Mark Danner

Marooned In the Cold War

Three years have passed since I stood in a tiny market in Sarajevo, notebook in hand, gazing through a chaos of smoke and running feet at the scores of dead heaped about the blood-slick earth.

Three years have passed since I stood in a tiny market in Sarajevo, notebook in hand, gazing through a chaos of smoke and running feet at the scores of dead heaped about the blood-slick earth. I tried but failed to count the corpses: the explosion of the mortar shell had sent long sheets of the market’s ramshackle metal roof slicing through the boisterous crowd, instantly reducing what had been people to limbs and torsos and bits of tissue. Already, burly men had begun piling scraps of flesh and bone on these blackened sheets of steel, flinging them into the bed of an ancient dump truck. Nearby, an enormous fellow in a black overcoat wept bitterly over the twisted torso of a woman lying at his feet, while two smaller men struggled to hold him back; imprisoned in the bear hug, he turned his great head toward the sky, and as I watched the cords in his neck tense and his mouth gape I realized that though my eyes were filled with carnage and my nose with the stench of cordite my ears could hear nothing. Following his stare I gazed upward and, just as the enormous, hate-filled scream broke through my consciousness, I saw the silver planes tracing their way elegantly through the bright blue sky: American F-16s-the fighter planes of NATO, on patrol, guarding the besieged city of Sarajevo.

I had not meant to be at the market that sunny afternoon. I had planned instead to revisit a favorite landmark. A dozen years earlier-before television had made its streets as familiar to us as those of Saigon once had been-I had traveled to Sarajevo and found myself standing beside the tiny bridge where, seven decades before, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip had raised his revolver, fired twice, and ushered in the modern world. Standing in his footsteps-quite literally, for the Yugoslav government had seen fit, for the benefit of posterity and the tourist industry, to sink impressions of the soles of the young man’s shoes into the concrete sidewalk-I closed my eyes, blotted out the noise of the city around me, and tried to imagine what it had felt like to change the course of history with two squeezes of the finger.

Of course the young Bosnian Serb’s intent in murdering the Austrian arch-duke had been nowhere near so grandiose. That he succeeded in overturning historyon such a scale proved only that the stability of that edifice had been greatly exaggerated. And for many, that revelation-of the shallowness of what men had come to call “modern civilization,” soon to be proven in such bloody fashion on the Great War’s battlefields-brought with it a good deal of pathos. On that sunny day in Sarajevo, eyes closed, I felt a wisp of that pathos, as the memory of some fragmented bit of eloquence floated through my mind; only after a good deal of searching did I findthe words I had not quite been able to place: “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness,” Henry James had written to a friend in 1914, “is a thing that so gives away the whole long age in which we have supposed the world to be, with whatever abatement, gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning is too tragic for any words.”

Eight years have now passed since our own annus mirabilis of 1989: eight years since the Germans tore down with hammers and crowbars the wall that had severed their country; eight years since the political tide set forth in the streets of Berlin and Prague and Budapest began its inexorable flow east, sweeping before it, two years later, the Soviet Union itself. A four-decade military confrontation between the two most heavily armed nations in history, each able to obliterate in a matter of hours the surface of the planet, collapsed in dancing and celebration, without the movement of a single tank or a sole infantryman, without a shot fired or a drop of blood shed. After four decades of ominous black skies, who could have imagined the Cold War would offer escape through such a sunlit portal?

And yet have we truly managed to walk through that portal even now? What have these eight years been “really making for and meaning”? For James’s words treated not only the agony of 1914 but the unforgiving character of history itself: the “treacherous years” care little for the construction put on them by men; they delight in their own grim ironies. And so at its very creation the vaunted “post-Cold War world” would plunge into its own “abyss of blood and darkness,” gaping wide in peaceful Europe itself, and at the precise place where Princip and his revolver christened our century.

The wars in the former Yugoslavia-with their confusing narratives, their end less complicated maps, their faceless diplomats flying this way and that offering one more peace plan named for themselves-seem today very far off. Yet it was scarcely two years ago that the scenes from Europe, from modern Europe where the cars andthe roads and the restaurants look muchlike our own, could be tuned in on any television set: Gunners manning modern artillery pounding ancient cities into rubble. Soldiers searching the ruins for survivors, raping the women and girls, massacring the men; or herding them into concentration camps, there to be abused, tortured, left to starve. We had seen nothing like it in Europe since the Second World War-or so it was often said. It would be more accurate to say simply that we had seen nothing like it. For, unlike the Second World War, unlike the Great War over which James so bitterly grieved, we no longer had to open the paper to follow the “plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness”-we had only to press a small button on the remote control and see. The gunners shelling, the children shrieking on the operating table, the battered faces of emaciated men staring dully out from behind barbed wire: we sat in our living rooms and watched all of them as they enacted the drama before our eyes, clearly, undeniably, day in and day out. And while we watched, 100,000 people died.

Who Is to Blame?

In the eschatology of the Cold War, the signs of the End of Time had always been clear: the trumpets would sound, the Wall would be pulled down, Europe would be whole and free. Now the beginning of the End of Time, so miraculously achieved, had loosed a fountain of blood in Europe-and the West, the all-powerful and triumphant West, could do no more than look on in horror and paralysis. For however complicated the story of the demise of the former Yugoslavia, history will likely prove itself relatively uninterested in the details and focus instead on what was sorely lacking on the part of the West during those years of war: the will to act. No doubt historians will find no small irony in the fact that the Western countries, during these years of impotent bickering, would blame their collective inertia on the need to preserve consensus in the very institution that had borne them unscathed through the “treacherous years” of the Cold War: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

NATO had, of course, been created in 1949 to bring together the nations of North America and western Europe to oppose the Soviet Union; keeping the peace in Yugoslavia had never been part of its brief. Still, the fiasco in Bosnia could not help but severely tarnish the alliance’s reputation. Not only had the televised barbarity in Europe forever undermined any claim NATO might have had to be protector of the “moral values” of the West, but by late 1994 “the most successful military alliance in history”-torn by conflicts and recriminations of a bitterness not seen since the Suez crisis of 1956-had come near to splitting apart. If Clinton administration officials were finally moved to take strong action in Bosnia, they did so in part because they had at last been forced to acknowledge that the war was no longer simply about an obscure country with little strategic value but was now also about the powerlessness of the West and the feebleness of its institutions, NATO first among them.

Whatever the future of the Dayton Accords, the wars in Yugoslavia had cast into strong relief an inevitable question: as the Cold War slipped further and further into the past, what exactly was the purpose of the Atlantic alliance? The Soviet Union had disappeared. And yet, even as West Germany absorbed the former East Germany to become the incipient economic powerhouse of the continent, several hundred thousand heavily armed American troops stood at the heart of its reconstituted territory; 100,000 remain today, manning their tanks and armored personnel carriers, guarding a border that no longer exists.

The “post-Cold War world” is a trope that has long since become a cliché, and like many clichés it bears more scrutiny than it customarily receives. For though it has not escaped notice that the United States now lacks a “doctrine” to guide its foreign policy, the vaunted “containment” policy having presumably been superseded, and though officials of the Clinton administration have struggled to create memorable phrases to characterize their presumably new approach to a presumably new world (“assertive multilateralism” was put forward-alas-during the Bosnia fiasco; “enlargement of market democracies” headed a more recent effort)-despite these rhetorical exercises, in broad outline America’s policy toward the world remains a good deal more like that of the past four decades than different from it.

Preponderant Power

American national security planners remained determined to maintain “preponderant power” in the world-the phrase first appeared in 1950 in the central Cold War planning document known as NSC-68-and to do so by means of a grand strategy that still depends on the forward basing of American troops: 100,000 in the heart of Europe; 100,000 in Asia, divided between Korea and Japan; 25,000 in the Middle East; and a grand armada of 12 aircraftcarriers.

The purpose of these forces is clear, as Pentagon planners declared bluntly in 1994: to “maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” Although too polite to say so, they clearly had in mind as the most important “potential competitors” the Germans and the Japanese. In both countries, American troops, the successors of the original Second World War occupation forces, had traditionally served a “dual containment” role. While protecting Germany and Japan from “outside aggression” the Americans prevented both countries from rearming and thereby once again threatening their neighbors and undermining the regional security systems constructed after the Second World War.

A half dozen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States shows no sign of abandoning the remnants of this containment policy. On the contrary, American security officials have worked hard to “delink” the need for U.S. troops from the Soviet menace, and have pushed to the fore, among other supposed new threats, “rogue states” like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. American forces thus remain abroad to maintain a post-Cold War hegemony independent of the defunct Soviet Union, and to support that hegemony the United States spends roughly $260 billion a year on armaments and troops-an amount that, though a good deal lower than the peaks of the Reagan years, easily exceeds that of the ten next most heavily armed nations combined. And henceforth American defense spending is almost certain to rise.

For now the other shoe has dropped,the second major event to mark the eight “treacherous years” since 1989: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has announced its intention to march east. Last July, the leaders of the 16 alliance countries met in Madrid and invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the very anti-Soviet organization that they had once, as Warsaw Pact members, manned the front line in confronting. Although the United States has never considered these nations vital to its national interest, it will now undertake to guarantee their security with its own armed forces, to regard an attack on them as an attack on itself, and to repel such an attack with all its powers, including nuclear weapons. And it will do so in the face of resentment and angry protests from Russian leaders, who, until this decision, had shown themselves to be extraordinarily cooperative in reaching a favorable and stable settlement with the West.

Who would have predicted that the jubilation of 1989 would lead to this? How can we begin to account for it? During her Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that Americans “must be more than an audience, more even than actors; we must be the authors of the history of our age.” It was a dramatic statement of great ambition, phrased in the kind of exceptionalist language that has been so familiar in America’s history-and oftentimes so damaging to a clear-eyed visionof what America’s true resources and vital interests actually are. Looking at the cur-rent policies of America’s leaders one suspects that, rather than plunging ahead to embrace a new, post-Cold War world,they find themselves marooned in the Cold War, pursuing an uncertain and empty hegemony, struggling to expand and justifya predominance the United States already possesses.


On February 18, 1997, Madeleine Albright-self-proclaimed child of Munich, refugee from Nazism and Stalinism, and now America’s first female secretary of state-leaned forward over the conference table of the North Atlantic Council’s Great Hall in Brussels, gazed at the 15 other foreign ministers gathered about her, and proclaimed the new world. “We have chosen as our common purpose to do for Europe’s east what NATO did 50 years ago for Europe’s west,” the Czech-born secretary declared, “to integrate new democracies, eliminate old hatreds, provide confidence in economic recovery, and deter conflict.”

To “do for Europe’s east what NATO did 50 years ago for Europe’s west”? For a stateswoman who lets pass no opportunity to underline her personal connection to the great European tragedies of this century, the comparison seemed stunningly inapt. A half-century ago, Germany found itself in a state of utter devastation, its people clawing throughruins and brambles in search of scraps of food; France and Britain were financially and spiritually exhausted; and in the occupied states to the east, the soldiers of the Red Army crouched menacingly, the spearhead of a nation that had arisen triumphant from the war and saw before it now no power that could possibly oppose it.

Compare this dark world to the eastern Europe of today. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic enjoy democratic politics, however tenuously, and they are forcing their economies through various painful stages of transition to free market systems. The Soviet Union has shattered into a congeries of 15 separate states and the once-terrible Red Army has achieved a state of almost complete disintegration: desertions, lack of money, and plummeting morale have meant that, far from threatening Europe, Russia, as the world saw demonstrated most horribly during the Chechnya war, can no longer even invade itself.

If Albright’s comparison seems foolish rhetoric, why then has the alliance determined to move east, with all the political and financial expense that that will entail? As with most such enormous government decisions, the interests that brought this one about are many and diverse, and reach back a number of years, to the half-decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union. During those years, Presidents Reagan and Bush had worked with President Gorbachev to push through a revolutionary series of arms control agreements that together established a new and much more stable security regime in central Europe. Among other things, the leaders agreed to reduce dramatically troops, heavy battle tanks, and other “conventional” weapons; to withdraw all intermediate-range nuclear missiles stationed on European soil; and to reduce nuclear artillery shells and other battlefield nuclear weapons.

These were historic agreements, andbecause they lessened traditional Soviet advantages in Europe, particularly the Red Army’s superiority in troops and tanks, many of them were judged deeply favorable to the West. Because they focused on the most dynamic and threatening weapons, the agreements together helped put in place a new structure of security that made a surprise attack of any sort in central Europe almost impossible. Because of this “defense dominance”-the term is Michael Mandelbaum’s, from his book The Dawn of Peace in Europe-the leaders of either side would need many months to prepare an actual attack, and thus the chance of war breaking out was greatly reduced. As Mandelbaum points out, these agreements formed the basic structure of a new, mutually verifiable means of promoting stability and peace between what had been two hostile alliances.

Then came the revolutions of 1989. Gorbachev, who still had enormous military force at his fingertips, might have reacted quite differently; other Soviet leaders certainly would have. Instead, he chose to view the events in eastern Europe as inevitable, and to work to ensure the peaceful disintegration of what had been the outer wall of the Soviet empire. President Bush in turn emphasized that further cooperation with the West would depend on the Soviets’ measured response to events in the east. At the same time, Bush let the Soviets understand that in exchange for their cooperation in letting “the process,” such as it was, go forward peacefully, the West would not take advantage of the uprisings to threaten Soviet borders-by, say, inviting the newly free nations of the east to join NATO.

For its first tumultuous year, the Clinton administration held generally to this policy. Soon, however, President Clinton began listening to the passionate appeals of Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other east European leaders, who demanded with increasing desperation to be admitted into the Western alliance. Not only had the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and the others suffered greatly during the titanic wars of this century, subsisting under Nazi occupation during much of the Second World War and under Soviet hegemony after it, they had always seen themselves as culturally and historically part of the West: for many of the leading east European dissidents, “Europe” had been their rallying call. But having succeeded in miraculously tearing themselves from the Soviet grasp, the east European leaders were increasingly perplexed by their cherished “Europe’s” ambivalent attitudetoward them.

The expected ocean of financial aid had not arrived. Worse, the countries of the West, rather than welcoming them into the European Union-the glittering palace of capitalist trade and growth-had raised insuperable barriers to their entry. If the true goals of Western policy in eastern Europe were, as Secretary Albright maintained, “to integrate new democracies, eliminate old hatreds, provide confidence in economic recovery, and deter conflict,” the best vehicle to achieve this was not NATO-which is, after all, a military alliance-but the EU, whose reason for being was the promotion of economic growth and stability through integration with western Europe.

The EU, however, was quietly moving in the other direction. The French, fearing the prospect of a Germany dominating the continent, had been willing to agree to German reunification only on condition that the Union’s center of gravity remain firmly anchored in the West; and the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 had in effect enshrined this principle by establishing budgetary and financial conditions for entry that the east European countries could not possibly meet (and that would finish, ironically, by plunging much of western Europe into recession). The west European leaders were above all pragmatic; rather than force their farmers, say, to put their crops in competition with much cheaper east European produce, they would satisfy the east Europeans, via NATO, with an American nuclear guarantee.

Four years after the 1989 revolutions, the desperation of the Poles and their eastern neighbors was growing. Not for the first time in their history, “Europe” seemed todesire them much less than they desired it. If admission into the European Union was an unrealistic dream, at least for the near future, if NATO was all the “Europe” they might be offered, they would gladly grasp it. In so doing, they hoped they were taking in hand not only Madeleine Albright’s bromides about promoting democracy and economic stability but a Western guarantee against eventual Russian revanchism.

The “Security Vacuum”

In Washington, they had influential allies. By late 1993, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, had begun to criticize the Clinton administration for allowing a “security vacuum” to emerge in eastern Europe. Within the administration, key members of the bureaucracy began to stake out positions. Senior military officers and civilian Pentagon officials generally opposed expanding NATO, fearing that the result would be to “dilute” the alliance and produce a kind of “NATO lite” in which guarantees to the newly admitted countries would be less reliable than those to existing members. Many in the State Department, including Strobe Talbott, then the president’s special envoy to Russia, argued that expanding NATO would alienate the Russians with little compensating reward. Other senior officials, notably Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis, began to push hard for granting some sort of limited membership to the east European countries.

In the White House, meantime, President Clinton, who had been listening to German chancellor Helmut Kohl worry about securing his newly united country’s eastern frontier, began to muse openly about the “security limbo” in eastern Europe. Clinton’s adviser on national security affairs, Anthony Lake, had been conducting a number of discussions with Brzezinski, who was strenuously promoting a “parallel track” strategy, which envisioned admitting the eastern European countries to NATO while placating the Russians with a separate diplomatic agreement. According to an extensive account by Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post, it was Brzezinski who eventually succeeded in convincing Lake to push this general approach.

Into this maelstrom of interests now intruded two events that embody the odd contingency of history. First, Clinton nominated his old friend Strobe Talbott to be deputy secretary of state, and Talbott found himself undergoing bruising Senate hearings during which prominent Republicans accused him, in effect, of being “soft” on Russia; the political implications for Clinton, who would be facing voters in two years, were obvious. Second, Talbott moved to bring Richard Holbrooke, then ambassador to Germany and an official notorious for his aggressiveness and ambition, back to Washington to become assistant secretary of state for European affairs. Holbrooke, as the Post’s Dobbs put it, “made clear that he regarded the reshaping of Europe’s security architecture as the modern-day equivalent of the 1919 Conference of Versailles, and that he was in charge.”

Holbrooke proceeded to push NATO expansion through the national security bureaucracy with his customary vigor and vehemence. According to Dobbs, when, at the first meeting of a key interagency group of military officers, diplomats, and other officials who had been brought together to “study” the question of expansion, Gen. Wesley Clark, an influential friendof Bill Clinton (and now the NATO commander in Europe), observed mildly that there remained “some issues we need to discuss,” Holbrooke thundered back:”That sounds like insubordination to me. We need to settle this right now. Either you are on the president’s program or you are not.”

To Holbrooke’s powerful advocacy were now added the pressures of the coming presidential election: promoting NATO expansion would not only shelter Bill Clinton from any Republican charge that he might be “soft on Russia,” it would also help him in several key states of the Northeast and upper Midwest that had large populations of Americans of east European descent. During the campaign, Clinton would give only one foreign policy speech, traveling to heavily ethnic Chicago to declare dramatically that “the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members, but when and how.”

“Us” versus “Them”

What the president notably did not say was why-why the United States, eight years after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, six years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, had determined to extend its military obligations to protect countries in eastern Europe that it had never viewed as vital to its national security. On this question, the rhetoric coming from the administration has been deeply confused, in part because different audiences-Europeans, east and west; Russians; Americans-are being addressed, and the messages required to placate them contradict one another.

To the American and European publics, for example-and in part to the Russians as well-Clinton officials have offered what might be called the “one Europe” rationale. As Secretary Albright put it in Moscow last May when she unveiled the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation, the alliance’s decision to extend a formerly hostile military alliance to the Russian border, far from threatening Russia’s security, instead would produce “an undivided, democratic, andfree Europe” and “anchor Russia within a European system.” “This NATO,” the secretary insisted, “is not directed against Russia.” In this new world, “it is not us versus them or them versus us. We are all on the same side.”

How all these countries-some within the alliance, some outside of it-could be “all on the same side” the secretary did not explain. As Henry Kissinger put it, Clinton officials “keep talking about the absence of dividing lines. With all due respect, this is nonsense. If you have an alliance, you have a dividing line.” President Clinton himself, before he saw the light on expanding the alliance, warned darkly that to take such a step would be to “draw a new line through Europe just a little further east.” Now, three years later, and against all logic, expanding the alliance has come to mean creating a “Europe whole and free.”

Of course, if one looks beyond the rhetoric of public relations, and the eloquent appeals of east European leaders, and the strivings of ambitious bureaucrats, and the transitory demands of U.S. election campaigns-if one looks beyond all these, one finds that the plan to expand the alliance is indeed motivated by an “us versus them” premise, and, at its heart, by an exfoliating tree of assumptions about European history, Europe’s probable future, and the inevitable behavior of powerful states, which is precisely why the Poles and the Czechs and the Hungarians have pleaded so tenaciously to be admitted. “If this request is rejected,” writes Kissinger, “and the states bordering Germany are refused protection, Germany will sooner or later seek to achieve its security by national efforts, encountering on the way a Russia pursuing the same policy from its own side. A vacuum between Germany and Russia threatens not only NATO cohesion but the very existence of NATO as a meaningful institution. NATO cannot long survive if the borders it protects are not threatened while it refuses to protect the borders of adjoining countries that do feel threatened.”

Beyond all the talk about an undivided Europe, it is this sort of reasoning that one finds at the root of why the United States has now decided to guarantee the security of eastern Europe. Such reasoning has a great ring of authority but is fraught with contradictions. Like many “realist” arguments, it pretends to set out timeless truths but instead is saturated with history. It broods about the grim past and the morbid future while ignoring almost entirely the possible present. It is not statesmanship. It is fatalism posing as realism.

A statesman might have proposed a different path. He might have insisted that the United States-by making use of its diplomatic weight-persuade the Europeans to “protect” and “stabilize” the states of eastern Europe by integrating them firmly into their economic system, of which Germany forms the vigorous heart. He might have recognized that the security agreements of the late 1980s and early 1990s had strongly bolstered the stability of central Europe and seen that the key to preventing any so-called vacuum between Germany and Russia is to avoid taking a fateful and unnecessary military initiative sure to poison relations with the Russians at a time when their domestic politics are delicate in the extreme, hanging on the fragile health of one ailing man. He might have observed that the proposed expansion might push the so-called vacuum east, by drawing a new line gratuitously isolating Ukraine and the Baltics, in effect reducing them to the role of Russia’s new “buffer states”-buffer states with very considerable ethnic Russian minorities that hold within them the true seeds of Russian revanchism, and which may find themselves pressed into demanding that NATO admit them, a move the Russians would be unable to countenance.

More broadly, the statesman might have asked himself whether the American people-whose leaders have not bothered to consult them on the matter-are committed to defending the countries of eastern Europe:whether Americans are willing to send their young people to fight in Poland, or to launchtheir nuclear weapons to defend it. And, if they are not, he might have wondered what effect building such an empty guarantee into the alliance would eventually have. He might have acknowledged that the United States should first of all look after its own principal interests, and that those interests are broader than so-called NATO cohesion for its own sake. They are a stable and increasingly self-reliant Europe, with a prosperous and secure Germany at its center, and an unthreatened and unthreatening Russia. Whatever else it may do, it is not at all clear that rushing to absorb eastern Europe into the Western alliance at this time will advance those interests.

The evidence thus far strongly suggests the contrary. Not only has the unprecedented collaboration between Washington and Moscow come to an abrupt halt, but members of the Duma are now refusing to ratify the all-important START II agreement, which reduces both sides’ nuclear arsenals by roughly two-thirds. And though Russian leaders, given the conditions of their army and economy, were scarcely in a position to block the entry of the east European countries, President Clinton, for reasons known only to him, felt bound to grant them extraordinary concessions in the Founding Act. Not only did he vow not to station foreign troops or nuclear weapons on the soil of the newly admitted countries, Clinton invited the Russians to share in making alliance decisions as a member of a new “Permanent Joint Council”-an astounding step that led Kissinger to remark acidly that “Russia seems to be achieving NATO participation before the new applicants.”

Whatever the impact of these concessions on American security, they point to a much larger question: what will the significance be for us, as Americans? The United States has come to a critical crossing point, and before the country can move ahead its leaders and its citizens must reach agreement about the part their nation will now play in the world. Twice before during this century Americans have stood on such a precipice. Out of debates cluttered with ideological baggage emerged two very different views of the country’s mission. What stayed close in outline, however, was the rhetoric, the jargon of American exceptionalism that can be traced back deep in the country’s history. This fall, as the Senate debates the amended treaty and as American taxpayers learn how much they will be expected to pay to modernize the Polish and Hungarian and Czech militaries, this rhetoric will once again echo loudly through the land. Must not Americans be, as Secretary Albright said, “the authors of their age”?

Imbued as we are with such romantic notions it has become very difficult to recognize that the answer to Albright’s question is plainly “no.” Americans need not be the authors of their age. As in 1919, as in 1945, Americans have a choice to make, one that must be based on an informed discussion of interests and resources, not on a flurry of rhetoric. In a democracy, words should serve as instruments that the people apply to explain and promote interests, not empty slogans that saddle and imprison those that use them. In the words we see flowing already from the Clinton administration, we can make out the shape of the rhetoric to come, and it seems all too strangely familiar. Once again, we will be told that Americans, because they are Americans, must step boldly forward and bear the burden of leadership, for if they do not, who will? Is not America, after all, “the indispensable nation”?


Although it is hard to know when America first became “indispensable,” the notion clearly emerges from what historians call American exceptionalism: the idea of America as separate, godly, pure; a nation fundamentally unlike all others-America as, in the Puritan John Winthrop’s famous phrase, “the City on a Hill.” This idea animates much of the best-known literature of early American diplomacy, from President Washington’s admonition, in his Farewell Address, to avoid “entangling alliances” to John Quincy Adams’s prescription that America should “go not abroad seeking monsters to destroy.”

Throughout the nineteenth century, as the United States followed a vigorous program that would expand its continental territory by diplomacy, purchase, and war, the rhetoric of its foreign policy embodied independence, purity, and, with respect to the power politics of Old Europe, a proudly ignorant disgust. If already in 1796, George Washington could observe that the European countries had “a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation,” Woodrow Wilson, exactly 12 decades later, could say bluntly that with the causes and issues of the First World War Americans “are not concerned. The obscure foundations from which its stupendous flood has burst forth we are not interested to search for or explore.”

We see here the flowering of a sweet-smelling but noxious illusion: America as an island secure and strong behind its two broad oceans, its inexhaustible resources rendering it wealthy and virtuous, threatened only by the predations and corruptions of the Old World. However beautiful this myth, like most myths it has not served as a reliable guide to self-understanding-or to the clear action that can only follow from such understanding. In their drive to conquer their continent, Americans behaved much as other vigorous, young peoples have; their treatment of inconvenient obstacles-be they native peoples and Mexicans, or the competing demands of rival countries-was neither appreciably better nor worse than that of many others. As for the unscrupulous and looming Old World nations, it was not the broad deep ocean or Americans’ inherent virtue that protected them but the benevolent power of Great Britain and its Royal Navy.

America entered what was to be its century-the bloodiest century in the history of mankind-in a kind of waking dream. To ward off the realpolitiker schemings of European diplomats, it had become accustomed to presenting scraps of paper: if America was secure and isolated in its hemisphere, for example, this was owed to President Monroe’s promulgation of his famous “doctrine” in 1823, warning that American lands, north and south, “are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” And that was that; no navy or army needed: forceful words equal power. The delusion became early on an American habit.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Great Britain quietly supplied the shield behind which America prospered: Britain’s all-powerful navy patrolled the seas, protecting transatlantic trade routes, and British diplomats labored, by shaping alliances that would prevent the emergence of any one hegemonic state, to maintain a balance of power on the European continent. Both of these traditional British policies were in fact crucial to the United States: not only in its need for secure trade routes but because it, no less than Great Britain, would inevitably be threatened by the emergence of an expansionist power dominating the continent. Americans, accustomed to viewing European diplomatic machinations with condescension, generally ignored this dependence. Only many years later, and after the shedding of much blood, would the point be driven home.

When in 1914 Gavrilo Princip set off Europe’s second Thirty Years’ War, in which tens of millions people would eventually perish, it was inevitable that Americans would look on with mesmerized horror and revulsion, as if at a kind of barbaric spectacle that could not possibly concern them. The implications that seem so obvious now-that an aggressive Imperial Germany might succeed in ruling the continent and dominating the seas-did not seem at all apparent then.

It is one of the great ironies of American history that at the very moment this country’s inescapable involvement in European affairs was about to become crystal clear it had at its head an idealistic man singularly unequipped to recognize this fact, or to explain it to his people. Woodrow Wilson aimed instead to reconstruct the world, to render it, as would become his great rallying cry, “safe for democracy.” For this task purity and distance must be maintained; the hands of the United States must not be tainted, for how then could it serve as impartial creator of the new world order?

So, as the conflict wore on, and the states of Europe cast generation after generation of their young men into the bloody pit, President Wilson wasted any diplomatic influence the United States might have had by nattering on about “freedom of the seas,” as if such a right were God-given and did not depend ultimately on military power and political influence. Only in April 1917, thanks to Germany’s attacks on U.S. ships and revelations about its diplomatic connivings with Mexico, were Americans finally persuaded to enter the war, and by then it was very late: not only had the main antagonists become so embittered that any reasonable settlement approximating Wilson’s “peace without victory” would be near impossible, but the Czar had been forced to abdicate and the Cold War had in effect begun. With moralistic flags flying, Wilson led his country into battle, and then, after the armistice, on to the Paris Peace Conference, sweeping into Europe on an avalanche of apocalyptic rhetoric. “We are seeking,” declared the president, “permanent not temporary foundations for the peace of the world.”

Wilson’s encounter with the Old World is one of the great set pieces of modern history. “While we were dealing in momentous questions of land and sea,” David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, later recounted, “he was soaring in clouds of serene rhetoric.” The victorious European nations had bled and died, had lost blood and treasure to an extent unknown in history; they wanted territory and they wanted revenge. Wilson meantime played the Jamesian ingenue, innocent and beguiling, taken in by thecalculating predators of corrupted Europe. While the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were parceled out, the American fulminated and protested but in the end showed himself to be, as John Maynard Keynes observed, singularly “incompetent [in] the agilities of the council chamber.” In the end, Wilson’s inspirational talk of “national self-determination” would yield the independence of much of eastern Europe-an achievement for which he is still worshipped there-and the grandiose and idealistic League of Nations that his countrymen would in the end decline to join, thus dooming it to irrelevancy.

Moral Beauty and Foreign Policy Failure

Embodying in their purest form aspirations that resonate loudly through American history, Wilson’s project was one of great moral beauty; but as foreign policy it was an abject failure. Whatever practical influence the United States might have had in inventing a new and durable world order-andits military and economic strength might have ensured it great influence indeed-was dissipated in an impractical program maladroitly managed. And of this failure, unfolding relentlessly like the pitiless mechanisms of a Greek tragedy, would be born the much greater carnage of theSecond World War.

The unique circumstances of the Great War’s end-the tumultuous revolution in Russia; the spiritual desolation of the Western democracies; the deep humiliation of a reeling and unstable Germany; and the creation of a group of weak and unprotected countries huddled between Germany and the Soviet Union-led by the mid-1930s to Kissinger’s classic “security vacuum” in eastern Europe.

“My mindset is Munich,” Madeleine Albright famously proclaimed, “most of my generation’s is Vietnam. I saw what happened when a dictator was allowed to take over a piece of a country and the country went down the tubes. And I saw the opposite during the war when America joined the fight. For me, America is really, truly the indispensable nation.” Speaking in her native Prague, Albright drew the conclusion that has by now become synonymous with the word Munich: that to appease a dictator is to bring on war, that provocation must be met with strength.

Yet it was an odd argument to be making-particularly in Prague, and particularly by a professional academic who had fled not only the Nazis but the Communists. For whatever the celebrated cupidity of the Western powers at Munich, by 1938 the fate of eastern Europe had largely been determined: as George Kennan pointed out, the military and spiritual weakness of the West, and the overwhelming strength of the rising totalitarian powers, meant that the democracies would almost certainly be unable to defeat Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union if the dictators joined together. The West would eventually be forced to ally itself with one totalitarian power against the other. Apart from the moral catastrophe such a compact represented, one need only glance at a map to see how it effectively doomed “Wilson’s children” to certain subjugation under either a German or a Soviet imperium.

Only one thing could save the independence of the eastern countries: an early and vigorous entry of America into the war. But the United States, having midwifed the creation of the new countries of the east, had withdrawn its military power and political influence from Europe as abruptly as it had brought them to bear, leaving the way clear for Munich. Now, as the German divisions swept over the continent, America once again proved standoffish, its people reluctant and unpersuaded; Roosevelt, though a much more practical man than Wilson, could judge well the country’s mood. When America finally returned to Europe, thanks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and Hitler’s precipitous declaration of war, it did so as an ally of the Soviet Union.

In Europe, America’s sole obsession was to crush the Axis; its British allies, whose memories were longer and who understood that the war was not only about Germany but about the Soviet Union and the political shape of the postwar continent, were repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to persuade the Americans to open an early second front, either by attacking through the Balkans, or from Italy, or more directly and rapidly toward Berlin itself-anything that might overtake the Red Army’s steady march to envelope eastern Europe. To the British pleas that the Western allies must move rapidly to take Prague or Vienna or Berlin before the Soviets did, “the Americans,” in the words of historian Martin Walker, “point-blank refused, insisting that they would not take casualties for political reasons.”

There is something striking in this blank pigheadedness; for what was the war about if not politics? For the Americans, it had become a moral crusade, the defeat of Nazism as the ultimate evil; as for the Soviets, they had been transformed, overnight, from anticapitalist villains to heroic allies, reasonable men who could be dealt with reasonably after the war. If the triumphant Red Army managed to occupy eastern Europe then surely moral principles inscribed on scraps of paper would persuade them to leave, or at least to behave like good democrats while they were there.

In the event, of course, the Soviets had their own ideas. As the First World War had led inexorably to the Second, so now the Second would lead to a different kind of conflict, one that would endure half a century and impose enormous expense on the combatants, and on the peoples of eastern Europe, enormous suffering.


By late 1945, American troops had begun to demobilize and return home. With western Europe reeling from the effects of the war, the plot could easily have reprised that of the post-First World War years. But the men in charge of American policy were of a different cast; many had seen the errors of 1919 at close hand and were determined not to repeat them. Instead, with frank self-consciousness and startling abruptness, the United States would declare itself a true world power over the span of a few weeks in the spring of 1947.

Greece was under siege, its right-wing government near collapse from a domestic Communist insurgency; Turkey was also bending under Soviet pressure. In February 1947, the British ambassador, whose country’s “sphere of influence” traditionally encompassed the eastern Mediterranean, informed the State Department that His Majesty’s Government, itself teetering near bankruptcy, had determined to withdraw its troops from both Greece and Turkey-and to do so within six weeks. In Greece, this would clearly lead to an early Communist takeover.

“Under the circumstances,” as Dean Acheson, then undersecretary of state, recalled, “there could be only one decision.” But if the decision was preordained the manner in which it was explained and justified was not. While granting substantial aid to Greece and Turkey clearly had historic implications-the United States for the first time would be taking on a broad peacetime role in European politics-President Truman could have couched the policy in the narrowest terms, as simply a move by the United States to come to the aid of two friendly governments struggling to survive amid the stresses of postwar turmoil. The decision need have created no precedent.

In the event, he did quite the opposite. On March 12, 1947, scarcely three weeks after the British ambassador’s visit, President Truman went up to Capitol Hill and delivered to both houses of Congress a grand speech setting forth America’s new role in the world:


At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life…. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections…. The second way of life is based upon the will of the minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections…. I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

The need to respond to a limited crisis in the eastern Mediterranean had produced a sweeping American commitment to help threatened nations around the world. Amid the confluence of interests that produced this momentous result, two stand out. First was the felt need to offer a strong and unambiguous statement of policy in response to an increasingly aggressive Soviet Union.

Almost exactly a year before, and only a few weeks after George Kennan had sent his celebrated “Long Telegram” from Moscow-on which, along with the same diplomat’s later “X” article, the containment doctrine would be based-Winston Churchill had traveled to Fulton, Missouri, and declared that “an iron curtain had descended across the continent.”

A few months after Churchill’s speech, Truman had asked his special counsel, Clark Clifford, to put together a comprehensive analysis of the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. Clifford and his assistant, George Elsey, prepared for the president a lengthy document, titled “American Relations with the Soviet Union,” in which they argued that Soviet leaders had set themselves “on a course of aggrandizement designed to lead to eventual world domination by the U.S.S.R.” Among other things, they concluded, the United States “should support and assist all democratic countries which are in any way menaced and endangered by the U.S.S.R.”

Amid the many phrases of the Clifford and Elsey report that would find their echo in the Truman Doctrine six months later, this is the most important, for it forms the kernel of what would become the most frequently quoted passage of the entire speech-what Clifford referred to as the credo: “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The rewriting is revealing: “democratic countries” becomes the more evocative “free peoples;” “menaced and endangered” is recast as the more heroic “resisting armed subjugation;” and the blunt “U.S.S.R.” is broadened out to “armed minorities or outside pressures.”

The report’s hardnosed insistence that the United States must act aggressively abroad to strengthen its own security has been transformed into something quite different: a call to promote the nation’s fundamental principles around the world. The frank pursuit of national interest has become the export of American morality, to make “the world safe for democracy.”

The old reliable Wilsonian idealism had returned: refurbished, reanimated, but recognizably the same. When Secretary of State Marshall complained that the speech had “too much rhetoric,” White House officials responded that this was needed to gain approval in the Senate. Two weeks before, the president had invited the leaders of Congress to the White House to discuss the situation, and Acheson took the floor to draw a lurid picture in which the fall of Greece would lead directly to the Soviet “penetration” of three continents. The congressmen, deeply impressed, urged the president to make this case publicly, for only thus would he have a hope of securing the necessary funds. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, implored the president to “scare hell out of the American people.”

But Truman’s speech achieved its object not simply by means of scare tactics but by arguing for America’s moral mission in the world. Underlying the words was the idea of an America free, democratic, and exemplary, a nation exercising, as Wilson had put it, “the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.” What is fascinating about this annunciation of America’s apotheosis as a world power is the seamless grafting of this familiar ideological messianism onto the felt necessities of national security (a combination that Wilson’s idealistic League of Nations proposal conspicuously lacked). The budding national security establishment’s insistence that the country launch a worldwide struggle against the Soviets was deftly couched in a positive call for the safeguarding and advancement of freedom. And those who crafted the moral terms in which the doctrine was set clearly understood them to be a crucial political tool in convincing the American peopleto set sail on a course that was, after all, unprecedented.

The Faustian Bargain

And yet, in bidding for political support by casting America’s risk and responsibility in the broadest possible terms, Truman had forfeited the chance to define, as clearly and as narrowly as possible, the country’s bedrock interests. In making the threat “clearer than truth,” as Acheson later put it, he and his colleagues had handed the country, and the policymakers who would succeed them, a statement that suggested America’s commitments lay everywhere and at all times.

Walter Lippmann, who during the war had famously defined proper statecraft as the “bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments with the nation’s power,” criticized in Truman’s speech the “vague global policy that sounds like the tocsin of an ideological crusade [that] has no limits. It cannot be controlled. Its effects cannot be predicted.”

In sounding this “tocsin of an ideological crusade,” Truman had signed a Faustian bargain: he won overwhelming public support for placing the country in a role unanticipated in its history-that of a permanent player in the politics of Europe and much of the rest of the world-and in return he had put his country on record as the sovereign protector of all the world’s “threatened peoples.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine a doctrine that might do less to “bring into balance the nation’s commitments with the nation’s power.” Far from serving as a realistic statement of the country’s responsibilities, the Truman Doctrine constitutes, in the writer Theodore Draper’s words, “the original codification of the Pax Americana illusion;” in many of their most important postwar foreign policy decisions-from Korea and Vietnam all the way up to the Marine mission in Lebanon in 1982-American statesmen tended to “substitute” the doctrine “for any rational calculus of means and ends.”

Providing such a rational calculus, of course, is meant to be the obligation of statesmen, and that they failed to do so cannot be blamed solely on Truman’s speech. In later hearings, both Acheson and Vandenberg stressed that in future crises the United States would “of course”-in Acheson’s words-act “according to the circumstances of each specific case.” Both made it clear that they saw America’s policy as “limited containment,” not some universal crusade.

But as soon became clear, this worthy intention concealed a paradox: to follow such a prudent course would require not only that the country’s statesmen display seasoned judgment but that its politicians show themselves willing and able to lead and to shape public opinion, rather than flee before it. And, in the event, the same political reality that led the Truman administration to cast its doctrine in the broad terms it did too often led subsequent policymakers either to make imprudent decisions themselves, or to succumb to their fear of politicians who made powerful demagogic use of the grandiose role that Truman had set out for the United States.

Thus, the Truman Doctrine firmly anchored America’s worldwide role in the realm of domestic politics; subsequent events, especially the traumatic “loss” of China, would show the deforming effect those politics could have on American foreign policy. Acheson himself, in attempting to develop as secretary of state a practical policy toward Communist China-in effect, an engagement with Mao-found himself repeatedly stymied by the domestic political implications of the Truman Doctrine; if he had thought the United States would be free to act “according to the circumstances of each specific case,” he now discovered that he had helped shape a domestic political reality that did not provide for such diplomatic freedom. How could the administration pledge to fight Communists around the world one day and treat with them the next?

These implications would become painfully apparent in the early years of Vietnam, during which many prominent opponents of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (notably Richard Nixon) brandished the “domino theory” to exclude the possibility of any retreat in Southeast Asia. Had Kennedy or Johnson backed down and South Vietnam fallen to the North, the Democrats could have expected to be blamed for opening the entire Pacific to communist penetration. This widely acknowledged political reality dominated decisionmaking during the early years of what would be a disastrous policy. On a recently released recording of a 1964 telephone conversation with Georgia’s Sen. Richard Russell, President Johnson can be heard wearily conceding that the thought of sending large numbers of young American boys to Vietnam “just sends chills up my spine” but that the constraints of domestic politics left him no choice in the matter: “They’d impeach a president, though, that would run out, wouldn’t they?”


As Johnson had feared, Vietnam proved to be disastrous, the great crevasse cutting across the Cold War; into it disappeared not only his presidency and that of his successor but much of the motivating power of the old Cold War rhetoric. Newly assertive congressmen blocked the Ford administration’s efforts to come to the aid of the collapsing South Vietnamese regime in 1975, and even managed to prevent Secretary of State Kissinger from intervening covertly against the Cubans and Soviets in Angola. Bitter military officers, who believed the United States would have prevailed in Vietnam had it not been for a lack of national commitment, offered a more subtle inhibition; it would be a decade, and a painful struggle over American intervention in Central America, before this sentiment was publicly codified in the Weinberger Doctrine, where-in Reagan’s secretary of defense offered, for any proposed U.S. intervention abroad, a test of six points-among them, that the country enter into no hostilities unless “vital interests were at stake,” unless it had a “reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their representatives,” and unless it could do so “wholeheartedly and with a clear intention of winning.” To this would be appended the “Powell Corollary,” which added to Weinberger’s the strictures that intervention could only be undertaken with “overwhelming military force” and a clear “exit strategy.” The Weinberger Doctrine, and its corollary-which, among other things, helped block any vigorous American action in Bosnia-were the natural children of the Vietnam Syndrome.

Ambitions and Weakness

For all their differences, both innovations in post-Vietnam American foreign policy-Jimmy Carter’s human rights crusade and the Reagan Doctrine-were notable not only for their rhetorical dependence on the messianic strain but for the striking contrast between their grand ambitions and the weakness of the steps undertaken to achieve them. Carter did manage surprising successes, particularly in Latin America, with a campaign of rhetorical and economic pressure; but his human rights rhetoric also contributed to the administration’s paralysis in the face of attacks on traditional American allies in Iran and Nicaragua. And President Reagan, for all his bluster about “rolling back Communism,” actually dared to employ American troops only in minor skirmishes in Grenada and Libya, and in the short-lived fiasco in Lebanon.

It fell to that least imaginative of presidents, George Bush, to proclaim the riseof the new world order. He did so not in Europe but on the sands of the Persian Gulf-beneath which, he declared, he had buried “the specter of Vietnam…forever.” His assertion was contradicted not only by America’s hurried exit from Iraq-leaving Saddam Hussein in power-but by the administration’s prewar scrambling to build domestic support for launching the attack.

After rehearsing a variety of rationales-from the threat of Saddam armed with nuclear weapons to the prospect of Iraq in control of world oil supplies to Secretary of State James Baker’s homely assertion that the confrontation was about “jobs, jobs, jobs”-President Bush settled on a familiar but ever more shopworn argument: the United States had a duty to lead the crusade of freedom against tyranny. The president repeatedly portrayed “the dictator, Saddam Hussein” (with whom the administration had had an extensive trading and security relationship) as “worse than Hitler” and “Hitler revisited.” Still, only very late in the day did the Senate finally sanction the attack, and then by a single vote; as for the people, they remained largely unconvinced-until, that is, the television pictures began to come in.

Television-and the new drama of the so-called CNN effect-by the late 1980s had begun to assert an odd pressure on U.S. foreign policy, contradicting, with the unblinking power of its images, America’s waning assertions of moral hegemony. It is no accident that George Bush decided to intervene in Somalia, from which images of starving children began to flood American television screens only weeks after the pictures of emaciated men staring from behind barbed wire were aired from Bosnia’s Omarska concentration camp. If Bush was unwilling to lay hold of the Yugoslav “tar baby,” he would protect his moral mantle in a safer, simpler place. And he would do so with no public discussion, no debate in Congress; George Bush, powerless and gray-faced as he prepared to leave the White House, simply appeared on Americans’ television screens one fine day and announced that “sometimes America must act.”

Bush left it to his hapless successor to discover that the situation was rather more complicated than that, that the hungry Somalis whom telegenic American soldiers got so much credit for feeding actually owed their hunger to a civil war. Even before the American Rangers plunged into a firefight that left 18 of them dead, no one had managed to explain how American troops would be able to leave Somalia a better place than they had found it unless they pacified the country: had they stormed the beach simply to deliver a few hot meals? And the failure to build political support for the intervention meant that a single horrible television picture of a dead American airman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu was enough to destroy the entire mission. Clinton, finding himself attacked from all sides, hastened to withdraw. America’s crusade to save starving Somalia, created by television images, would be destroyed by television images only a few months later.


Images of those corpses that surrounded me in the blood-soaked Sarajevo marketplace quickly took shape on American television screens as well-although the glittering NATO fighter aircraft, tracing their lazy arabesques in the sky overhead, were nowhere to be seen. The meaning of the silver planes, after all, was more ambiguous. The alliance had spent years doing little more than watching and patrolling, standing meekly aside as U.N. peacekeepers were ridiculed and humiliated. Looking back, the history seems to have followed a bitter and logical progression, as if all the while the diplomats had been steadily fading from view, losing substance so slowly that only now do we realize that they had always been little more than ghosts, with but power enough to hover over the battlefield and affix their seals, in law, on what the generals had accomplished in blood. Only after almost four years of the most savage “ethnic cleansing” did Western leaders give their pilots leave to fire: if American power proved necessary to achieve a truce, so too did the carnage that led up to it.

Bill Clinton, like George Bush, fearing he might be trapped in a “quagmire,” took no action until the combatants had shed enough blood and conquered enough territory to make the shaky Dayton Agreement possible. Fearing that pictures of the 18 American servicemen killed in Somalia would damage him politically, Clinton shut down the mission and brought the troops home. Fearing pictures of Americans killed in Haiti might do the same, Clinton approved an occupation that focused almost obsessively on safeguarding the lives of American troops. And when the time came to send troops to monitor the cease-fire in Bosnia, Clinton made sure the Americans stayed mostly within their barracks while the war criminals who, under Dayton, were to be arrested and judged, moved freely about.

Today, the great majority of them, including the most notorious and influential, remain at large, and as they flout the agreement they undermine its chances for success, making it daily less likely that American troops will be able to leave Bosnia next summer without consigning the country to war again. For President Clinton to order U.S. troops to move vigorously to enforce the accord, he would need to be willing to build political support at home, or at least to try to do so. This he has so far been unwilling to do. The political ironies here are many, for the debate on maintaining American troops in Bosnia that may come about owing to the administration’s own cowardice may well coincide and become entangled with the debate over NATO expansion; and, given that two of the major tasks of the expanded alliance are meant to be “crisis management” and “peacekeeping,” the timidity of the Clinton administration and its allies in Bosnia will not bode well for the future-and may even dim the treaty’s chances for ratification.

Throughout the post-Cold War years, American leaders have shown themselves fearful of political retribution from a suspicious public. They proved unwilling even to try to make a vigorous case to Americans that their country’s interests were involved abroad: not in Haiti, not in Somalia, not even in the former Yugoslavia (a country which after all borders Italy, a member of the Western alliance). They appeared quite at a loss to argue why the United States might have an interest in preventing or stopping a brutal war in Europe itself. At one time they might have relied on the ideological consensus embodied in the Truman Doctrine, on its seamless blending of national security and moral mission; but the political struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s had left that consensus in shreds.

How then will the country’s leaders ask Americans to give their solemn commitment to defend Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic? And what can such a commitment possibly mean? Up to now, Clinton officials have said little about it. A true public debate might have suggested why this policy is so deeply misguided: that despite the appeals of the east Europeans, despite the dire warnings of an imminent “security vacuum” between Germany and Russia, the decision to expand NATO points our country, and Europe-west and east-toward the past and not toward the future. A half century ago, NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, famously characterized the alliance’s purpose as “keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Current American leaders, as they supposedly set out to construct a “new security structure for the West,” seem to echo hauntingly all of these purposes.

First is the matter of keeping “the Russians out”-a goal Yeltsin characterized as “squeezing Russia out of Europe.” Such inflammatory words, obviously, were meant both for Western ears and for those of angry representatives in the Duma. But that the Russians have “come around” and accepted expansion means little; for the question is not Russia’s current weakness but the long-run effect of the policy. George Kennan, for one, declares that it “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.” The least that can be said is that the effect will be dynamic and unpredictable, and the long-term influence on Russian politics is unlikely to be good.

For Russia’s current leaders, the political vulnerabilities it exposes are obvious. “The West wants us to explain to our people that there is nothing to fear,” Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin told two Washington Post reporters in Moscow. “How can we explain this? Nobody is going to listen to any explanations. Developments in Russia could take an ominous turn.” Chernomyrdin was surprisingly frank about the “security implications,” or lack of them: “I’m not afraid that Poland or Hungary or anyone else will be within NATO,” he said. “It is not so dangerous for Russia. The thing is I’m worried about Russia, what might happen in Russia, and nothing else.” Ultranationalists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, he said, “will accuse the president and the government of doing nothing to prevent this development…so we have to arm ourselves. The production facilities are there in brand new condition, they are waiting. This is how the employment problem will be resolved…. The tanks will be rolling out, and the planes. Do we need this?”

A Larger Reality

Chernomyrdin’s comments point up a larger reality: Russia now has politics-democratic politics, demagogic politics, politics that go beyond the Politburo. In finding himself forced to accept the West’s policy, Boris Yeltsin will leave himself open to the criticisms of powerful figures who already attack him for his dependence on Western loans, for his weakness in facing Russia’s former adversaries, for his inability to maintain Russia’s storied power. The persistent refusal of Duma members to consider ratifying START II may well mean Russia will retain more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the United States many times over. Who can argue that these weapons-palpable, ominous, and all too present-are less threatening to the United States than some “security vacuum” purportedly destined to open up between Germany and Russia sometime in the distant future?

In an essay vigorously arguing that the alliance must expand eastward, Peter Rodman, a noted “realist,” suddenly bursts out: “Russia is a force of nature; all this is inevitable.” The frankness is refreshing. But while the NATO decision is not inevitable, in moving east the Western alliance may well set in train events and processes that are unstoppable. “If NATO expands eastward,” as one Yeltsin aide put it, “Russia under any government will become a revisionist power striving to undermine the already fragile European order.”

Which is to say, this move by the West may turn out to help produce the very “revanchist” Russia it professes to guard against. And, in that case, the famous pledge embodied in chapter five of the NATO Charter-that all alliance countries “treat an attack on any one of them as attack on all of them”-will come into clear focus. The United States will have formally taken on the defense of eastern Europe, a region that lies thousands of miles from its shores and at the frontiers of Russia itself. Are Americans willing to challenge a resurgent Russia, “force of nature” that it is, in Poland, its historic back yard? Will they raise an army to take on the task? Are they really willing to bring to bear their nuclear weapons to shield the east? During the Cold War’s closing years, after all, the nuclear umbrella over Germany itself was growing ever more frayed; if Americans are unwilling to sacrifice New York for Berlin, can anyone truly believe they would do so for Warsaw or Budapest or Prague?

In their coming struggle to convince the U.S. Senate and the American people, Clinton administration officials are unlikely to speak of the decision in these terms. Instead, they will echo Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, who declared that the alliance “is first and foremost an instrument of democracy intended to defend mutually held and created political and spiritual values.” Although these phrases would have perplexed Lord Ismay, who believed he was running a military alliance, they hold in them a kernel of truth, one that expansion will surely nurture.

For it is difficult not to conclude, particularly when one takes a hard look at the likelihood of Americans agreeing to fight Russians in (say) Poland, that the alliance is in fact being transformed. President Clinton’s agreement to limit arms deployments in the eastern countries constitutes precisely what U.S. military officers so feared, the dilution of NATO: the security guarantee to the nations of eastern Europe will in fact mean less, probably much less, than it does to those of the west. Not only will the east Europeans have no alliance troops and no nuclear weapons on their soil but when they proudly take their seats for the first time in the great hall at Brussels, they will look across the historic table to see none other than their old friends, the Russians. What the Russians’ power will be here is as yetuncertain, but clearly they believe it willbe great, and they will push relentlesslyto make it greater. This is indeed “a re fined definition of the purpose, missionand identity of NATO,” as Havel demands, but it is unlikely to be the one he had in mind.

Avoiding Reality

“The opportunity to make decisions about common defense,” Havel writes, “should not be denied a priori to countries that have embraced and advanced Euro-American political cultural values. Some of the candidates for NATO membership have undergone pain for the sake of these values.” Havel’s appeal to values, his eagerness to remind the West what it owes his and the other east European countries, his desperation about being closed out of the “Europe” he so prizes: all of this is understandable.

That it is not for the first time-that east Europeans remember 1919 and 1945, that they brood over the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968 and all the other times they have called out to the West and received no reply-that for them all this remains part of living history, accounts for their desperate desire to be admitted into the alliance club. They want to see themselves affirmed at last as part of Europe. Already resentment over the West’s refusal to admit them into its economic company has helped undermine many of those politicians who led the original anticommunist movements of the late 1980s, who waved as their standard the flag of Europe and what it stands for. In many places in eastern Europe, a grim nationalism, often championed by the Communist leaders of a few years back, now gains power in those Westerners’ place.

These, however, are not problems a military alliance can solve. They are political, and the solution is to admit eastern Europe into the politics and economy of Europe. To admit them to the European Union in a series of clearly predetermined steps would bolster their economies and stabilize their politics without threatening the Russians. This would be complicated and expensive and, because of the migration of inexpensive east European workers, politically controversial; but in the end these matters are details. At the heart of the problem is the simple reality that the so-called project of Europe never really included the countries to the east; that the Cold War allowed the West to avoid confronting the larger and more difficult question of Europe. Now that the Wall has been torn down, it is the United States that is doing the same thing: helping Europe avoid reality. In so doing, America is avoiding reality itself.


For the United States, at bottom, the decision to expand the alliance represents a failure of vision and a failure of strength; it is a policy of weakness and passivity. It derives not only from a lack of imagination but from an unwillingness to make and apply difficult decisions and a failure to attempt what would be a truly creative approach to the problem of Europe and its evolving relationship with the United States. When America’s great senior statesmen speak darkly of Germany seeking “to achieve its security by national efforts,” they are groping blindly with issues of the past, not seizing hold of and shaping the future.

The Second World War is a half-century gone, but American policies cling to it. U.S. troops protect the Europeans from the Germans, and the Germans from themselves. U.S. policy should look to a future that has at its center a more self-reliant Europe, a stronger “European pillar”-a Europe, that is, where Europeans themselves take on more of the burden of their own defense, and the defense of their former antagonists to the east. Institutions-the Western European Union, the European Security and Defense Identity, among others-already exist, though in pallid, embryonic form; what is needed to give them life is the will to make a broad philosophical shift within the alliance, and only the United States can initiate and sustain that.

The Europeans will never emerge from the shadow of the Americans until the Americans feel less ambivalent about withdrawing their shadow. And the Americans will never truly emerge from the Cold War until they come to a decision to do so. Such a decision does not imply isolationism (a misleading word that has never accurately described American attitudes); it impliesreality.

As I write, the train is racing down the tracks toward the Senate debate. No one, it appears, can derail the expansion decision, though there has not even been a reliable public estimate of its costs. As for the policy’s architects, they prefer to ignore the coming debate and behave as if the future were somehow predetermined. (“NATO’s expansion is vital,” intones Richard Holbrooke, in near Biblical cadences, “and will be done.”) Such mismanagement and fatalism may mean an ugly publicskirmish, in which administration officials, having advanced their arguments for “a Europe whole and free” and the United States as the “indispensable nation” toprovide it, will find themselves fallingback on dark warnings that a decision has been made, and that a move by American senators to reject it would be “devastating” to the alliance. And so it might well be.It would be a great irony if the Poles and the Hungarians and the Czechs, in theirdesire to be sheltered within the warmembrace of the West, will have finishedby weakening, perhaps fatally, the alliance itself.

In any event, the words of the senators are unlikely to be elevating. We will hear about democracy, about credibility, and perhaps, dark intimations about the Russians. Hard-line senators will denounce President Clinton for his concessions, warning that by welcoming the Russians into the alliance’s halls, he has helped them achieve what they could not in half a century of struggle: subverting the Western alliance.

A true debate, held at the proper time, might have brought to the public the real weaknesses of expanding the alliance: that it promises to achieve political and economic goals in eastern Europe that a military alliance cannot deliver; that it may unsettle Russia in ways impossible to prophesy; that it makes a pledge to defend the east European countries which, in a real crisis, is unlikely to be kept; and that, in so confusing the real purposes and pledges of NATO, it will lead eventually to the “hollowing out” of the entire alliance.

But we have had no debate. America’s leaders, persuaded that the country’s citizens are ignorant of and uninterested in the world, hope to escape what might threaten to become a true debate-and, lurking behind it, the dire possibility that, having raised the subject of NATOexpansion, Americans might begin to question the reason, eight years after the Cold War’s supposed end, they are still being asked to pay for the alliance at all. What a final irony it would be if a hasty lunge toward NATO ‘s expansion were to lead, finally, to its dissolution.

That would be more than ironic, of course; it would be a tragic. America has a strong interest in a prosperous and stable Europe, which will buy American products and serve as a bulwark against disorder and instability. America’s leaders, either when addressing Bosnia or NATO, have been as unwilling to make this case to the public as they are loath to debate the use of American troops abroad. Because of this, when presidents have decided to send troops they have found their freedom severely circumscribed, ensuring that if things go badly for American forces, they and their president will find little support at home-in turn encouraging administration officials to conclude that Americans simply refuse to support an activist foreign policy. The pitiable lack of debate over sending American troops to Somalia, and later to Haiti, showed what happens when a president moves to intervene abroad without any real discussion: the policies in both countries dangled from a slender thread, vulnerable to the least reversal, to the smallest number of American casualties.

That great matters of state are still handled in this fashion demonstrates once again how darkly the Cold War still looms over American policy. The National Security Act of 1947, which provided for the design of Cold War military and security bureaucracies, still governs how our foreign policy officials do business. Designed to oppose a powerful enemy in a perpetual, low-level conflict, this statute emphasized centralized decisionmaking and secrecy. A responsible Congress would rewrite it for a new world, one where the threat is less immediate, secrecy is less important, and foreign affairs can be conducted more democratically, as the

Founders intended. At the least, the United States needs a recrafted version of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, not mainly to limit the president’s power but to ensure public debate-and, crucially, the clear rationale for policy that should emerge from it-as well as to force the president, Congress, and, most important, the people themselves, to assume responsibility for the most important decisions the nation can make.

Imagined Hegemony

As will become evident during the debate over NATO, an ideological vacuum lies at the heart of American foreign policy. The old Truman Doctrine consensus has passed; and despite sporadic attempts, officials have managed to put nothing in its place. In the coming months American officials will speak imploringly of “integrating new democracies” in eastern Europe, of creating “a Europe whole and free” which can onlybe accomplished by America, “the indis-pensable nation.” For Americans this sortof idealistic rhetoric-as Wilson sadly discovered-is not enough; to succeed it must be grafted-as Truman showed-to a clear and demonstrable threat to America’s interests. Clinton officials have not managed to square this circle, and for a very good reason: given their muddled thinking, it cannot be done.

In marching east with NATO, Washington seeks to maintain for the country an empty hegemony, one composed of remnant scraps of the Cold War world and rooted, as one Bush official put it, in “semipermanent factors of power and geography,” with a nod to newly ascendent “rogue nations” that America must be prepared to fight two at a time. It is not simply that such an imagined world hegemony is expensive and wasteful, pointing toward the past and not toward the future, but that it is unlikely, when it is finally brought clearly before the eyes of the American people, to engage their support.

To gain such support the country’s leaders will need to explain the path they have chosen; they will need to convince Americans-at a time when their schools fail to educate their children; when their public pension and medical systems lack for funds; when their political institutions have lost the confidence of the people-why at such a time their country must preserve and even enlarge its role in the world, and how it can do so while bringing “into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments with the nation’s power.” If America’s leaders cannot make this case, the soldiers sitting in their tanks in prosperous Germany will begin to appear, sooner rather than later, very absurd indeed.

The president, a man celebrated for his skills in persuading, has shown little interest in taking on such a task. For to do so would be to expend precious “political capital” that, he presumably believes, could be more profitably invested elsewhere. This is the definition of shortsightedness, as President Clinton may well discover yet again during the coming debate over NATO. Whatever the ultimate result of the “Faustian bargain” that President Truman signed on toin making his famous speech half a century ago, the difference in responsibility between him and the present occupant of his office is striking.

Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall America stands on the verge of great opportunity-not only to shape a policy for a new world but to tell its people frankly about that policy, and the reasons why it is right for the country. But no one is talking. Thus far, it has seemed far easier to call up the familiar smokescreen, to swoon over America as “the indispensable nation.” And yet the “post-Cold War world,” however one defines it, is only beginning. For Americans, ever able to recreate themselves, the question is whether they will be able to do so now-whether they will be able to walk through that sunlit portal offered them in 1989.

America possesses overwhelming power, and great prosperity. As we gaze outward, our world may seem on the whole placid and bright. But we remain marooned in the Cold War, encumbered with a policy that imposes upon the world a mindless hegemony, a predominance for its own sake; and we can only hope that we do not one day discover, with James, that despite the bright and blinding sunshine, it was a different reality the treacherous years were all the while really making for and meaning.