With the occupation of Iraq soon to enter its sixth year and the looming possibility of war against Iran, it’s easy for Americans not to notice the Bush administration’s attempt to expand the U.S. military presence in Europe. A new Cold War between the United States and Russia threatens. And the U.S. media is paying little attention.

Even many in the peace movement don’t know that Washington has proposed to install 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar military base in the Czech Republic. The missiles and radar taken together constitute an anti-missile system purportedly meant to defend against Iran and other “rogue” states. In fact, they represent a new expansion of U.S. global military power and an escalation of the arms race with Russia.

Opposition to the proposed U.S. installations, however, is gathering force within Poland and the Czech Republic. And even the U.S. Congress has shown a measure of skepticism. The expansion of U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe is far from a done deal.

Why Eastern Europe?

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has moved resolutely to create a unipolar world based on ever-greater military dominance. Though much weakened, Russia remains a major international “player” because of its vast size, its still-formidable nuclear arsenal, and its ability to use its gas and oil resources for political advantage. Consequently, Moscow is viewed by Washington as a major potential threat to its imperial ambitions, one that must be undermined.

The U.S. drive since 1991 to increase its global military hegemony and cow all possible challengers is evident in many areas; the unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the launching of a new Star Wars project, the elimination of uncooperative strongmen Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein (mass murderers with whom Washington had once been content to do business), and now the plan for bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. New U.S. radar and missiles in Central and Eastern Europe are obviously meant to intimidate Russia; the “rogue states” rationale is an absurd piece of camouflage.

Although the new missile “defense” system is manifestly intended as an extension of U.S. power, the Bush administration hoped at first to construct it with the help of European allies. Even before taking office, Bush advisors like Richard Armitage wanted to rename the proposed system the Allied Missile Defense to reflect the inputs from Europe. European allies were happy to allow the upgrading of key bases on their territories. In 2003, Britain agreed to beef up the radar facility in Fylingsdale so that it could be part of U.S. missile defense plans. Denmark, too, acceded to a similar upgrading at the Thule base in Greenland, which was completed early this year. But they balked at linking their own modest theater missile defense systems to the larger, strategic missile defense program that the Bush administration was pushing, calling it unworkable, prohibitively expensive, and needlessly provocative. As former French president Jacques Chirac said in 2001, U.S. missile defense plans ”cannot fail to relaunch the arms race in the world.” Compliant governments in Eastern Europe, however, eager to cement relations with the United States as it squares off against neighboring Russia, have not been so cautious. This is the reality behind U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s angry division of Europe into “old” and “new” in 2003.

Russia and Iran

Washington’s scheme has already produced an ominous response from Russia. Russian officials have threatened to direct their missiles toward Poland and the Czech Republic if the United States proceeds with the system. They also have threatened to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe and to suspend participation in a separate treaty limiting the deployment of conventional forces in Europe.

A radar station in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland don’t constitute an immediate challenge to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, with its thousands of warheads. But there is a clear long-range threat that these U.S. bases will be upgraded. Official U.S. documents bear this out. National Security Presidential Directive 23, signed by President Bush on Dec. 6, 2002, stated that the United States would begin to deploy missile defenses in 2004 “as a starting point for fielding improved and expanded missile defenses later.” This presidential directive was preceded in January 2002 by a memorandum from Rumsfeld, directing the Missile Defense Agency to develop defense systems by using whatever technology is “available,” even if the capabilities produced are limited relative to what the defense must ultimately be able to do.

When the Soviet Union first built a limited missile defense system in the late 1960s, the United States responded by building up a nuclear strike strategy to overwhelm the new technology. The cycle of nuclear one-upmanship was partially halted by the ABM Treaty, but then the Bush administration withdrew from the treaty in 2002. Now, writes Hans Kristenson of the Federation of American Scientists, “history repeats itself, but the table has been turned. Today it is the United States building a limited missile defense system (more capable than the Soviet system, but purportedly focused on “rogue” state missiles), and it is the Russians who say they need to target it to maintain the effectiveness of their deterrent. The Cold War may be over, but military and policy planners in both countries still think in Cold War terms.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Russian concerns “ludicrous,” insisting that the Czech-Polish missile defense is aimed at Iran and not Russia. Yet U.S. officials rejected Russia’s offer to make available to the United States the data from early-warning radar in Azerbaijan and Armavir, Russia, and not to object to U.S. missile defense interceptors being stationed in Iraq or Turkey or other southern European sites, nor to the United States employing ship-based interceptors. Washington’s lack of interest in Russia’s proposal reveals the real intent of the Czech-Polish anti-missile defense: to counter Russia’s deterrent. If the goal were just to defend against a putative Iranian threat, the alternatives suggested by the Russians would actually be more effective.

Moreover, there is no credible evidence that a missile threat from Iran exists today. The National Intelligence Estimate released in December 2007 further undermined the credibility of that claim by stating that Iran had discontinued its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Even the Polish government, which looks set to try to overcome domestic opposition and accept the U.S. interceptor missiles, has dismissed the Iranian justification. In January 2008 Polish Foreign Affairs Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said publicly, “We feel no threat from Iran.” And the belligerent stance of the United States toward Iran, far from protecting the United States or Europe from such a threat in the future, only enhances its likelihood. The example of North Korea, where years of U.S. military threats provided a strong inducement to seek nuclear weapons, is cautionary.


Internal opposition to the anti-missile system has unexpectedly emerged in Poland and the Czech Republic. In the Czech Republic, the No Bases Initiative (NBI) has organized grassroots opposition to the installation of the U.S. base. Popular opposition to the radar installations has held steady, even increased, despite the intensive propaganda efforts of the Czech and United States governments. As of this writing, 70% of the population is opposed to the radar, with only 20% in favor, and the rest undecided.

The No Bases Initiative group has been sharply critical of the Czech government for trying to push through the radar agreement with the United States and not informing Czech voters of this intention in the last election. NBI has repeatedly challenged the government to hold a popular referendum on the question so that the Czech people can decide. Thus far, the government has refused to do so.

In Poland, opposition to the anti-missile system is less well organized than in the Czech Republic. But there, too, public opinion is opposed, with 60% reported to be against the interceptor missiles. Nonetheless, on February 1 of this year Radoslaw Sikorski and Condoleezza Rice announced that they had agreed in principle to install interceptor missiles on Polish soil, as Warsaw demanded. In return, the Bush administration has said it will help strengthen Poland’s air defenses. However this deal remains to be finalized. According to The Washington Post, Sikorski’s spokesman said after the announcement that there was “definitely no agreement” on missile defense. “Ultimately, we will have to sell it to the public.”

Peace activists from around Europe have joined their counterparts in the Czech Republic and Poland to oppose the two new facilities. “The realisation of the U.S. plan will not lead to enhanced security,” reads the Prague Declaration of 2007. “On the contrary – it will lead to new dangers and insecurities. Although it is described as ‘defensive,’ in reality it will allow the United States to attack other countries without fear of retaliation. It will also put ‘host’ countries on the front line in future U.S. wars.” Protest actions in front of the Czech Embassies have already been mounted in various European cities. To coincide with large demonstrations in Prague and Brno in November, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy organized a group of peace leaders to meet with Czech Ambassador to the U.N. Martin Palous and present him with a statement opposing the U.S. radar. In addition, the New Humanists further strengthened this transnational effort by picketing the Czech Mission to the UN.

Congressional Hesitation

Resistance in Europe and elsewhere has received reinforcement from the U.S. Congress, which has hesitated to move forward with the bases. In May 2007, the Senate Armed Services Committee cut $85 million from the 2008 Defense Authorization act intended for site activation and construction work on the missile installation in Poland and radar site in the Czech Republic. The Senate committee action followed a House vote earlier in May to cut the president’s request for the anti-missile system by $160 million.

Not surprisingly, neither the House nor the Senate actions were framed as outright opposition to the anti-missile bases as new outposts of the U.S. empire. The cuts were justified on the basis of narrower technical arguments that the proposed missiles have not yet been sufficiently tested, and on concerns that Czech and Polish public opposition would prevent actual deployment, which would mean that the funds would have been wasted. Nonetheless this congressional foot-dragging offers an opportunity for opponents of the anti-missile system from Poland, the Czech Republic, the rest of Europe and the United States to collaborate in stopping the program altogether.

Next Steps

According to foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson, the United States had 737 overseas military bases in 2004, not counting garrisons in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, or U.S. military and espionage installations in the United Kingdom. This vast network of overseas bases supports a foreign policy of military interventions and global intimidation. The proposed bases in Eastern Europe are part of this overall strategy. The Bush administration hopes to override resistance in the Czech Republic and Poland and finalize agreements with both countries within the next few months. Activists are organizing on both sides of the Atlantic to derail the agreement.

Protests are planned to coincide with upcoming visits from the Czech and Polish prime ministers. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has been invited to the White House on February 27 to meet with President Bush and push the radar project forward. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is scheduled to meet with President Bush in March. Both prime ministers will be greeted with placards showing that there is “another America” opposed to the radar and supportive of the Czech opponents of the base.

The planned “missile defense” system in the Czech Republic and Poland will, if implemented, further increase the danger to human and all other forms of life that nuclear weapons pose, significantly expand U.S. military power, and contribute to a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. But it can be stopped. Its dangers are obvious and easy to demonstrate, and it is deeply unpopular among the citizens of the “host” countries. Stopping it will, however, require action by American peace organizations, to strengthen our friends in the Czech Republic and Poland, to pressure our elected representatives, and to educate public opinion in this country.

Joanne Landy and Thomas Harrison are co-directors of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (www.cpdweb.org) and contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.