A flood of new political and military possibilities was unleashed Thursday when U.S. President Barack Obama pulled the plug on a proposed missile-defence system in Eastern Europe that has served for two years as an anger-provoking barrier between Russia and the West.
By cancelling the project at Russia's request and replacing it with a more informal and multilateral system of mobile defences, the map of international politics has been redrawn by Washington. The brick-wall politics of the George W. Bush era have given way, very suddenly, to the new foreign policy of Mr. Obama, one that is either more fluid and realistic, or more weak and risky, depending whom you ask.
Behind this simple act are a new set of forces governing international relations: a new and more dependent relationship between the West and Russia, a diminished sense of imminent threat from Iran, a renewed push for multilateral nuclear disarmament, and a reduced desire to build a chain of allies along Russia's western border.
Though it never amounted to more than some empty fields in southern Poland and the Czech Republic, the proposed U.S. missile-defence system has stood for two years as an awkward barrier to normal relations between Washington, Eastern Europe, Russia and NATO.
Behind its demise is the fact that the United States and NATO badly need Russia's co-operation now in the Afghanistan war and in efforts to reduce the threat of Iran. Attempts to make progress on these fronts have perpetually been stalled by Moscow's anger at the proposed missile base.
Russia will now be a partner. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, plans to use a major speech this morning to announce "a new beginning" with Russia, including new co-operation in the Afghanistan war, his aides said Thursday.
In fact, Moscow had already granted Washington a major concession. It removed its opposition to military bases in Kyrgyzstan being used as supply bases for the Afghan war and is allowing supply flights to fly over Russian territory, a tactically vital move that, according to those familiar with the talks, was conditional on the United States agreeing to abandon its missile base.
The price, one that Mr. Obama appears willing to pay, is the loss of a strong alliance built during the Bush years between Washington and the former Soviet colonies of Eastern Europe.
The anger was palpable in Prague and Warsaw Thursday, as leaders there learned, apparently without advance warning, that years of financial assistance and diplomacy from Washington, and years spent reassuring their citizens that the high-powered radar station in the Czech Republic and the 10 long-range interceptor missiles in Poland would protect them, had ended in a reversal.
As if to drive a symbolic stake into the relationship, Mr. Obama's announcement was made on the 70th anniversary of the day the Soviet Union invaded Poland, an occupation that effectively lasted until 1989.
"This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence," former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek told reporters Thursday. "It puts us in a position wherein we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that's a certain threat."
This was the paradox of the missile-defence system: While Washington had long insisted that it was designed solely to counter intercontinental missiles from Iran and North Korea headed toward the United States, it was immensely popular among Eastern Europeans, and immensely unpopular among Russians, because both groups firmly believed it would function as a deterrent to future Russian aggression.
Indeed, Polish President Lech Kaczynski went so far as to declare, during the Russian-Georgian conflict of August, 2008, that the conflict demonstrated the need for such a missile-defence system.
As a result, the anti-missile installation, without having been built, came to function as a new "iron curtain" between East and West, reinforced by the Bush administration's decision to attempt to expand NATO's membership right up to Russia's border in Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. Obama entered office to discover that some of his key policy goals - a reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons, a containment of Iran's and North Korea's potential nuclear ambitions - were being thwarted by Russian hostility toward the missile-defence system, whose strategic value was never firmly established.
The timing of the announcement was important, as the next several weeks will see a number of key U.S.-led talks that will be aided by Russia's co-operation.
Foremost is a meeting next Thursday of the UN Security Council in which Mr. Obama had hoped to pass a strong resolution on nuclear disarmament. Russia had blocked it, largely because of the missile-defence project.
That will be followed, a week later, by talks between members of the Security Council and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Several Western nations are seeking to impose threats of oil and gas sanctions against Iran unless there is more openness about the nuclear program. Russia's co-operation is believed crucial to making these threats viable.
Later this winter will be the renegotiation of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the leading nuclear arms-control agreement, and preliminary talks toward the renewal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which governs the spread of nuclear weapons. Russia had threatened to avoid all these talks because of hostile relations with the United States.
But the change also represents a new understanding of Iran's potential threat. While Bush officials had portrayed Tehran as having nuclear-weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs that would be producing usable long-range nuclear weapons by 2015, there is now an understanding that Iran is a less immediate threat, especially to faraway targets.
U. S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in a press briefing Thursday that the withdrawal of the system is an attempt to "address the threat that has really emerged versus the threat that we initially postulated …"
And while he described the concern over a handful of long-range missiles being replaced with an even greater danger of "hundreds" of short-range missiles that could strike Europe or Israel, General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the development of ICBMs by Iran and North Korea was taking longer than the United States had earlier predicted.
Washington's replacement missile-defence system, based on a network of mobile and marine-based launchers to prevent short-range and medium-range attacks, is partly designed to prevent Israel from attacking Iran, Mr. Gates said: "We hope that it will reassure them that perhaps there's a little more time here."
(The topic was also taken up in the Middle East Thursday. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that even a nuclear-armed Iran would not be capable of destroying Israel. "Israel can lay waste to Iran," he said in a newspaper interview. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran has no need of nuclear arms, but in an interview with NBC television did not explicitly rule them out.) At the same time, evidence of an imminent Iranian nuclear threat has proved elusive. The International Atomic Energy Agency Thursday allowed some reporters to view a heretofore secret document on Iran's nuclear program, and it revealed only that Tehran now possesses the "knowledge" to build an atomic bomb, without any suggestion of a program under way.
And U.S. officials this week told reporters in briefings that a 2007 intelligence assessment, which concluded that Tehran has dropped its weapons program and is not developing new nuclear weapons, is still considered valid.
Against that backdrop of fast-changing alliances and changing assessments of threats, Mr. Obama carefully described the abandonment of the program as a matter of prudence and economy.
"The best way to responsibly advance our security and the security of our allies is to deploy a missile-defence system that best responds to the threats that we face and that utilizes technology that is both proven and cost-effective," he told reporters Thursday.