Obama in the Kremlin
Will the president sacrifice both Poland's interests and America's own?


President Obama arrives in Moscow today to press the “reset button” in Russian-American relations. Already there is exaggerated talk of a “nuclear breakthrough” in cutting warheads for long-range missiles. But the real test of the president’s diplomacy will be missile defense.

After the Russian invasion of Georgia last summer, the United States pledged to shore up the precarious position of Poland, which has so often been used by Russia as a doormat, by building a missile-defense base there for ten long-range interceptor missiles and by setting up a radar station in the Czech Republic.

Secretary of State Rice observed at the time of the invasion that Washington has a “firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland’s territory as if it was the territory of the United States.” The decision to set up defensive weapons was intended to lessen the likelihood that America would ever have to fulfill its obligation to go to war on Poland’s behalf, as England and France did in 1939.

President Obama, however, has mixed feelings about the missile-defense plan. The New York Times reported in March that the president “sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help him stop Iran from developing long-range weapons.”

The Russians, for their part, have intimated that there will be no “resetting” of their diplomacy unless the United States drops the missile-defense plan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested that, in light of developments in Iran, Russia may be amenable to a plan involving Russian collaboration of some kind or another. But anything other than token cooperation would quite obviously be undesirable from the point of view of both the United States and Poland. The Russians, sensing this, have poured cold water on the idea.

If the president scraps missile defense for Poland, or if he drags his feet in implementing it, he will have done more than leave an ally in the lurch and raise doubts about the value of American promises. He risks giving the impression that America is wavering in its commitment to the “liberties of Europe.”

Europe, though it has long been a seat of culture, has only recently had much luck with freedom. Before 1945, its free-state regimes were vulnerable to foreign aggression. To defend themselves, the Continental nations built up large standing armies. These military establishments put a great, often crushing, pressure on free institutions. If civil liberty was not destroyed by an invader, as it was in most of Europe after the Germans began to march in the 1930s, it was often undone by a domestic usurper backed by an army, as it was in France when the country’s fragile republican regimes were wrecked by the Eighteenth Brumaire and Second of December coups of Napoleon I and Napoleon III.

Of all the great European powers, England alone, an island, was spared the unappetizing choice of foreign invasion or conversion into an armed camp. As a result of her saving geography and an astute policy designed to prevent any single European state from obtaining a preponderance of power on the Continent, England became the birthplace of freedom under law. (America, even more isolated during the seed-time of her free institutions, was as fortunate.) Since 1945 the English miracle has been extended to the Continent, and free institutions have prospered on the European mainland as never before.

No one likes to admit it, but this is largely because of the American nuclear umbrella, which has shielded Europe’s free states from foreign aggression. The nuclear barrier has, moreover, allowed Continental nations to dispense with the gigantic military machines that in the past were all too readily converted into engines of domestic tyranny.

Missile defense promises to make Europe’s freedoms still more secure. There has always been a hole in the nuclear wall. Even with the American nuclear umbrella in place, a ruthless leader might use his nuclear arsenal to advance his ambitions, even at the risk of retaliation.

The danger of this sort of thing happening today is probably as great as it ever has been. “It is clearly the strategic intent of Iran to continue to develop these [nuclear] missiles,” Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Warsaw last week. “They are now on the edge of being able to project that capability to Europe.  . . . And, the longer-term expectation right now, from the United States’ perspective, is that eventually that capability will also be projected as far away as the United States.”