Mark Danner

Marooned In the Cold War: An Exchange between Mark Danner and Richard C. Holbrooke

I thought Mark Danner's essay, "Marooned in the Cold War," made a strong case against NATO enlargement, cogently presenting the negative arguments.

To the editor:

I thought Mark Danner’s essay, “Marooned in the Cold War,” made a strong case against NATO enlargement, cogently presenting the negative arguments. In fact, we were aware of each of these points, and considered them carefully, during the formulation of the policy. In the end, we concluded that the positives far outweighed the negatives, the gains were greater than the risks, and the risks were manageable.

One of Mr. Danner’s core arguments seems to be that it will upset the Russians, perhaps drive them toward a xenophobicreaction. From the outset, this was the primary argument of opponents of NATO enlargement, but so far such dire predictions-from, among others, [Marshall] Shulman, [George F.] Kennan, and [Michael] Mandelbaum (once he reversed his initial pro-NATO enlargement position, as argued in October 1993 in the Washington Post)-simply have not panned out. Moscow has much bigger problems, and while NATO is certainly a four-letter word to some Russians who were indoctrinated during the Cold War, they know NATO poses no offensive threat to them. Like many other issues, Russian concerns are mostly empty rhetoric. It may seem unlikely to Mr. Danner, but I believe that NATO enlargement will have no fundamental effect on Russia’s relations with the West, which will be driven by other factors. Nor will it lead to the rise of ultra-nationalists.

First, Mr. Danner states that we should have brought these countries into the European Union. It may surprise him that I agree with this point. When I arrived in Germany in September 1993, I believed that EU membership was more important and would arrive first. What turned me around was the realization that the EU, mired in its own Euro-mess (the common currency, the endless arguments about pro-cess, its inner-directedness, and its failure on Bosnia), was not going to invite any of these countries in, at the earliest, before 2003. They had lived through a terrible century, and were still plagued by instability, insecurity, and immaturity. In short, they were vulnerable to a number of different scenarios that would have sent them back into new darkness.

I concluded it would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous to leave these countries outside the “West” for so long after the fall of communism. Close association with the West seemed the best inoculation against such an outcome-but only if it could be accomplished without a setback to Washington’s efforts to forge a productive relationship with Russia, the administration’s most impressive and sustained foreign policy achievement. In short, could we have our cake and eat it too?

After I agreed, in May 1994, to return to Washington, I spent the summer in a long series of telephone calls to [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott, who was not only a close friend but the key figure in the “plot” that brought me back, much against my initial desire, to the European Bureau. Strobe and I agreed that we should try to reach a common position on NATO enlargement before I returned, and that he was perceived as its main opponent. Strobe can speak for himself on how his own position developed, but I want to stress that he has been unfairly characterized by both opponents and proponents of NATO enlargement. His contribution to the policy’s intellectual development, its execution, and its public defense has been extraordinary. It was vital that this role was carried out by the same person who was responsible for our relations with Moscow, someone whom the Russians knew was committed to a closer relationship. (Imagine, for a moment, an expansionary NATO policy in the hands of a person who would use it to irritate and provoke Moscow.) In this regard, it was also important that Strobe and his wife, Brooke, had served in Eastern Europe for Time, thus giving him a balanced view of both sides of this issue. He needed no persuading that [the countries of] Central Europe needed the reassurance of an American commitment to their security; the issue was whether or not this could be accomplished without wrecking the emerging U.S.-Russian relationship.

By the time I returned to Washington, Strobe and I had reached a common position: it was possible to bring new members into NATO, slower than the Kissingers and the Brzezinskis wanted but faster than the Pentagon and some others desired. Other key people included Tom Donilon [then counselor to the secretary of state], who had great influence over Warren Christopher, and John Kornblum [then deputy assistant secretary for European affairs], whose knowledge of the technical details was valuable. From the outside, Ron Asmus was important long before Strobe succeeded in bringing him into the State Department [as deputy assistant secretary for Europeanaffairs].

The Europeans were, not surprisingly, torn by internal balancing acts and disagreement, but this gave Washington a chance to push its views more effectively, provided we had our own ducks lined up. Mr. Danner has suggested, as have many others, that we did all this in secrecy-a sort of “stealth policy.” The truth is quite different, and should interest him as a journalist. We tried to tell the story immediately but almost no one was interested. Look at the coverage of that December 1994 foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, where Christopher laid out the policy to meager press interest. I took a New York Times reporter to lunch several weeks before Brussels and outlined our two-year plan, one that was very close to the final product, hoping to get the debate started early so we could see how people felt about it. The reporter was fascinated, but her editors in New York, after sitting on her story for several weeks, buried a highly shortened version of it. There are other similar stories. We offered a national debate but no one else seemed interested.

A few years from now, I suspect, people will look back at the debate and wonder what all the fuss was about. They will notice that nothing has changed in Russia’s relationship with the West, and that democracy in the nations that have joined NATO has been strengthened. Other, more difficult issues will hold center stage. And by bringing these countries in now, when there is no threat, we will have greatly reduced the chances that a threat arises later. For these and other reasons, I leaned toward bringing Romania and Slovenia in on the first round, although the arguments that prevailed against them were powerful.

As for Bosnia, your vivid commentson it only strengthen the administration’s case. Bosnia was precisely the sort of crisis that demanded a revitalized NATO (andair power). As David Gompert [a formerNational Security Council staff member]has argued cogently and bravely, thiswas the greatest failure of the previousadministration.

There may be, of course, a deeper, underlying disagreement between us over the American role-and responsibility-in the post-Cold War world. While Mr. Danner writes passionately and powerfully about the failure in Bosnia, he leaves me with a sense that he is concerned over the dangers of a sort of American imperialism and arrogance. I see precisely the opposite danger-that Americans may turn inward after the Cold War, even though history-and our vital international interests-did not end in 1992.

Richard Holbrooke

Mark Danner replies:

Richard Holbrooke is such a good storyteller that it is easy to miss the fact that his letter sidesteps much of what he calls my “strong case against NATO enlargement.” Holbrooke’s letter strikes one more for what it does not say than for what it does.

The “dire predictions” that the alliance’s move east will “perhaps drive [the Russians] toward a xenophobic reaction…simply have not panned out,” he writes. And yet, as I wrote, “the question is not Russia’s current weakness but the long-run effect of the policy” on the Russians. On the other hand, what has “panned out” is an agreement that President Clinton concluded last spring specifically to avoid “upsetting the Russians,” whereby the new East European members will not be permitted to have foreign troops or nuclear weapons stationed on their soil, and NATO will establish a “Permanent Joint Council” to which the Russians themselves will be invited. These concessions have left many of the enlargement policy’s most vigorous early enthusiasts, such as Henry Kissinger, distinctly disenchanted.

Mr. Holbrooke concedes that it would have been more appropriate to accept the Eastern countries into the European Community, had this been possible. And yet,if the East European countries’ “terriblecentury” and their subsequent “instability, insecurity, and immaturity” made it “irresponsible and potentially dangerous to leave [them] outside the `West’ for so long”-a deeply arguable point-why did the United States not move quickly to give them serious financial help? Why did it not pressure the West Europeans to open the trade barriers that even now cripple the economies of the East? If “instability, insecurity, and immaturity” is really the problem in Eastern Europe-and not a “security threat” that Mr. Holbrooke admits does not now exist-then how can admission into a military alliance be the right solution?

Mr. Holbrooke writes that Bosnia was “precisely the sort of crisis that demanded a revitalized NATO.” I find this comment puzzling. As David Gompert has observed, the decisions taken at Rome in 1991 “implied NATO responsibility to respond to precisely the sort of conflict by then raging in the Balkans.” The allies, with Bush in the White House, did not respond; nor did they after the arrival of Bill Clinton. Would the ascension to its ranks of the Czechs, or the Hungarians, or the Poles, so “revitalize” NATO as to make it more likely that the alliance would be able to muster the collective will for such politically thankless “crisis management”? It seems equally possible that the larger the alliance, the more varied its interests and less defined its purpose-which happens to be the direction in which NATO is heading-the more difficult it will be to muster the will to act.

Finally, as for my supposed concern over “American imperialism and arrogance,” I believe there are occasions when the country must act abroad, with or without its allies; the former Yugoslavia was clearly one. What worries me, in the lack of debate over the historical step of NATO enlargement, is the uncovering of a deep chasm between the leaders who are responsible for foreign policy and the people who elect them. Mr. Holbrooke is quite right about the disinterest of the press, and that saddens me. In the end, however, it falls to the president to lead the debate on such a crucial matter. Harry Truman knew that. Bill Clinton, apparently, does not.