Russia and the Missile Shield

I’ve been trying to puzzle through what to say about the Bush-Putin contretemps over US deployment of missile defense systems in central Europe. On the one hand, yes, the Russians are being weird about this. The US obviously isn’t planning a nuclear first strike on Russian targets, and the shield wouldn’t help us accomplish that either. That said, the baffled and indignant tone of yesterday’s Washington Post editorial was silly, particularly in its insistence on treating Russian objections to the US security posture as simply of a piece with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies.

I saw Mikhail Gorbachev on CNN this morning, and he wasn’t happy about the missile shield either. Putin is being paranoidish about this, but only in a way that reflects the view of the Russian security establishment. Which, after all, is how security establishments tend to behave.

I mean, suppose Putin formed a formal defensive alliance with Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua plus associated membership for Brazil and Argentina, then started backing anti-government civil society groups in Mexico and Colombia, and then? Well, there’d be panic in the American press and in the government, to say nothing of what would happen if this new alliance became a platform for even an embryonic version of a system that could, down the road, disable the US nuclear deterrent. And, of course, if that happened I’d probably be telling people to calm down a bit.

All of which is to say that the Post‘s dictum that “The missile defense initiative should proceed or not on its own merits (some legitimate questions have been raised by NATO members and Congress)” seems tunnel visionish to me. The diplomatic response is part of the merits of any national security policy initiative. Enjoying friendly relations with the world’s other major countries is an important policy goal. To the defense contractors who’ll profit from building anti-missile devices, of course, worsening relations with other great powers is a feature, rather than a bug, because down the road it can help drive higher and higher levels of spending on military equipment. But for the rest of us, that’s not the case. For the sake of something vitally important, sure, you piss off the Russians, but I see little evidence that this really is vitally important.