The NATO summit in Chicago starting on Sunday is expected to declare an “interim capability” of a NATO missile defense shield. Although Russia had been invited by NATO at its summit in Lisbon in 2010 to cooperate in setting up a joint ballistic missile defense system, or B.M.D., the alliance is now poised to proceed unilaterally, leaving Russia out in the cold.
It would make more sense to call a brief pause. The decision to set up a missile defense system was a compromise from the start, containing two equally important strategic elements: One, a system to better protect NATO territory against future ballistic threats; two, to cooperate with Russia on planning and implementation of the B.M.D. system.
Security not against Russia, but together with Russia. That was the idea, and politically it was a very attractive one: If it were possible to cooperate with Russia on this tricky strategic issue, it might be easier to solve other disputes. Russia would no longer be out in the cold, but could finally find a place within European security structures. To put it another way, under this missile defense shield it might finally be possible to realize Mikhail Gorbachev’s 20-year-old dream of a “common European home.”
But this home may still remain a dream. Unlike previous NATO summits, the Russian president will not even come to Chicago. What would be the point? There is a risk not only of stagnation but of a real setback in NATO-Russia relations. Russia has already declared its intention to suspend the most important disarmament treaty in over two decades, New Start, should no progress be made on a joint B.M.D. There is talk in Moscow about possibly deploying new medium-range missiles in Kaliningrad, and even about possible preventive strikes against future NATO B.M.D. systems.
There is no question that Russia is a difficult partner. Yet we should take Russian concerns seriously, even if they seem irrational or stuck in the past. Given the enormous global and regional risks we face together, we need a new quality of East-West cooperation and a new kind of mutual trust. We need to demilitarize the way we think about one another.
And we need a Euro-Atlantic security community that is able to unite North America, Europe and Russia strategically. Is this not a key strategic task of NATO, to overcome the mistrust between Russia and the West once and for all? Instead, we are well on the way to promoting the kind of Cold War thinking that we thought we had put behind us years ago.
In Lisbon, the B.M.D. project was widely seen as an auspicious beginning of a new era. And, as comments by Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin show, Russia remains interested in working with the West. Russia continues to cooperate on Afghanistan. Since the Munich Security Conference in February, concrete proposals for compromises on the B.M.D. issue have been on the table.
This year of multiple elections is not a good time to turn back the strategic clock. President Obama himself confirmed this in public, albeit involuntarily, when his comment to Medvedev about no longer having any room for maneuver before the U.S. elections became public. If we, his European allies, do not take great care now, it is possible that Obama may not have any room for maneuver after his possible re-election either.
It would therefore be wrong, in Chicago, to kick the project of joint missile defense shield into the long grass and move forward on B.M.D. without Russia. B.M.D. as a game changer: yes. B.M.D. as a game breaker: no.
Treading water strategically is the best we can hope for at the Chicago summit. But stagnation must not turn into regression. It must be made clear that the door to a joint project with Russia remains open.
Wolfgang Ischinger, an Atlantic Council Board director, and a former German deputy foreign minister, is chairman of the Munich Security Conference.