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Kurt Volker: Disappointment is understandable

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It’s somewhat ironic that vice-president Joe Biden will play the role of a conciliatory messenger, coming to Prague after the US plan to station an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic has been scrapped. As a senator, he always belonged among the opponents of missile defence. According to Kurt Volker, who was the US ambassador NATO ambassador between July 2008 and May 2009, what really matters now is whether NATO will really be able to build a missile defence system, as the Obama administration proposed.

The sudden death of the project was even more clumsy than the official anti-missile radar in January 2007. What do you think about the admission that the White House wanted to cut media speculations short?
Newspaper reports and commentaries really did write that the US will completely back out of the European missile defence system. That wasn’t true, but it certainly shouldn’t have affected the way the administration made the announcement.

Western European members of the alliance welcomed the scrapping of Bush’s plan. Did it even stand a chance in NATO?
Originally, the project had support. The focus was on the threat from Iran, and it was clearly stated that it was not aimed against Russia.

The problem was when missile defence became bound up in a broader political and psychological context. Out of principle, the Russians were against it. The Poles and the Czechs saw it as a direct security tie to the US, and as part of the alliance, it illustrated two different strategic approaches to Moscow.

So Prague and Warsaw expecting more from the project than the Americans?
The Americans, of course, would have also welcomed strong ties to central Europe. But Poland and the Czech Republic came to see those ties more and more as connected to missile defence. But it was going to about a broader relationship, encompassing a whole spectrum of political, security and economic ties. Seeing it all in terms of missile defence was a mistake. Even on the part of the Americans.

You said yourself: the Czech and Polish intentions were very clear?
Both the Bush administration and the Obama administration clearly said that they offer nothing more and nothing less than article 5 of the alliance treaty. That is a guarantee of collective defence that we are bound to keep. And saying that we need something more? There is nothing more than that.

When it comes to ties and securities, Poland, which might only change the initial agreement with the US from stationary missiles to mobile missiles, could be quite content…
I think you would have a hard time finding a Pole or a Czech who feels like a winner right now. On a psychological level, the ties have been weekend. We need to get over that.

But some of the reactions spoke about pulling troops out of Afghanistan…
I understand that the initial reaction was very negative, but gradually it is becoming more moderate. I could criticise one thing about central Europe’s approach in this issue – whether it’s about missile defence, Afghanistan or Iraq – it’s the notion of seeing it in terms of a barter. We will do this, but you will give us this in exchange. We will send soldiers to Afghanistan, but how many armoured vehicles will you give us?

But as an ally among developed countries, you shouldn’t be thinking in business terms. You should be thinking in terms of shared interests and values. And, as a result of that, also shared advantages.

Do you believe that this will be the case with the new missile defence project?
The North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation will need to rework its plans. Originally NATO defence was to join the already-existing US system. Now it will be the other way around. Along with technical and military issues, there’s also the question of who will fund this.

Could that kill the project?
That’s an open question… Even up until now it wasn’t easy. NATO does not have a good history when it comes to costly project. What’s more, we are dealing with the effects of the economic and financial crisis. It’s very open… which, of course, is true of the American side as well.

The attitude toward Russia is open as well. There were positive reactions, but there was also the reaction of Russian NATO ambassador Rogozin, that the mobile systems on ships are also strategically unacceptable…
That doesn’t surprise me at all. The Russians need to decide whether they want to see this as a power issue. Under president Bush, they refused to cooperate, and their “offers” were meant only as a replacement of the central European project.

How do you see the chances of future cooperation now?
I’d say there is a 20% chance that the Russians will be constructive, and an 80% chance that they will continue pushing their own agenda.

That should be one of the basic points in NATO’s new strategy. We, that is to say, the United States and Germany, tried to spell out the principles this spring, but that effort seems to have fizzled out.

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