At their Chicago summit, NATO heads of state and government declared that the Alliance had achieved an interim ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability. This political-military project is one the most important achievements in NATO’s post- Cold War history and goes far beyond the technical aspects of a very unique and complex defense system.
First and foremost. it proves the viability of the transatlantic link, based on the principles of indivisibility of Allied security and NATO solidarity.
Second, it proves that when common values are fused with shared threat perceptions, wise and fair leadership, and strong political will the Alliance is indeed an unbreakable, true coalition. The ballistic missile threat has been recognized at the Bucharest (2008) and Strasbourg/Kiel (2009) summits, but it has been the alternative Phased Adaptive approach to European BMD, adopted by the US in September 2009 and designed to cover the whole (not only parts) of the Alliance, that has been embraced by all Allies and boosted the process ahead.
Third, it proves the relevance of the Alliance as a credible political and military organization, capable of reacting in a timely manner and defending its populations, territories, and forces from emerging new threats. It took less than two years since the November 2010 Lisbon Summit to deploy the first stage of this capability, one directly relevant to NATO’s core task of collective defense. NATO’s leaders emphasized their determination to complete the full coverage of all Allies, providing the necessary flexibility through voluntary national contributions, including nationally funded interceptors and sensors, hosting arrangements, and the expansion of the existing Allied Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD) capability.
Fourth, it proves that when another party questions or attempts to deny the Alliance the right to undertake justified, clear, unequivocal, and fair defensive steps, it only contributes to an enhanced cohesion of the Alliance and increases public support for its policies.
It has been unfortunate that so far Russia has chosen to turn European BMD into a stumbling block in its relations with the Alliance. The Russian political elite has been driving its opposition to NATO’s BMD dangerously close to irreversibility. Whether this could be explained with Russia’s internal political process, with a miscalculated attempt to test NATO unity, or even with a blend of institutionalized irrationality, the fact is that this policy is a loser. Serious people, from missile experts to political leaders in both Russia and NATO know perfectly well that NATO’s European BMD is not designed or capable of threatening Russia and its nuclear deterrent. It does not undermine strategic stability. The threats to undertake an offensive posture and deploy offensive systems against a purely defensive arrangement which is not turned towards Russia lack both logic and credibility. Should Russia still decide to materialize the offensive intentions announced recurrently by some of its officials, it would only turn into an expensive propaganda exercise with no military value and a waste of resources.
More importantly however, by making opposition to European BMD a major obstacle in its overall security relationship with NATO, Russia seems be nearing a threshold of putting at stake other, real and important common geopolitical interests, including joint approaches to real common security risks and threats.
In Chicago, NATO’s leaders left the door wide open for further talks with Russia, based on mutual trust and reciprocity. They supported the ongoing efforts to determine possible synergies between the independent NATO and Russian missile defense systems, including the establishment of a joint NATO-Russia Missile Data Fusion Center and a joint Planning Operations Center. The Allies also suggested the development of a comprehensive transparency regime to benefit both Russia and NATO.
It remains to be seen whether Russia will chose this door. It also remains to be seen what President Obama had in mind when he whispered to then-Russian President Medvedev his expectation for “more flexibility” after the US presidential elections later this year.
The Chicago Summit has witnessed a promising triumph of prudence on the ballistic missile defense agenda and all the Allies should be proud of it.
Ambassador Boyko Noev is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and director of the European Program at the Center for the Study of Democracy. This piece is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.