-ballistic missile defense system (ABMS). Journalists speculated about a disgruntled ally frustrated by a small role in the system, as well as an overall disappointment among Central European leaders in the Obama administration's supposed betrayal in the midst of its “reset” in relations with Russia.
Ever since then, both American and Czech officials have tried to stress that the media got the story wrong – and with some justification. The Czech decision to not host part of an early warning system (SEWS) has nothing to do with the Czechs' overall enthusiasm for missile defense, they say, nor their willingness to take on a greater role in the future. Officials appear to have been particularly irked by stories that, they say, misinterpreted the 15 June announcement after Czech Defense Minister Alexander Vondra met in Prague with US Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn.
During a press conference, both men explained that the Czechs had chosen not to install several SEWS computer terminals on Czech army premises because the original plans, reported first in the Czech media back in April 2010, had been overtaken by events, especially NATO's decision at the Lisbon summit last year to take the missile defense system under its wing.
Appreciating the nuance
In response to the announcement, influential international media pounced. The New York Times headline read “Czechs, Disliking Role, Pull Out of U.S. Missile Defense Project,” while an “AP Exclusive” claimed, “Czechs out of U.S. Missile Shield Plan”. Reuters was more nuanced (and accurate): “Czechs won't host U.S. missile defense computers.”
In subsequent comments, Vondra tried to explain the distinction between rejecting the specific SEWS offer and a NATO ABMS system in general. Reaffirming the government's support of missile defense, he repeated the explanation that the original, bi-lateral offer no longer made sense now that missile defense would be coordinated through NATO and include an information-sharing system for all alliance members. The SEWS system could just report the firing of enemy missiles but wouldn't, he said, be connected to the NATO system or allow any military response.
Vondra also mentioned the cost: around $1 million per year. The Americans would pay the costs for the first two years; afterwards, the Czechs would have to foot the bill. As Vondra put it: “In a moment when we aren't so sure that this project has a chance to develop, it wouldn't be prudent to invest in it and create exaggerated expectations, which could in the end lead to unnecessary frustration in mutual relations.”
Security analysts agree that it would be foolish to interpret the Czech's decision as a rejection of missile defense, as some opponents of the project have triumphantly proclaimed and some of those headlines suggested. “Looking at the composition of the present Czech government, there is no rational reason to believe that this government is generally anti-US or anti-NATO,” said Ivo Samson, the head of the International Security Program at the Research Center of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. “Just on the contrary, in the person of the two ministers managing Czech foreign and security policy, the US administration has…the most friendly people to meet their ideas.” He was referring to Vondra, formerly Czech ambassador to the US, and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
“This government wants a strong anti-missile defense and a strong and dignified place for the Czechs in the NATO framework. The SEWS, however, does not meet the expectations,” said Samson. “Sooner or later, they believe, the US (be it Obama the second or a new Republican) will address the Czechs with a better offer. It does not necessarily mean a revival of the Bush project but as missile proliferation seems unstoppable, so do the defense mechanisms in the West.”
To some extent, the superficial explanation that the rejection of SEWS was simply “revenge” for Obama's decision in September 2009 to cancel Bush-era missile defense plans was understandable, given the Czech reaction at the time and some comments made since. Those plans called for stationing a radar facility in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland as part of a grand, US system to counter threats from hostile regimes, such as Iran and North Korea. Both Central European governments invested enormous political capital in the project in the face of negative public opinion, and then felt frustrated that a new strategy of “restarting” relations with Russia, which opposed the missile defense system, had apparently taken priority.
This spring, for example, at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Vondra had called the SEWS role “a consolation prize” and said “Our ideas about the future cooperation are more colorful than just a room or two with some screens there.” That attitude may also, to some extent, represent disappointment that the Poles had cemented a better offer to host missile interceptors as part of the revamped NATO-led system.
Samson, at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, said he could empathize with the Czechs, having been involved in missile defense research and the ABMS public relations campaign in Slovakia before Obama pulled the plug. He points out that most of the people involved in the recent decision were active proponents of the US plans and had looked at Russian opposition as a renewed “battle” over Central Europe. “They felt betrayed, offended, and affronted by Obama’s approach,” he said. “The abandonment of missile defense has been seen as their defeat – by the way, it cost a lot in personal engagement and the struggle included loss of electoral points to defy the opinion of the majority of the population.”
Finding a mutual accommodation
Yet all parties talk of a sober decision that weighed costs and benefits, and not one prompted by lingering bitterness.
“The Czechs tell me that the role of the facility, which was going to be based there, was gradually diminishing,” said Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform. “It was not going to be a central part of the missile defense system at all, which is what the Czechs would have liked. So to say that Vondra rejected ABMS as such is nonsense – if anything, he wanted to be a more integral part of it.”
“I suspect that what happened is that the Americans were keeping the idea of a facility in the Czech Republic going simply because they did not want to offend the Czechs. And it dawned on Vondra that this is what's happening. He probably found it condescending – hence the quip about being offered a 'consolation prize',” said Valasek. “But at the end of the day the Americans had a facility they didn't really need, and the Czechs were being offered something they didn't really want. So they both agreed to part amicably – this was not done in a fit of anger; I'm being told that the two sides talked it over extensively.”
In an interview with ISN Insights, Deputy Foreign Minister Jiri Schneider also asserted that was the case. “This was a bi-lateral offer and there were discussions over whether there was a potential of growth, to plug this other system,” he said. “But there was generally the conclusion that this was a blind alley and that wouldn't be the case.”
“Against the backdrop of a mutual understanding, we [the Czechs and Americans] were both surprised at the interpretation that this was the end of cooperation,” Schneider said, though noting that the non-existence of another offer on the table did lend itself to that interpretation. “We are very open to the NATO concept of missile defense and exploring the opportunities for the Czech Republic, to find a place for the country in the new architecture.”