Missile defense has suddenly emerged as a divisive issue in Europe. Rather than enhancing European security, the Bush administration's plan to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic threatens to increase strains with Russia and deepen divisions with the US' European allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe, where support for US polices has historically been strongest.
The growing opposition to the US missile defense deployment is rooted in the way in which it has managed -- or rather mismanaged -- the presentation of its deployment plans.
First, US officials did not lay the political and psychological groundwork for deployment. They assumed that Czech and Polish leaders -- who were strongly pro-US -- would willingly agree to deployment, and that public opinion in both countries would go along with whatever the governments decided.
But the US failed to develop a coherent public rationale for its planned deployment of a system designed to destroy a missile fired by a rogue regime. As a result, the Czech and Polish governments were unable to answer fundamental questions about the costs and benefits of the deployment for Polish and Czech national security. This allowed skeptics and opponents of missile defense to gain the upper hand in the internal debates in both countries.
Second, US officials initially tended to view missile defense largely as a technological issue divorced from its political context. For most Europeans, however, the military-technical issues are less important than the broader political implications of deployment for European stability and security. The initial US briefings to European allies ignored this fact.
Third, the US underestimated the role of public opinion in Poland and the Czech Republic. US officials assumed that it was sufficient to have the consent of the governments and failed to recognize the degree to which these countries have become increasingly "Europeanized" in the last decade. Membership of the EU has resulted in the proliferation of ties to Europe at many levels, as well as a major influx of EU money. This has had an enormous impact on public attitudes in Eastern Europe.
In Poland, a big gap exists between the government's attitude and that of the population regarding the EU. The Polish government is dominated by Euro-skeptics and has pursued a highly nationalistic policy that has often antagonized EU officials. Ordinary Poles, by contrast, are strongly pro-European. According to recent polls, 80 percent of the population supports Poland's membership of the EU -- the highest in Europe.
Fourth, US officials have tended to assume that the countries of Eastern Europe will remain staunchly pro-American and automatically support US policy. That was true five years ago, but it is much less true today. As Eastern European countries become more closely integrated into the EU, they increasingly have to calculate the impact of their policies on relations with Europe.
At the same time, the war in Iraq and abuses associated with it have tarnished the US' image in Eastern Europe. This is true even in Poland, which is the most pro-American country in the region. The Polish government strongly supported the US in Iraq, sending the third largest contingent of forces, after the US and Great Britain. However, Polish public opinion, like public opinion in Western Europe, was overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq invasion.